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The Bizarre Life and Brutal Death of Grady Stiles Jr.
By Fred Rosen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Fred Rosen
All rights reserved.
The four-lane blacktop that is Federal Highway 41 rises gently into a bridge that spans the Alafia River.
The Alafia is a lazy body of water filled with recreational boaters and fishermen. But it was the Cargill Fertilizer Plant on the river's western banks that really dominated the scenery.
Smoke spewed from long stacks that climbed toward the sky. Set off by its ominous-looking, gunmetalgray machinery encroaching on the water's edge, the fertilizer factory gave the river an ugly, grayish pall.
On the other side of the Alafia, a sign at the bottom of the bridge reads GIBSONTON.
The first building on the right is the "Giant's Camp." It literally is that, a place where a giant camped.
At eight feet six inches, Al Tomaini was a giant of a man. During the 1930s, he was exhibited in the "World's Fair Freak Show." It was there that he met and wed his wife, Jeanie Tomaini, "The World's Only Living Half Girl." Jeanie was born with the lower half of her body missing.
Al and Jeanie had heard from their friend "The Crocodile Man" that the place to go during the off-season was Gibsonton, a town on the Gulf of Mexico, twenty miles south of Tampa.
"In those days," Jeanie recalls, "there wasn't much here, just swampland and not much else."
But the carnies came nevertheless, to winter away from their public. After a while, the town had a thriving population of dwarfs, bearded ladies, human blockheads, magicians, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, clowns, strippers, and the real backbone of the carnival, the roustabouts.
When Jeanie and Al decided to quit touring for good, they opened the Giant's Camp, a combination restaurant/bait and tackle shop/trailer court. On any given morning, you can still see Jeanie behind the counter, "The Bearded Lady" in the corner, "The Human Blockhead" shoving unimaginable things up his nose, and out back, a fire-eater working on a new trick.
Decorated like somebody's kitchen, you can get a complete meal of home-cooked food for $4.
The men and women in the small restaurant, which formed the main room of the Giant's Camp, shared a hard-bitten look that they wore like the uniform of their trade. The carnies came by their money the hard way. They work at least seven months out of every year on the road, traveling throughout the United States, wherever a carnival could be set up with its tents and rides and midway.
Be it a deserted field in Holcomb, Kansas, or the parking lot of the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, sooner or later the carny would play your local town.
Beginning with films like Nightmare Alley, in which Tyrone Power became a geek — a sideshow performer who bites the heads off live chickens — carnivals and carnival folk have become the focus of derisive portrayals in all facets of the media.
Yet with all the bad publicity, they never told the real truth, carny people asserted. Carny people are kind and caring. For instance, you never see a crippled child on the midway without a toy given them by carnival people.
Most nights, Gibsonton residents gather for a drink in the famous Showtown USA on Highway 41. A mid-sized local pub with a well-stocked bar and a small stage area for live local bands, it affords the locals a place to blow off steam and swap stories.
Many of the carny folk live in trailers cemented to a foundation. They build on room additions as money permits, but most of them look unfinished. Number 11117 Inglewood Drive, on the east side of town, was no exception.
Number 11117 was a long, wide, dark brown, aluminum trailer set on a concrete slab, with a room addition on the east side of the structure that opened on the street.
On the night of November 29, 1992, the side door of the trailer was open, spilling light on the ground. Standing in the doorway was a haggard-looking woman. Her name was Mary Teresa Stiles.
"Come on, Glenn, you wanna come with me?" she said to her teen-aged son in the trailer.
"Sure, Mom," he called from one of the back bedrooms.
"See ya in a few minutes," Teresa yelled back to her husband, Grady.
In the shadows, their neighbor Chris Wyant, 17, watched them go. He waited a few moments before going inside. He wore a black leather jacket with a Raiders hat turned around backward, black Nike Cavericis tennis shoes, a black-and-white IOU T-shirt and blue jeans.
Having been to the house many times before to play chess with Glenn, Chris knew the layout. He sneaked along the passage, passing the kitchen and stepping into the living room.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Grady barked at the boy.
"You son of a bitch, get the fuck out of my house!"
Wyant said nothing.
"I said get the fuck out of my house! And don't ever come around here again."
The boy mumbled something and waited.
Grady had seen him.
To Marco Eno, it sounded like four gunshots in rapid succession.
In the third trailer, which sat on the northwest side of the property, Marco Eno was lounging with the gorilla. It was actually a gorilla suit, used in a carnival illusion done with mirrors and light that purported to show a woman changing into a gorilla.
Marco had been working as a roustabout for years. In his mid-thirties, his body was all edges — slim and sharp, arms tattooed. On his upper left arm the inscription read "Carnie Power." He had lank black hair, and a jet-black handlebar mustache.
Marco was watching TV about 11 o'clock when he heard shouting coming from the brown trailer out front, then the shots.
Eno ran outside to see what had happened. A moment later, a young man in a dark jacket whom Marco did not recognize sauntered out the side door of the brown trailer like nothing had happened and disappeared into the night.
Eno strained his ears. The yard gate creaked. And then ... silence. What the hell was going on?
When Glenn heard the shots, he ran out of his half-sister Cathy's trailer in back of the property. He immediately recognized Chris Wyant fleeing from the back door of the brown trailer. Then he saw Marco Eno running toward him from the other side of the yard.
"Did you hear those shots?" Marco asked breathlessly.
"Oh no, it might be Grady," Teresa said with anxiety in her voice. She had joined her son along with her daughter, Cathy, and son-in-law, Tyrill.
"I'll go, Ma," Glenn said quickly. "You all stay here."
"Come on," said Marco.
They tramped across the grass to the side door.
"I'll go in first," said Marco.
He threw the screen door open and stepped into the trailer. The TV was on.
He walked into the living room.
Grady was sitting in his favorite armchair. Dressed in undershorts and nothing else, he was slumped over, his face almost in his lap. And there was blood. Lots of it.
Beginning to go into shock, Marco plodded forward unsteadily. It was like a dream, or some horror movie. There was Grady all right, but he wasn't alive like he had been a few hours before when Marco saw him. He looked stone-cold dead.
The blood came from bullet wounds on top of his bald head. It dripped down his face in rivulets, and some of it had coagulated in a dark reddish pool on the floor, under his chair.
"Hey, Marco, what's happening?" Glenn called in.
"Glenn, call 911," he yelled. It sounded like it was someone else.
"Your father's been shot!"CHAPTER 2
Northeast of Tampa in one of the city's bedroom suburbs, Det. Michael Willette was asleep in bed. His wife, Melanie, was curled up beside him. When the phone rang, he woke up quickly. In his line of work, he was used to being woken up late at night.
He listened for a few minutes, mumbled a few things, wrote down the address, and climbed out of bed. He dressed quickly. Melanie awoke briefly, then turned over. She'd been through this before.
Outside in the dark, he fit his stocky five-foot-ten, 220-pound frame behind the wheel of his 1988 Ford LTD, an old police car painted white for unmarked duty.
Traveling south on Interstate 75, the super highway that paralleled Federal Highway 41, Willette made Gibsonton in forty-five minutes. While he'd been to Gibsonton before, he had never been to Inglewood Drive and had to consult the book of maps he always carried with him.
Willette arrived at the crime scene at 12:25 A.M. Opening the LTD's trunk, Willette rummaged through a pile of rumpled clothes before finding a simple tissue-sized cardboard box and extracted a couple of pairs of surgical rubber gloves. Thrusting them into the pockets of his jacket, he slammed shut the trunk.
There were already a lot of squad cars in front of the brown trailer.
"What's going on?" Willette asked the uniformed deputies, who were milling out front.
"Some carnival guy got shot," said one.
"Where's Chuck Phillips?"
"Over there," the deputy pointed.
Willette made his way through the crowd of cops and medical personnel.
"Hey, Chuck. What have we got?"
"A carny was murdered."
Phillips consulted his notebook.
"We took a statement from a guy named Marco Eno, who lives in a trailer out back. Says he heard the victim arguing with somebody and then shots fired. Says he saw a young guy leaving the trailer right after the shots were fired. Then he went in and found the body. The vic's stepson called it in."
"What's the vic's name?"
"Grady Stiles, Jr."
Willette nodded, writing down the name in his notebook. He pulled his jacket tighter around him.
Like a doctor entering surgery, Willette donned his surgical gloves and entered the crime scene via the front door. It was unlocked, and Willette immediately noted no signs of forced entry.
Willette made special note that "The head area of the victim had visible trauma, possibly caused by bullets."
Continuing his examination, Willette noticed that the kitchen area was on the south side of the room, separated from the TV/family room by kitchen cabinets that backed up to the chair the victim sat in. On top of the kitchen cabinet directly behind the victim, Willette spied blood that had splattered across the top and down the sides of a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes. On the counter itself was more blood, mixed in with what appeared to be human body tissue. There were also a single pack of cigarettes with one cigarette sticking out invitingly, and a notebook filled with paper.
The carton, the single pack, and the notebook were damaged. Willette had the impression that a bullet or bullets had passed through them. Looking further, Willette saw an indentation in the countertop surface. He figured that a bullet had struck the counter surface first, traveling from south to north, toward the victim's head.
Willette noticed he was standing in an enclosed porch filled with dusty knickknacks. He walked up two steps into the living room, passing through an aluminum door. Again, the door lock showed no visible signs of forced entry.
The living room smelled from stale cigarette smoke and whiskey. The furnishings were plain, cheap but understated. High on the walls above what appeared to be a hamster cage was a selection of photographs. The room was dominated by the body in the armchair near the Tiffany lamp.
The man was slumped over in the heavy armchair. Blood was visible on his head and face. From his cursory examination, Willette figured the victim to be between fifty-five and sixty-five years old, with a balding head. All he wore was a pair of briefs.
"The subject has no legs," Willette wrote in his report.
Willette concluded that the killer was approximately eight to ten feet south of the victim facing north, probably standing when he shot in a downward angle, the bullets striking the victim in the back of the head.
Willette found "one projectile" in the north bedroom area lying on the floor underneath the north window, implying that the victim was shot at from the kitchen hallway area, near the back door. Willette took out a small, white pillbox and placed the bullet inside.
He found a "second projectile" in the ceiling area of the living room, approximately five feet north of the body. The trajectory of this bullet was not readily identifiable. It was gently placed in another white pillbox.
Looking around the room, Willette noticed the victim's pants on the couch facing directly across from where Grady now sat in the frozen tableau of death.
The detective searched the dead man's pants and found his wallet, which contained identification, and a large amount of money.
Who kills a man during a robbery and doesn't take his wallet? Willette wondered.
Going from room to room, looking for clues and finding none, Willette finished his search of the trailer. Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, associate medical examiner in the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office, arrived to make the official pronouncement of death. Tall, blond, in his mid-thirties, Pfalzgraf looked ten years younger.
"Three gunshot wounds to the head with what appeared to be one exit wound," he said.
Therefore, the two "projectiles" Willette had recovered had probably passed through Grady first, before coming to rest on the outside. The third was probably still inside the body.
Willette examined the recovered bullets again. They were .32 caliber with copper tips. That meant that a small-caliber gun had been used to commit the crime.
"Finished with him?" Pfalzgraf asked.
"Okay, guys," said Pfalzgraf to his assistants.
As the body of Grady Stiles, Jr., was loaded onto a stretcher and taken outside to be driven to the medical examiner's office, Willette noticed something else. Not only were the man's legs stunted with pointed extremities in place of feet, but his hands appeared to be claw-like, with what might have been fingers deformed into two large digits.
Later, Willette would discover that Grady Stiles, Jr., was known on the carny circuit as Lobster Boy.CHAPTER 3
Grady Stiles III is a barrel-chested teenager who favors dark T-shirts, jeans, and sci-fi paperbacks. His thick, straight, brown hair falls over a low forehead. Scattered blood-red blemishes mar an otherwise innocent-looking face. His eyes are a soft, bright blue.
Willette and Stiles were in the rear of the trailer in the boy's bedroom, furnished simply with a bed and dresser. Apparently, he'd been sleeping and the bedclothes were turned around a little bit.
"You're Grady Stiles, Jr.'s, natural son?" Willette asked.
Little Grady, as he was known to his family, nodded. He felt uncomfortable talking to police. In the carny world, cops usually meant trouble.
"When was the last time you saw your father alive?" Willette asked.
"I was watching this video with my parents. When it ended, I went to bed."
"At about what time was that?"
"What time what?"
"What time did you finish watching TV and go to bed?"
Grady brushed hair from across his eyes with his claw. He was born with the same affliction as his father had been.
"I heard at least three bang noises while I was sleeping."
"Then what? Did you go out to see what the noises were?"
Little Grady shook his head. "Went back to sleep. I didn't know anyone'd been shot until Mom woke me later."
"Got any idea who did it?"
"I don't know who killed my father. I didn't see or hear anything else."
Despite the fact that his father had been shot in cold blood, Grady III didn't sound too upset about it, Willette thought.
While only fifty-four years old, Mary Teresa Stiles looked much older. She had mousy brown hair and brown eyes. Most people described the middle-aged woman as looking like someone's grandmother.
Detective Willette interviewed her in the hallway of the trailer by the washing machine near the back door.
She began by describing the day as brisk. By night, the air had cooled into the mid-forties, positively chilly by Florida standards. Inside 11117 Inglewood Drive, Grady, Little Grady and Teresa were watching television, specifically one of the tapes Teresa had rented that afternoon. The film was Ruby, starring Danny Aiello as Lee Harvey Oswald's murderer.
Grady Stiles, Jr., sat in his underwear. Teresa said he was "half in the bag," drinking whiskey like there was no tomorrow and never seeming to get any drunker than he already was, while chain-smoking Pall Mall cigarettes.
After a while, Little Grady tired of the program and went to his room.
At 11 o'clock, Teresa said, "Grady, I think I'm gonna go on back and see how Misty's doing." Misty had been ill that afternoon.
Excerpted from Lobster Boy by Fred Rosen. Copyright © 1995 Fred Rosen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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