Discover more from Public Enemy Number 1
Give Polk County the chance to atone for our unforgivable sins against Leo Schofield
John Aguero, Jerry Hill, Brian Haas, Jack Edmund, Victoria Avalon, Keith Spoto, Kevin Abdoney, Suzie Schottelkotte, me, you - we're all guilty. Leo Schofield is not. We're torturing him for that.
You can feel free to dismiss anything I write below after you’ve listened to “Bone Valley,” the breathtaking podcast from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King and researcher Kelsey Decker. It unravels the wrongful, ongoing conviction and imprisonment of Leo Schofield. King and Decker document every single point I’m trying to boil down here — in great detail.
It’s the most searing and revelatory piece of journalism about Lakeland and Polk County — what we were, what we are — that I’ve ever encountered. You can see the full multimedia package here, with tons of pictures. I have many, many thoughts about “Bone Valley.” This will not be the last article I write about what Leo Schofield has experienced at the hands of my community. I don’t have a satisfactory word for naming it.
But today, I just want to make it clear, as a citizen of Polk County and Lakeland, that I will no longer quietly participate in the state-sanctioned torture of Leo Schofield. He’s an obviously innocent man, sacrificed to the vanity of brittle state power — sacrificed to the idea that power, representing our shared community, must never acknowledge a mistake.
Abandoned, abused, and brain-damaged as a child, Jeremy Scott became a confessed serial killer in late 1980s Polk and Osceola counties. For a few years, he was arguably the most dangerously prolific criminal in the history of Lakeland and Polk County.
He was convicted of one murder, tried and acquitted for another, and connected to two others, for which he later confessed in detail. He was a serial, life-destroying rapist of underage girls, and a chronic violent abuser of women and gay men he picked up around Lake Morton and later robbed. (Today, Lake Morton is my neighborhood. I moved here in 1999.)
Here’s the best evidence that Jeremy Scott specifically murdered 18-year Michelle Schofield of Lakeland in 1987 by stabbing her in a fit of rage more than 20 times after she gave him a ride on a rainy night near Combee Road and Highway 33:
Scott’s palm print was found in the car Michelle Schofield was driving on the night she disappeared, when it was located far from her body. It is the only physical evidence tying anyone to Michelle Schofield’s murder.
Scott took his 1987-89 girlfriend, whom he routinely abused (to the point of leaving her jaw permanently disfigured), to a well-known Highway 33 phosphate “lover’s lane.” Scott wanted have sex outside near an old phosphate pond, the girlfriend said. Michelle Schofield’s body was found in that same pond.
Scott confessed to killing Michelle Schofield — on a phone calls, in written statements, under oath in official hearings, in ever growing detail over more than decade. Scott says he confessed, face-to-face, to prosecutor John Aguero, who handled Michelle Schofield’s murder. This happened during an untaped, closed door meeting Aguero acknowledged summoning Scott to. If Scott’s account is true, Aguero later perjured himself under oath. Scott has never recanted his Michelle Schofield confession, despite grossly inaccurate contemporary news reporting from one hearing. King’s podcast corrects that reporting error with full actual audio and context. Here’s a sample from one of Jeremy Scott’s many confessions:
“She gave me a ride and all that. That’s why it hurts me more. … Girls like that, they don’t pick up people. I dream, I wake up, I turn over, I see a dead body sleeping next to me. I sleep with dead bodies every night when I go to bed. That’s my punishment.”
Nightmares are Jeremy Scott’s only punishment for Michelle.
That’s because Polk County and the State of Florida have chosen — repeatedly — to punish Leo Schofield, Michelle’s husband, rather than correct their obvious mistake. That horror compounds within every second that we don’t end it.
“That man ain’t do nothin,” Jeremy Scott says of Leo Schofield. “He’s innocent.”
Polk County continues to torture Leo Schofield to prevent our community from admitting an unforgivable mistake
Leo Schofield has been in prison for his wife’s murder for more than 30 years. No jury of Leo Schofield’s peers has ever heard any of the evidence against Jeremy Scott. That’s because the Polk County State Attorney’s Office and the state of Florida refuse to allow any jury to hear it.
And there has been no popular outcry to force them. There should be; and it should come from Polk County itself. We did this.
Our only excuse as a community is that we didn’t know about Jeremy Scott. Our police and prosecutors and judges have denied us the chance to know. They have denied us the chance to correct the unforgivable mistake we made in 1989.
So let’s review briefly what evidence the jury did hear in 1989 to convict Leo Schofield and what we, as a county, did to him with this evidence:
The physical evidence
None. Crime scene techs didn’t even find blood in the trailer where Prosecutor John Aguero claimed in court that Leo stabbed Michelle.
The eyewitness evidence
None. A neighborhood “busybody”who claimed to see Leo Schofield carrying something heavy on the night of Michelle’s killing was directly contradicted at trial by her sister-in-law, who pointed out the busybody saw it a week earlier than the killing. Leo, a young rock musician at the time, thinks she saw him carrying an amplifier.
The character evidence
A parade of witnesses, whose testimony would not have been admissible if defense attorney Jack Edmund was competent, said Leo had a rough temper. Several said he had been violent toward Michelle at times in their stormy marriage of two very young people living on the edge of Polk society. Leo himself admitted slapping Michelle twice; but he denies any other violence.
John Aguero, the prosecutor who used those character witnesses to sentence Leo to life for slapping Michelle, was himself arrested for manhandling his wife in 2011. He did not get life in prison as a punishment.
John Aguero died suddenly in 2017. If God exists, Aguero is answering to Him today for what he did to Leo Schofield in the name of justice. His state-sanctioned prosecutorial misconduct across decades in the Schofield case verges on the sociopathic. It’s criminal if Scott is telling the truth about their meeting, for which Aguero kept no documentation of any kind. Go listen to the podcast and judge for yourself. And you should read Suzie Schottelkotte’s grotesquely fawning obituary for Aguero, including this quote from an investigator, meant as a compliment:
“He didn’t have to have a slam dunk to take a case. The harder the case was, the more he would dig in his heels. He was so thorough and so committed to what he did. He made me a better investigator because he always wanted more.”
And the “God doesn’t exist” premonition evidence
Speaking of God existing, the most important piece of evidence keeping Leo Schofield behind bars today — as cited by judges and prosecutors alike at all levels — relates directly to God, and mocks Him.
After three days of searching, Leo Schofield’s father found Michelle’s body in the phosphate pit. He then led police to her and told them he’d had a premonition from God that’s where the body was. That “premonition” forever marked Leo’s father — and thus Leo, for some reason — as knowing where Michelle’s body was for nefarious reasons, according to multiple prosecutors and judges.
It’s the kind of throw-away reference to the omnipotence and micromanagement of God in our daily lives that you hear constantly in many circles of Polk County. From touchdowns to elections to deliverance from car crashes and COVID, “God can do all things,” I’m told quite often. We insist on opening our public meetings with prayers to God, in which we invoke His awesome power to guide our actions.
Yet, in 1987, God could not possibly help Leo Schofield’s father find Michelle’s body, according to the God-fearing enforcers of the law in this county. Or, a generic, culturally-conditioned attribution of something to the will of God — by his father — must be taken 100 percent literally. It’s evidence that Leo and his father knew the location of Michelle’s body for earthly reasons.
That tossed off “premonition” must be more powerful evidence than the detailed confessions of the serial killer and rapist whose palm print was found in Michelle’s car. Read that sentence again. It’s the state’s position. My God.
It gets worse.
According to Leo Schofield, John Aguero summoned Leo to his own closed door, undocumented, unlawyered meeting after his arrest for Michelle’s murder. Aguero told Leo that he thought Leo’s father killed Michelle; and he offered Leo leniency if Leo would testify against him. Leo refused.
The state — its prosecutors and judges, specifically — won’t give Leo Schofield a new trial because they claim convicted murderer Jeremy Scott’s multiple, detailed confessions to murder are not credible. But John Aguero himself prosecuted and convicted Jeremy Scott for murder. I have no idea what else John Aguero — or anyone else — would need to find a murderer’s confession to murder credible.
Former Polk State Attorney Jerry Hill, as recently as 2020, openly lied about the “premonition from God” at Leo Schofield’s official parole hearing. He said it was Leo Schofield’s premonition — not his father’s. And Leo’s parole was denied, despite a letter from Michelle Schofield’s brother saying he had no confidence in the Hill/Aguero verdict; despite the support of a former conservative prosecutor and judge, who recently quit the bench to become Leo’s full-time advocate; despite the support of corrections officers who testified to Leo’s extraordinary personal development and character as an inmate.
Indeed, some of Leo’s strongest supporters are “law and order” cops and prosecutors from places other than Polk.
Lest you think former State Attorney Jerry Hill is above publicly lying about someone’s character in matters of public importance — lest you think his Schofield lie was an accident — I can testify personally to the contrary. He called me a “drug pusher” in 2016 in writing when I was running successfully for the Polk County School Board — just because someone asked him to. Imagine what he’s willing to do to avoid admitting he and Aguero destroyed the wrong man’s life.
It’s not a sin to be wrong
The woman who appears to be the last living juror in the Schofield case told Gilbert King she didn’t think — even at the time — that Schofield did the killing. She just went along with the pressure of the other jurors. She did manage to keep him out of the electric chair during sentencing.
She had that doubt without hearing anything about Jeremy Scott.
There is zero chance that any 2023 jury would find Leo Schofield guilty if he was retried with the Scott evidence and a vaguely competent defense lawyer, which Jack Edmund was not. In fact, no prosecutor would ever try to re-try him with that evidence.
Instead, they’ll be forced to apologize for the unforgivable if they ever release him. That’s why Leo Schofield hasn’t been released, despite extraordinary backing and support, including from non-Polk County law enforcement.
I would challenge any of the names I cited under the headline of this article to listen to Gilbert King’s podcast and reflect. It is not a sin to be wrong. The sin comes after. I’d challenge them all to consider what William Faulkner once wrote:
What sets a man writhing sleepless in bed at night is not having injured his fellow so much as having been wrong; the mere injury he can efface by destroying the victim and the witness but the mistake is his and that is one of his cats which he always prefers to choke to death with butter.
Leo Schofield needs Polk County voices and citizenship
Indeed, Polk County is the biggest hole in support and public pressure for Leo. I am definitely culpable for that — as a Lakeland journalist and citizen and person concerned with law and justice.
For whatever reason, in all my years as a reporter and writer here, this story never before caught or held my attention.
Likewise, every Polk institution — from law enforcement to media to government to churches to civic clubs — is either ignorant of the case, actively ignoring the case, or taking John Aguero and Jerry Hill’s side against Leo and justice.
That has now changed for me. This is our community; and it’s our responsibility to account for and fix what we can.
I want to declare my fervent support for whatever tactic frees Leo Schofield from his life of torture carried out in my name. I welcome any ally — of any politics or belief system — in any effort that clears his name in the murder of Michelle.
Leo Schofield managed to build a loving family and a powerful ministry while living within a Biblical-level of unjust bondage. Now imagine that spirit let fully free in our communities to enrich them. What if Leo Schofield can prevent the breaking of the next unloved boy so he doesn’t become the next Jeremy Scott?
Again, listen to the podcast, especially the end, to feel viscerally what Leo Schofield still has to offer whatever community eventually welcomes him. Here’s a picture with his prison band. Leo is on the right. They’re good. Listen to their concert in episode 9.
Are we Grace City?
Hopefully, this article spurs other people to listen to the full content of Gilbert King and Kelsey Decker’s extraordinary work. It’s powerful far beyond what I’ve touched here. Everyone who cares about citizenship and justice and history in Polk County should listen to it. It’s mandatory.
Leo’s only real hope to clear his name and get out now is to convince current state attorney Brian Haas or Gov. Ron DeSantis — as the current custodians of the case — to act on his behalf. A broad-based civic and religious movement anchored in Polk County has the best chance to achieve that, I think.
City and county commissions could call for a new trial or for Leo’s release. Perhaps a vibrant, socially-powerful church like Grace City could embrace its name and champion Leo’s cause.
Indeed, I’ve never heard a more beautiful testimony of Christian grace than what Leo offers in Episode 7. He wrote a prayer in 2016 for Jeremy Scott on a note card — and tacked it to a wooden prayer card rail in a makeshift cinder block prison chapel.
He offered this prayer after multiple courts and appeals had ignored the evidence against Jeremy and justified the continued torture of Leo by using his father’s “premonition from God” against him.
[Jeremy] has never known the love of a mother, never known the love of a friend, never had a friend. And he’s in prison for crimes he’s committed and everybody hates him. He’s got an 80 IQ and no support. I said to God, I said, “Ok, if this is your will, this is all I ask: help me to forgive so that I can be free of that. Help me to forgive him. And then if you would, you forgive him and let him know love for the first time in his life ever.”
If Leo Schofield is prepared to forgive Jeremy Scott; if he’s asked God to forgive Jeremy Scott; then maybe he’ll do the same for us. The very, very least we can do to earn that forgiveness is to free him now and apologize.