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Leo Schofield should preach the sermon at next year's Lakeland Mayor's Prayer Breakfast
Jesus is other people, forced to sacrifice themselves for the sins of others, to save the pride of the prominent or powerful. Let's look one of them in the eye as he forgives us.
Please listen to the latest episode of Bone Valley, which details what happened at the May 3rd parole hearing before the Florida Commission on Offender Review — and how Leo Schofield, his family, and his supporters lived it. It’s quite a listen. I’ll refer to it here, but I’m not trying to duplicate it.
The morning after the state of Florida again denied Leo Schofield parole for a murder he did not commit I attended Lakeland’s annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
I don’t normally go; but someone asked me to this year. And I like Mayor Bill Mutz, consider him a friend, and find his brand of Christianity interesting and admirable.
However, while listening to the various messages, I struggled to think of much beyond Leo’s ongoing, state-sanctioned torture, which is perhaps the least ambiguous and most profoundly obvious legal injustice I’ve ever studied in depth.
Forgiveness is not permission
Leo continues to endure the torture inflicted on him in my community’s name with astounding grace and future-focused optimism. You’ll hear that clearly on the latest episode of the “Bone Valley” podcast that has made his case widely known.
But that doesn’t mean my community is not still torturing him and his family. His pre-emptive forgiveness does not give us license to continue. We own our sins, not his grace.
That’s what I’m thinking about here today — the grace that power extorts from the human beings it brutalizes so those of us possessed of more comfortable positions can remain comfortable and untroubled.
This comfort requires an almost infinite supply of earthly Jesuses.
They must suffer for other people’s absolution, for other people’s routine. They must die to save the comfort of wretched immobility. And these Jesuses will not be resurrected on the third day. They are all sacrifices to cowardice — to the personal and institutional failure to act on conscience or observation or duty.
Leo Schofield is an extreme, easy to identify example. But rarely are these Jesuses so articulate, self-possessed, morally sublime, and likable. Forced Jesification rarely emerges from or produces conventional respectability, which is why it’s so easy for those who least risk a consequence for anything to impose it so casually.
Before I get to that, here are a few thoughts about the prayer breakfast I consider relevant to this overall discussion.
Kelli Stargel’s conspicuous absence
An eagle-eyed reader of last week’s article about former Sen. Kelli Stargel’s laughable job and schedule at Florida Polytechnic University might have noted something:
“Mayor’s prayer 7:15 a.m.” was the only entry on her work schedule for May 4. So I took a few laps around the breakfast crowd to see if I could catch her on the job. I could not.
I saw Sheriff Grady Judd (whose office wrongly arrested Leo Schofield 35-plus years ago) in uniform, Congressman Scott Franklin (noted acolyte of defaulting on Dennis Ross’ and Donald Trump’s debt spending and follower of the lascivious Matt Gaetz), County Commissioner George Lindsey (who recently publicly declared Leo guilty despite knowing better), some other elected officials, and an assortment of professional and/or institutional and/or religious leaders.
But I didn’t see Kelli Stargel.
If she had a personal reason she didn’t come, then I hope she’s well. Or perhaps something more relevant came up to actually fill her calendar for once. As her employer, I guess I ought to know.
It may seem strange or inappropriate to insert something as farcical as Kelli Stargel’s fake job into a somber article about the tragedy of Leo Schofield. But they are related, as tragedy and farce often are.
I’ll explain at the end.
Change the name
This year’s prayer breakfast did not even acknowledge other religions and their prayers as existing — much less celebrate or actively pray them. So I think organizers owe some truth in advertising next year.
I don’t have any objection to an entirely Jesus/Christian prayer breakfast; but don’t pretend it’s ecumenical or broadly civic when you’re branding it. Everyone who participates should know what they’re getting into. Call it the “Mayor’s Annual Jesus Prayer Breakfast.”
For the record, I grew up in the mainline United Methodist church and regard it with affection and respect. But my spiritual life and impulses have always been my own, not a function of any particular religion. I do not expect any openly religious event to cater to me, an essentially non-religious person, at all. That would be the height of absurd entitlement.
I know I was an interloper at the breakfast, generously welcomed as a guest. By contrast, any Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist who had the misfortune of attending was a religious peer treated ungenerously as an interloper.
Organizers should address that rudeness next year or label the event accurately.
All that said, I’ve attended far more aggressive and exclusionary civic religious events. I think the organizers and speakers genuinely meant well and sought community conciliation. I hope this is taken as constructive feedback.
Lord have mercy
The themes and prayers of the event were non-confrontational and thoughtful.
No one attacked anyone with God’s will because of the nature of their humanity, a welcome respite from the daily onslaught so many vulnerable human beings experience in Florida today. The exclusion came from careless indifference to other religions, not aggression toward identity.
The main speaker, Rev. Chris Query, was charming and funny and humble. And he preached a sermon that, at first glance, seems tailored for Leo Schofield.
He told the story of Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46–52), the blind beggar who catches the attention of Jesus with a call for mercy despite the efforts of onlookers to shut him up. Here’s the core passage:
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus, was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
Query shortened Bartimaeus’ plea to “Lord have mercy” — and built the entire sermon around it. He preached about individual, personal transcendence of misery through surrender to the unknowable will of Jesus/God — through a humble, insistent plea for mercy.
This personal salvation through public surrender to Jesus/God’s will, mercy, and forgiveness is, of course, a cornerstone of the Christian faith.
If you’ve listened to Bone Valley, you’ll know that Leo Schofield long ago found that personal salvation. And the latest episode opens with his loved ones in anguished, nearly despairing prayer. Lord have mercy, they’re saying, when you reduce the prayer to its core meaning.
Leo articulates and embodies everything that is beautiful about personal Christian narrative — except for the fact that the most powerful Christians in Florida and Polk County refuse to release him from prison, clear his name, and account for their sins against him and his family.
And they’ll still expect forgiveness for that sin — from Leo and a Mighty God alike —as they go right on committing it because stopping that sin means discomfort.
A prayer never prayed
So here’s one other piece of constructive feedback.
Chris Query was preaching the gospel of Leo Schofield’s self-delivered salvation through God to the very people who wrongly put Leo Schofield in prison and have inexcusably kept him there. He was preaching to the power and moral leadership class of Polk County. That room could end Leo Schofield’s ordeal tomorrow if it spoke up as one. Ron DeSantis would pardon Leo Schofield in 10 minutes if Grady Judd shouted Lord have mercy.
Grady Judd worked for the Polk Sheriff’s Office at the time Leo’s arrest, but he did not run it. Imagine he stood up today in uniform, in the middle of that prayer breakfast, and asked mercy for his agency’s error in arresting an innocent man (not a sin) and its decades of subsequent silence (absolutely a sin). Leo Schofield would be free by the evening.
Indeed, Grady hasn’t even been silent, exactly. He makes an entertaining star turn in the early episodes of Bone Valley. But he won’t take a moral position on Leo’s guilt, as if his institution is an uninvolved observer in this story. As always with Grady, any carefully crafted silence speaks far louder than his endlessly obnoxious press conferences and self-promotion.
Grady Judd does not believe Leo is guilty. I guarantee you. And in the absence of moral courage, we just get his silence.
That’s why I would argue that Rev. Query, unintentionally, preached a very damaging sermon for the behavior of powerful people and public leaders. He preached Christ as painkiller; Christ as balm that demands no actual change in behavior; Christ as insurance against the unpleasantness of consequence; Christ as treatment for a universal brokenness, the burdens and pain of which are not universally shared.
The power in that room heard Christ as comfort for ignoring its conscience. That’s the last idea they or their community need to hear.
I’m forgiven; so I don’t have to do my duty because it bums me out. Thank you, Jesus!
The people in that room, myself included, need different prayers than Leo Schofield. We should take different lessons from Bartimaeus. We need to hear something like this, all the time:
Lord give me the strength to do hard things. Lord give me the strength to endure consequences because I choose to use power morally or responsibly. Lord let me accept embarrassment or ridicule or defeat gracefully because I own a mistake or try to fix someone else’s mistake. Lord give me the strength to lose an election, a friendship, or a fortune if I need to. Jesus, give me the strength to sacrifice, as you did, for the salvation and protection of others.
Nothing like that got said at the Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast.
Nothing like that ever gets prayed in the prayer meetings of the powerful. I have listened to thousands of public prayers before and during public meetings — including hundreds of official government meetings, in which power is brought to bear to govern the public.
Never have I heard anything approaching that kind of prayer.
The simplest case ever, which also mocks God
The Schofield case is voluminous; but it is not complex, at all. Indeed, every news article that touches on the 1987 murder of Michelle Schofield should start like this:
Convicted murderer Jeremy Scott has confessed multiple times, in escalating detail, to killing Michelle Schofield. He left a hand print on her car the night she was killed. Jeremy Scott once took his girlfriend, who he abused, for sex to the very spot where Michelle Schofield was later found dead.
No jury has ever heard any of that evidence because Jerry Hill, Brian Haas, Victoria Avalon, the deceased John Aguero, Judge Keith Spoto, Judge Kevin Abdoney, and a panel of appeal judges refuse to allow a jury to hear it. No physical or eyewitness evidence has ever tied Leo Schofield to his wife’s murder; but he remains in prison 35 years later because … reasons.
The only case “fact” ever successfully used against Leo is the fact that Leo’s father told a cop “God” had led him to the location of Michelle’s body after three days of searching. So Leo’s dad must have known about Michelle’s murder, prosecutors and judges reason, because God couldn’t possibly do that, or a man couldn’t possibly say that innocently because he’s heard “God can do all things” his entire life — and especially at prayer breakfasts.
And somehow Leo’s dad’s faith in God means Leo killed his wife.
That’s the lede.
It’s the whole story, really, for 35 years. It’s not complicated morally or intellectually.
Anybody who frames the Schofield wrongful conviction differently is ducking or softening moral reality. They’re hiding behind dead process. They’re showing deference to a failed institution that has forfeited any moral or professional claim to deference.
If this case was complicated, the human beings responsible for this crime against Leo Schofield would make much better, much sharper, much more complex arguments in defense of their appalling institutional behavior.
No final “fuck you” from Jerry Hill
Instead, now they’re just falling back on the institution itself — the Polk County-dominated 10th Judicial Circuit, as defined by its judges and prosecutors, who are often the same thing. They’ve stopped even trying to make a moral argument about the merits of “the system’s” behavior in the Schofield case.
That’s why long-time former 10th Circuit State Jerry Hill’s absence at the May 3 hearing spoke even louder than Grady Judd’s long silence.
Jerry lied to parole commissioners in 2020 (see the article linked above for documentation) and assassinated Leo Schofield’s character for a reason. Jerry knew he needed a moral impetus for Leo’s continued life in prison, which actual case facts clearly reject.
So he invented it. He manufactured moral urgency for continuing this atrocity.
So did Victoria Avalon and the late John Aguero in years past. They always waved someone else’s gore and horror at Leo Schofield — stomach-turning pictures of Leo’s butchered wife — to influence those with power to punish Leo for it.
From jurors to judges to parole commissioners, that special brand of torture has been a consistent feature of the state’s case for keeping Leo locked up — until May 3, 2023, when neither Jerry nor Victoria Avalon was anywhere to be found. You should listen to Leo talk about it in the latest “Bone Valley” episode.
Stripped of the fake moral urgency Jerry and Avalon and Aguero brought all those years, the State Attorney’s Office arguments on May 3rd just sounded bureaucratic and ridiculous.
It fell to the unfortunate Jacob Orr, Chief Assistant State Attorney and office spokesman, to make those morally and intellectual ridiculous arguments. In the excerpt below, note the words “reviewed” and “available” in bold. Note also the telling passive voice in bold.
You’ll see that Orr, like a defense lawyer, craftily elided why the truly overwhelming evidence against Jeremy Scott has never been made available to Polk County jurors.
It’s entirely because Hill, Aguero, Haas, Avalon, and former Jerry Hill employee-turned-judge Keith Spoto refused, through their reviews, to make it available. They are still refusing to make it available.
Then Orr used that very refusal as institutional exoneration. The institution is the institution is the institution; and the institution has acted — so nothing else matters, especially not the point of the institution’s existence. That’s the argument Jerry Hill left Orr to make in his absence. The institution’s unspeakable failure is actually proof of Leo’s guilt.
Like I said, it’s just ridiculous — although far less cruel than every other statement the SAO has ever made. Baby steps, I guess.
Here it is what Orr said:
I became a prosecutor 15 years ago and in that time I have learned that you cannot pursue justice unless you first pursue truth. In this case, that’s what the court systems have been doing for many, many years.
I’ve told others I think this is the most reviewed case in this history of Polk County. I really don’t know if that’s true, but I think it might be. Because we’ve looked at this; we’ve litigated this. And every time we go to court we re-litigate and we re-review the case based on the actual transcripts and the actual available evidence. And every one of those reviews results in the same outcome.
That there’s overwhelming evidence in support of the guilty verdict that was handed down many years ago. But that’s not really why ya’ll are here today.
You’re here today to decide if this inmate is gonna get out of jail. And I won’t go too much in detail into the facts of the case because I know you’ve heard some of them before and you know there was a heinous murder committed. But you’ve got to compare that with what has been a long time of being a very good inmate. I’m telling you about truth and I think we need to recognize the fact that he’s been a very good inmate.
Just three years ago, the truth-seeking institution, embodied and voiced by Jerry Hill, explicitly acting on behalf of current State Attorney Brian Haas and Jacob Orr, said the following about Leo Schofield. Jerry said it in addition to making a well-documented factual lie about the “premonition” in the case:
I listened to that presentation and how this individual has taken advantage of a lot of opportunities. But folks, I got to point out an absolute glaring hole in that presentation. I didn’t hear one word about regret, sorrow, “wish I hadn’t done it, I was a different person then.”
This guy is an unrepentant, jury-convicted first degree murderer proven beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt. How do you put a man in a program getting him read to be released in society when he can’t say “I’m sorry,” when he can’t say “I did it”? I know this is a subsequent and I’m sorry I’m so emotional about it. I just feel very strongly that this is a cold, calculating first degree murderer. He’s a manipulator and he’s exactly where he ought to be.
Could you take any institution seriously that makes that kind of U-turn on the moral urgency of murder, without taking any corrective action about it? Be honest with yourself.
Stripped of Jerry’s vicious, fake moral bullshit, arguments about this case make clear it was never a case at all — just a vibe. Moreover, take away the reference to first-degree murder he made in 2020, and Jerry Hill was clearly describing himself, not Leo.
The institution *knows* it’s guilty; so it must keep *pretending* that Leo is or face the consequences itself
The human beings of the 10th Circuit SAO are not making Jerry Hill’s arguments any more because they can’t make those arguments without repeating obvious lies — to themselves and to the public.
Arguments that explain — much less prove — Leo’s guilt do not exist. They have never existed. You can’t honestly argue that they do when zero physical or eyewitness evidence connects your suspect to crime. That’s even before someone else, who did leave physical evidence, admits to doing the crime.
What are you going to argue about that fact record as a prosecutor?
I promise you that no one at the Brian Haas State Attorney’s Office believes Leo Schofield is guilty — no more than any of them believe Polk County School Board Member Rick “T.I.T.S.” Nolte is innocent of the campaign felony he confessed to in writing a year ago.
However, the SAO leaders know that acting on either reality — doing their actual jobs — comes with unpleasant, but unpredictable, political, personal and professional consequences. And that knowledge trumps any belief.
That’s why they’ve made Leo their coerced Jesus. As long as he keeps suffering, they don’t have to reckon with crucifying him.
That’s why Jerry Hill just says “Fuck You” when the Polk County public confronts him about the decades-long monstrosity he committed in our name. That’s why his hand-picked protege Brian Haas and his office leadership let it him speak that way to the public on their behalf, with impunity.
That’s why Jerry Hill bailed like the brutal, dishonest coward he is on the parole hearing after lying to commissioners’ faces in 2020 to smear Leo on top of keeping him unjustly imprisoned.
It’s why even Melinda Conrood, the most sympathetic-to-Leo commissioner, who clearly knows he’s innocent, felt the need to pre-emptively vouch for Jerry Hill’s character.
I’ve spoken with a lot people in this case, including Jerry Hill. And I have to say, I’ve known him for a long time. He’s an honorable man. He is a man of great integrity. He represents the 10th Circuit well, and I respect his opinion. I value his opinion. I spoke to him about this case before I came to my decision. And I spoke to the current state attorney. I think everybody is doing their job.
Notice how she doesn’t even mention the “current” state attorney’s name — how she talks about Jerry in the present tense, as if he’s still in charge. Guess what, he is. Brian Haas does not seem willing or capable of taking charge morally.
The real elephant is named Jerry
Former Judge Scott Cupp is one of the true heroes of elevating Leo’s story, along with podcasters Gilbert King and Kelsey Decker. He ably argued on Leo’s behalf on Wednesday and worked tirelessly to free him before the hearing. He described Leo’s innocence as the unspoken “the elephant” in the room when speaking to commissioners.
But I don’t think that’s right anymore.
The real elephant is Jerry Hill’s guilt, as the long-time elected leader of the 10th Circuit SAO and ultimate, active author of the moral crime against Leo Schofield. That guilt is poisoning the entire institution, every day.
That’s why Melinda Conrood answered a question about the absent Jerry Hill that nobody was asking. Even in trying to do the right thing by Leo, Melinda Conrood couldn’t wish Jerry’s elephant away. Nobody can. Even Leo can’t wish it away.
“I still want to fight for exoneration,” Leo says at the end of the post-hearing Bone Valley episode. “I still wanna fight for my freedom because I am innocent. Being paroled is just a means to an end. It’s not the end.”
You really should listen to Leo’s entire statement. Those entirely justified sentences are the most selfish part of it. I’ll come back to it at the very end so you can read some of the Christ-like themes in it.
But my cold assessment of Leo’s future as a wrongfully accused inmate sees two unavoidable conclusions:
Liberation can get around Jerry’s guilt.
Exoneration runs right through it.
Fuck you, in this context, are the words of a deeply guilty man and institution. Both of them should be thinking hard about praying for the forgiveness Leo is so gracefully willing to offer — that he graciously gave me for my inaction as a reporter and citizen for so many years.
What Kelli Stargel learned from Jerry Hill
Don’t take my word for any of this. Listen to State Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, chair of Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees the Commission on Offender Review. Scott Cupp asked Martin to address commission at the hearing. Here’s what he said:
I’ve known Scott Cupp for many years. I met him when I was a prosecutor. I’ve handled homicide cases. Everything that I’ve seen about this case tuns my stomach. I don’t know why Leo Schofield wasn’t released years ago when he went before this board.
You have the opportunity to release him immediately. He wasn’t released last time because he wasn’t remorseful. You cannot be remorseful for something you did not do. It’s not your job to consider guilt or innocence, but if you are going to consider whether someone is remorseful and whether they should be released today or should have been released years ago, you have to at least crack the transcript, wonder why the fingerprints of a serial killer were inside Michelle’s car and were never tested and never presented to the jury in Polk County over 30 years ago. I was 5-years-old of when Leo Schofield started doing time for this murder.
I stand by the criminal justice system here in the state of florida. We’re one of the best on the planet. But there’s a whole lot of doubt right now about how good we are. You guys have the chance today to restore credibility to a system that thousands of people know an injustice happened and is continuing every single second that Leo Schofield is behind bars.
Here’s where former Lakeland state senator Kelli Stargel and her highly-paid fake job with an expensive, important public institution re-connects with this story.
Stargel and Martin had the exact same elected job — Florida state senator. Can you imagine Kelli Stargel ever taking a public stand, like Martin did, about the moral merits of anything if it went against the prevailing position of power? Can you imagine her taking a risk to publicly confront a powerful public institution — and demanding that it simply act with moral and professional agency?
Of course not. It’s laughable. And where do you think she learned not to do that? Where do you think she learned “Fuck you” is the proper attitude toward the public she “serves?”
She learned it from Jerry Hill and his enablers. I’m sure she learned from her husband, a political operative-turned-judge.
She learned it from all the prominent people within the Mayor’s Prayer breakfast audience who have no moral expectations of power, who never pray for the strength to take moral risks to combat institutional injustice, who behave like Jesus is always other people, no matter what they claim to believe.
Why do you think Kelli Stargel considers it fine to take $120,000, taxpayer-funded, no-show job as a reward for being married to John Stargel?
Because she’s been told it’s fine and shown it’s fine by powerful people who think it’s fine. She learned it from the same back-slapping leaders who have tortured Leo Schofield and his family for 35 years.
So many powerful people in Florida and Polk County seem to have learned only one lesson from public service — that they’re entitled never to face a consequence. We desperately need fewer of those “leaders.”
Invite Leo Schofield to preach about guilt, consequences, and forgiveness at next year’s Prayer Breakfast
This is Polk County’s case. It’s our sin and our responsibility. Our county did this. Our county is guilty. So why on earth has it fallen to a former judge in southwest Florida, a podcaster who lives in Brooklyn, and a state senator from Fort Myers to do our moral work for us?
Our guilt and Leo’s freedom are deeply related; but reckoning with them serves different community imperatives — and can even work at cross purposes, given the self-protective nature of institutions. Listen to Leo’s breathtaking Christian selflessness here:
Jacob Orr, Brian Haas, these people weren’t here when this story was created back so long ago. I’m talking about 1989 and the trial and all that stuff. They weren’t involved in that. So I like to think that maybe the podcast, the exposure to this stuff gave them reason to go back and look at it themselves. I like to think they have heart and give them some credit for it.
I think I told you this before. I want to make this to where everybody can come out feeling all right about who they are, even Jeremy, especially Jeremy. Because at the end of the day, nothing we do or say is gonna bring my wife back. In her memory, I really want everybody to be all right with where we are and where we go from here.
And so, I want everybody, including the state, to be able to to walk way from this and be ok with their part in it and knowing they’re better human beings for it. That’s my hope. I meant be naive to think that way. I think that’s possible now. It was impossible before Bone Valley.
I don’t think it’s naive. Moreover, I think it is the height of personal decency, a height I would hope to emulate if I ever found myself in the same position as Leo.
But that “being ok with their part in it” is a deeply complex concept — far more complex than Leo’s morally simple case.
Leo Schofield is, by no means, the only earthly Jesus coerced into suffering by the behavior and fears of power. There are many, many, many more such earthly Jesuses in Polk County and beyond.
[Indeed, I am finishing this up on the morning after at least nine earthly Jesuses were freshly made in Allen, Texas. They were all sacrificed to money and the lucrative feeling of comfort and power that unfettered possession of death machines provides some people — many of whom attended the Prayer Breakfast on May 4.]
What if the state walks away feeling good about itself, but does so without re-committing to the morality demanded by public power? What if the state, if power, walks away with forgiveness for 35 years of saying “Fuck you” to the public, not just to Leo?
I fear the tragedy will have compounded. If power feels and learns nothing but Leo’s forgiveness, there will be more Leos.
It’s a really difficult moral circle to square. I want Leo free and feeling good. I want his torturers held to account. I want them to acknowledge his innocence and publicly accept responsibility for their abuse of power. As a citizen of Polk County, I want to hear Jerry Hill talk about regret, sorrow, “wish I hadn’t done it.”
That would a have meaningful, beneficial effect on the future of my community. I doubt very much it will happen. But I do have an alternative suggestion that could serve everyone’s moral and professional interests — and illustrate who has moral character and who does not
Leo should be out of prison in nine months.
Let’s invite him to preach the sermon at next year’s Prayer Breakfast. And let’s see who shows up to acknowledge their guilt, pray for mercy, and accept his forgiveness.