4 Days, 5 Murders

Episode 5: The Ones Who Caught Him

The world was watching to see how and when they would catch the killer. Investigators and prosecutors race for justice in an effort that still affects them 30 years later.

Once the prime suspect, Ed Humphrey was left to lead life with a tainted reputation.

By Quan McWil

On a breezy spring morning, I traveled from my home in Gainesville to coastal Palm Bay, tucked just under Melbourne on Florida’s Atlantic coast. I was not there for surf or sun, but in search of a man who had eluded journalists for nearly three decades. 

I knocked on his front door with trepidation. Would he answer? Would he demand I leave? I wanted to ask him so many questions. I had deliberately chosen 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning so that the chances of him being home would be greater.

The door opened and before me stood Ed Humphrey. He wore a blue Gator pullover and a voluptuous yawn. It was obvious that he had just woken up.

I had practiced so many times what I would say in this moment. Even though three decades had passed, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for Humphrey to talk about his darkest days; a time when his name was linked to grisly crimes. In late August of 1990, a  string of Ted Bundy-like murders had shattered the college town of Gainesville, and Humphrey found himself in the center of it. He was, at one time, considered the prime suspect. 

But he was the wrong man.

Humphrey could not have possibly understood at the time how high the stakes were or the consequences of the suspicion cast on him.  But, his life was forever tainted.

The real killer was eventually caught, confessed and was put to death. Humphrey shunned the media, and remained quiet through the years. 

“Anniversaries of the murders come and go,” I explained. “Your story has never been told.”

I knew that many people with connections to the Gainesville murders had left Florida. It was too painful for them to remain here. But Humphrey had not. I wanted to know whether he still carried the weight of what he had endured almost three decades earlier.

I was nervous as I introduced myself. 

“Anniversaries of the murders come and go,” I explained. “Your story has never been told.”

Suddenly, Humphrey’s tabby snuck out the door. Chubby but cunning and fast, the cat ran from behind one bush to another. In plaid shorts, Humphrey hunched down to make sure he could catch the cat before it ran out onto the street. He returned gasping for breath, and asked me to come back later in the day.

I walked to my car, trying not to look back, trying not to think about those scars I’d seen on his face. They had softened with time, but they told his story. They had been responsible for maligning his name, reshaping his life. 

Edward Lewis Humphrey, a former honors student and an Eagle Scout from Brevard County, began classes at the University of Florida in the summer of 1990. He had a promising future ahead of him. 

But just as the fall semester was beginning, five students were killed in macabre fashion. They were sexually assaulted and some were mutilated. A brutal serial killer was on the loose.

All of Gainesville shuddered. Many panicked. Others could not sleep. And law enforcement officials felt intense pressure to bring in a suspect. Their leads took them to Humphrey’s doorstep.

One day after the last of the five bodies were discovered in Gainesville, police arrested Humphrey — not for the murders but for assaulting his 79-year-old grandmother in Indialantic. In custody, he was questioned about the killings.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Spencer Mann, the spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department at the time. “I felt bad for him. I understand why it went in the direction it did, didn’t agree with it.”

He was under surveillance for reports of odd behaviors, like wearing camouflage, and he had an obsession with knives.

Humphrey’s off behavior, Mann said, drew attention to him.

At the time, Humphrey was manic-depressive who was off his medication. He was under surveillance for reports of odd behaviors, like wearing camouflage, and he had an obsession with knives. He was supposed to take lithium to temper his mood swings. It worked, but it also made him dull, sluggish, overweight. He was, by all accounts, a troubled young man with a wild streak.

His bail, originally set at $10,250, spiked to $1 million. His court appearances were riveting. Humphrey stood 6 feet tall and weighed about 200 pounds. His eyes appeared glazed and barely open, his hair unkempt. And, his face bore a scar, it turned out, from a car wreck the year before. His mug shot fueled growing public speculation and drew hordes of reporters from around the country. 

Like moths to a lantern light on a summer night, the press surrounded Humphrey with flashing cameras, as he took the stand to plead, “Not guilty.”

Humphrey, who fit a vague FBI profile of the killer, was never charged with murder but the damage to his reputation had been done. (Image from WUFT archive)

He said nothing more. His grandmother had asked to drop all charges. 

“He may be a possible suspect,” announced Sadie Darnell, then the Gainesville police spokeswoman.

The media jumped on Humphrey as a prime suspect. Newspapers reported Humphrey revealed to investigators that he had an alter ego, named John, who knew the details about the crimes. 

The perils of his loose lips kept him in custody. The task force searched his Indialantic home and Gainesville apartment. The optics were not good for Humphrey.

The Gainesville Sun broke the story of “a knife hidden in a milk carton” during a search of Humphrey’s home on Sept. 6. An article in The Orlando Sentinel followed up with Darnell on the discovery; she acknowledged investigators had found “promising” evidence toward wrapping up the case.

More than a week later, The Sun reported another leak of damaging information about Humphrey. Investigators had found bloodstained gloves at his home. The article also stated that Humphrey’s grandmother said the gloves belonged to her. 

Brevard sheriff’s officials also released reports showing the agency responded to at least 14 emergency calls of Humphrey allegedly attacking his grandmother or mother. 

Although Humphrey’s October trial was in Brevard County, a visiting judge from Gainesville presided over it. Humphrey was eventually convicted of a lesser charge of battery of a person over 65 and sentenced to 22 months in prison. 

But most of Humphrey’s descriptions of the student mutilations were not accurate. His DNA didn’t match the semen found at the murder scene. 

He would, for many years, remain connected to the Gainesville murders, though he played no role.

Humphrey, who fit a vague FBI profile of the killer, was never charged with murder but the damage to his reputation had been done; his name, marred. He would, for many years, remain connected to the Gainesville murders, though he played no role. His brother, George, tried hard to clear his name. He demanded officials exonerate his brother.

“Ed didn’t do it,” said George, then a 22-year-old law student, told WUFT in a 1991. “He’s not capable of it.”

“He’s gonna come back home,” George Humphrey insisted. “We’re gonna do what’s best for Ed and put all these miserable stuff behind us.”

Law enforcement officials, as well as the prosecutor’s office, regretted the way Humphrey had been treated. 

“I’m sorry that we didn’t clear him sooner,” said Alachua County State Attorney Rod Smith, who wrote a letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994 that helped restore Humphrey’s civil rights.

But Humphrey was left torn and tarnished. 

He enrolled at University of Central Florida in 1995, taking classes around part-time jobs ranging from cleaning dog kennels and swimming pools to assembling tanning beds and working in factories, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

On the 10th anniversary of the murders, Humphrey walked across the stage of UCF arena as a college graduate. Then 28, he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a 3.76 grade-point average, graduating magna cum laude.

“I did the work. I got it done . . . there’s a lot more ahead,” Humphrey told the Orlando Sentinel before the ceremony.

And then he disappeared from public view.

On the 30th anniversary of the murders, I was eager to seek out Humphrey. 

I had learned he had married and had a daughter. His brother George moved to Texas and practices law in Houston, but he did not respond to my request for an interview.

So I got in my car and drove to Palm Bay to meet Ed Humphrey in person.

That Saturday, later in the afternoon as Humphrey had requested, I rang his doorbell for the second time. Before I could say anything, Humphrey came to the door, visibly shaken and upset, his face fraught with worry.

He told me he had done interviews on this topic, and most of his experiences had not been pleasant. He wasn’t interested in doing an interview. He had no reason to trust one.

“I’m happy it’s over,” he said. “I’m happy I always have the support of family and friends, and I’m happy with my family now.”

I respected his wishes; I had no choice. 

The red sun marched its way toward the horizon, whipping at my windshield as I drove back to Gainesville. The hot air folded in waves over the highway. I knew little more about Humphrey than what I knew before this day. But I thought about the few words that Humphrey uttered in our brief conversation. He had used the word “happy” three times. And that, perhaps, was all I needed to know.