The beginning of this blog reflects my own personal opinions and very likely does not reflect the beliefs of my writing partner, retired Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells. His frame of reference is vastly different from mine. It reflects different experiences than those I have had; I deeply respect what he believes to be the truth.
Most of the following blog tells the stories of two fine, dedicated Florida Troopers, Claude Baker and Charlie Campbell, and how their duty to protect the public cost them their lives. By telling their stories in tandem with references to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, I want to emphasize that we cannot afford to polarize our nation further by simplistically defining complicated people and situations as right or wrong, good or evil, Black or White, racist or non-racist. Abolishing police departments is a foolish idea; making them better trained and accountable for the acts they perform, right now, is essential. God bless the brave men and women who leave their homes each morning in the hope of protecting our communities. May they remain strong, fair, and safe.
Law Enforcement as a career is taking a brutal beating these days with some justification. The world froze in horror at the video image of Minneapolis police officer Derek Michael Chauvin kneeling for eight minutes on the neck of George Floyd, who had been suspected of passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. Floyd was only the most recent victim of a flurry of Black American deaths by officers of the law. These deaths are not largely the product of evil racist cops. They are the product of a racialized country that not only permits but in some cases encourages citizens to take the worst parts of their nature, their prejudices and hatreds, out onto the streets and to act on them without fear of recrimination.
I think most law enforcement professionals do the best job they can to protect the public–Black and White–and to put bad people away where they can do no more harm. They risk their lives every day to do so.
Charlie Wells told me the stories of two fellow-troopers he knew, worked with, liked, and respected during his early law enforcement days. I have paraphrased here but have written in the first person: Wells is the narrator. Sections that appear in italics were written directly by Charlie Wells and are part of his forthcoming autobiography.
Troopers Claude Baker and Charlie Campbell were as close as any two troopers I knew. They shared a common vision of what it was to be a law enforcement officers but they were different men with different personalities and characteristics.
Charlie, who stood about 6’1” and weighed around 250 pounds, had little patience when he was confronted by a violator who wanted to give him a hard time. Otherwise he just looked mean. A sinkhole had developed in one of the roadways in Sarasota and troopers were assigned to prevent motorists from driving into it. Charlie was directing traffic that hot summer day when he motioned drivers to turn right or left, avoiding the hole. One vehicle pulled up to the intersection and watching Charlie’s direction, the driver honked his horn. Charlie looked at the guy who was yelling at him, but could not hear what he said because the car window was up. He shrugged his shoulders questioningly and the driver pointed that he wanted to go straight. Charlie once again motioned for the driver to turn.
The driver blew his horn again, this time louder and longer, and once again motioned to Charlie that he wanted to go straight. Charlie moved the barricade, then walked over to the driver who by now had rolled his window down and was still grumbling. Charlie said “Do you see that sinkhole over there?” The driver raised up in his seat to see better and finally said yes. Charlie said “Drive into the hole.” The driver said “I don’t want to drive into the hole.” Charlie said “I told you to drive into the hole.” By this time the driver was red-faced and shaking his head no. Charlie said “If you don’t want to drive into the hole, then you have to turn. Why do you think the barricades are there? Why do you think I’m here?” The embarrassed driver finally got the message, turned right, and drove off.
While Charlie was the more serious of the two, he also had a sense of humor. One night he invited Trooper Ron Getman to go fishing with Claude and him. Getman showed up at the meeting place by the water and got out of his car with a bucket of shrimp for bait. His friends asked him what was in the bucket and Getman told them. Campbell grabbed one of the shrimp from the bucket, threw it in the water, and announced “Well, looks like they aren’t biting. Let’s go get a beer.” Getman caught on immediately. The invitation had not been for a fishing trip, it was strictly a beer drinking night!
Claude, who was the smaller of the pair, was always smiling. When he issued citations to violators they never seemed to get mad at him. Getting promoted within the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) was difficult. It meant months of studying law, policy and supervision prior to the promotional examinations. On one occasion the promotional examinations were held at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Claude and Charlie rode to the exam together in Charlie’s car. I pulled up in the university parking lot at the same time they did. We got out of our cruisers, shook hands, and walked to the examination room together. I asked Claude if he had been studying. “Yes” he said, “on the ride up here, but it was hard to concentrate because Charlie kept talking to me.” I knew Claude was kidding, he hadn’t studied at all. We all laughed and entered the exam room. After we had finished I saw Claude again and he said “I think I may have missed one or two questions.” We laughed and walked to our cruisers. Claude had no interest in being promoted. He was content with his life and did not care about climbing the chain of command. In many ways I admired him for his contentment. It wasn’t that he was lazy or unintelligent. He was a bright trooper with a good head on his shoulders, but above all he was happy.
Henry Lorenzo Payne was not a stranger to law enforcement. Two days before encountering Trooper Claude Baker, Payne had been serving a three-year sentence for auto theft at Zephyr Hills Prison Camp in his home state of Florida when he escaped from a work release program on November 15, 1973. It didn’t take him long to return to a life of crime. The next day he went to a Ware Construction Company site in Tampa. He reached through a car window where a security guard named Spivey was seated and attempted to grab the guard’s gun. When Spivey refused to give it up, Payne dragged him from the car, beat him, and stole his weapon and a small television set he had been watching.
The following day, November 17th, Payne abducted a twenty-one-year-old female from a shopping center and forced her to drive to a wooded area near Tampa. There he raped her, stole her 1972 blue Oldsmobile, and drove off leaving her in the woods. The victim walked to the nearest phone and called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Payne laid low until nightfall, then headed south, passing through Ruskin, Palmetto, Bradenton, Sarasota, and Venice in the stolen car. He was, unsurprisingly, speeding. Trooper Baker who was on duty and traveling north on route 41 at the time, made a U turn and gave chase.
At 7:58 p.m. , Trooper Baker, #365, radioed the Bradenton dispatcher and advised that he was stopping a blue Oldsmobile Cutlass, license number FL 3W-51397. They were seven or eight miles south of Venice on U.S. 41, otherwise known as Tamiami Trail. The Bradenton dispatcher checked his records and reported that the car was not missing or stolen. Traffic stops like this one occur thousands of times a week and were normally routine. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office report of the rape and car theft had not yet been entered into the system; This stop on this night would be anything but routine.
Terry and Sharon Rhodes were traveling south on U.S. 41 and saw a trooper pass them with blue lights on. They said the trooper went out of sight at a curve in the road, then a few minutes later they saw the trooper’s blue lights again. When their car was adjacent to the patrol car they saw the trooper lying on the ground face down. Terry, who worked for an ambulance service in Fort Myers, jumped from his car and ran to the trooper’s aid.He turned Claude Baker over and attempted to clear his air passage. Claude was moaning and then expelled a lot of blood. Rhodes did not see Payne who had already left in the blue Oldsmobile.
Everything was quiet in the dispatch system until 8:03 p.m. The on-duty Bradenton dispatcher broke the radio squelch and I detected a nervous quiver in his voice. Ben Clinger, ordinarily a calm dispatcher and a man I knew well was not calm now as he spoke on the radio. He was talking to a citizen speaking from Claude’s radio, which was very unusual. While I could not hear what the citizen was saying I could clearly hear Clinger and some back and forth between Clinger and the citizen. Clinger broadcast words that chilled me to the bone: “Bradenton all units, #365 has been shot on U.S. 41 approximately 7 miles south of Venice.” I had heard a similar message about a trooper earlier in my career and the results had not been good. I felt sick.
Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies rapidly deployed to the scene. Detective Robert Hampton and his colleagues searched the area to recover evidence. Hampton reported that Claude had been shot twice, once on the left chest and a second time on his right arm near the elbow. His gun lay on the ground behind the left rear tire. Ironically, Sergeant Eric Britt found a check issued by the Ware Construction Company to Henry Lorenzo Payne two feet in front of Claude’s patrol car. Payne had worked at the work site where he had robbed the security guard the day before.
At midnight the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office reported they had received a call from a Port Charlotte resident. She had been watching television and had seen the news report of the trooper killing with a description of Payne and the car he was driving. She said she had seen a car matching that description parked in her neighborhood. Charlotte County deputies immediately responded. They found Payne. In the Oldsmobile he was driving, deputies found a .38 revolver and the clothes Payne had been wearing. There were bloodstains on his jeans.
Payne was not going to give up easily. After his arrest he told Detective Hampton that his name was Leroy Jenkins. He admitted having been in the blue Oldsmobile, but insisted that a man he called “Bee Bop” had picked him up hitchhiking and was the actual shooter. After Hampton left the room, Payne finally admitted his true identity to the other officer interrogating him, Lieutenant Bohanson. Payne invoked his right to an attorney, was assigned a public defender, and refused to talk to detectives any further.
Undoubtedly to avoid the death penalty, Payne eventually plead guilty to first degree murder for the death of Claude Baker. He was sentenced to life in prison at Tomoka Facility. In addition to murder, Payne was convicted of robbery, rape, grand theft auto, and escape. In 1987 he again escaped his Jackson County facility. While out of prison Payne was convicted of additional crimes: Robbery with a firearm and aggravated battery with intent to do harm, and escape. Again, hopefully for the last time, he is serving a life sentence in prison.
Over 700 were in attendance at the Ewing Funeral Home in Venice to show their respect for a fine trooper and an outstanding man. The chapel was filled to capacity and an overflow crowd listened to the service on outside speakers. Staff members from General Headquarters (GHQ) Tallahassee including FHP Director, Colonel J.E. Beach. The Lieutenant Colonel and several Troop Commanders from around the state were also in attendance. Law Enforcement officers from hundreds of state and local agencies were in attendance to honor Claude. Hundreds of local citizens came, even though many of them may have never known Claude, but they wanted to let Claude’s family and law enforcement know they cared for them and many of them wept during the service.
An FHP Honor Guard stood at Claude’s casket. An American flag covered the casket, which I believed would have pleased Claude: He was a patriotic man. Claude’s family was ushered into the chapel and quietly took their seats. Connie Baker, Claude’s wife along with his daughter Sabrina were escorted in by Corporal Steve Ward, Claude’s immediate supervisor. It was heartbreaking for me to look at Connie and Sabrina Baker as the sat, eyes overflowing with tears. Connie was a beautiful, dignified lady. She and Claude had been married for over nine years. The service was almost unbearable for her. At her young age I was not certain that their daughter, beautiful little Sabrina, could understand that her daddy was never coming home again.
The motorcade that accompanied Claude Baker’s body consisted of more than 150 patrol cars and police motorcycles from multiple agencies, blue lights flashing with hundreds of civilians falling in behind them. The procession was two miles long. Along the route, hundreds lined up on the sidewalks and street corners to salute the hearse carrying Claude to his final resting place. The entire experience was humbling, yet bittersweet, bitter because of Claude’s murder, sweet because of the support he was receiving from the public along the way. We had lost a good man and the public knew it.
Losing Claude Baker had been agonizing for Charlie Campbell and he was never the same after his best friend was murdered. He finally asked for and was granted a transfer to Perry. He thought the change might ease his pain and help him get past it all. Before long he settled into his new assignment and seemed relatively satisfied.
On November 16, 1974, near Thanksgiving and one day short of a year since Claude Baker had died, Charlie got into his cruiser, signed on in service, and headed to the Perry Florida Highway Patrol station. He spoke with the dispatcher, jotting down information on a “Be On The Lookout” (BOLO) for a stolen beige Volkswagen. He headed south on U.S. 19, the main arterial highway through Taylor County.
About seven miles south of Perry Charlie spotted a beige Volkswagen that fit the description of the BOLO stolen car. Charlie made a U-turn though the median and fell in behind the car. Reading the license plate, he noticed that it was different from the one on the BOLO. He activated his emergency lights and stopped the Volkswagen to investigate. Charlie had no way of knowing that the driver was one of the most evil human beings in the nation at the time: Paul John Knowles. It was never determined why Campbell had not radioed ahead to dispatch, as was protocol, to report that he was stopping the Volkswagen.
Knowles was a ruthless serial killer who had already murdered and raped numerous times. [See the details in the blog dated July 31, 2020, truecrimemama.com]. As Charlie approached the Volkswagen, Knowles quickly exited with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun and got the drop on the trooper. Knowles handcuffed Campbell, then ordered him into the passenger side of the car. The two drove away with Knowles behind the wheel, leaving the Volkswagen behind.
Knowles could not afford to be spotted driving a sheriff’s vehicle, but he used it one final time to stop a blue Ford Torino driven by 30-year-old James E. Meyer of Wilmington, Delaware. Meyer had rented the car from Hertz at the Tallahassee airport and was headed to Perry on business. Knowles subdued Meyer, most likely, by handcuffing him with a spare set of handcuffs found in Charlie’s FHP cruiser, then placed him in the Torino’s back seat with Charlie and took off looking for an escape route to leave the area.
The Taylor County area is a rural county encompassing fewer than 1,300 square miles with a population of 21,600. Perry is the county seat and is located about 50 miles south of the state capitol in Tallahassee. While the County is on the west coast, it is not a beach community but better- known for great hunting and fishing locations. Because of its size, limited financial resources hindered law enforcement in their search for Charlie. The County’s small sheriff’s force relied on wild life officers, state troopers, the marine patrol, the FBI, and local citizens to assist them. All their efforts failed and Knowles drove out of the county and made his way to Georgia, less than 40 miles away.
He traveled on less populated roads, but was not invisible. In Lakeland Georgia a service station attendant reported seeing Knowles in a car with two other men about 1 p.m. Another witness saw him in Abbeville around 4 p.m., and a third witness said he saw the car near the the Houston and Pulaski county lines a short time later where Knowles made a right hand turn onto the dirt state road 247, traveling at a high rate of speed. Between 6 and 7 p.m. purchases of a tape recorder, tapes, clothing, shoes and batteries were made at a Sears store in Macon Georgia with Charlie Campbell’s credit card. By 10:15 p.m. Knowles had checked into the Ambassador Motel in Macon. By then he was alone.
Early the following afternoon, Henry County Georgia Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Hancock received a BOLO for the blue Torino Knowles was driving. He saw the car and called for a roadblock at Highway 52 where Knowles was headed. Seeing the barrier, Knowles sped up and hit a patrol car, then sprang from his car, pointing a revolver at the pursuing sheriffs, but did not shoot. He ran for the nearby woods. Law enforcement officers and a team of tracking dogs were not immediately able to locate him.
Several hours later Knowles was apprehended in Henry County. His escape route covered a distance of 4.5 miles, primarily through a wooded area. During the time he was pursued Knowles forcibly entered two residences located on Springdale Road. He had stolen a single-barrel Stevens shotgun from one of the houses and it was in his possession at the time of his arrest.
Knowles was eventually captured by a soft-spoken young man named David Clark. Clark had spotted Knowles while walking outside his house, calmly walked into his home to get his shotgun, and Knowles surrendered to him without a struggle. He was exhausted after running several miles from the pursuing deputies and dogs. Ironically, the 12-gauge shotgun Knowles had stolen did not have a firing pin and was worthless to the killer. Clark marched Knowles across the street and asked one of his neighbors to call the police. Scores of law enforcement officers quickly appeared at Clark’s address and took Knowles into custody. Clark was considered a hero by his neighbors. The slender 27-year-old had not been figured to be the type to capture a dangerous criminal, his neighbor said.
Four days later, on November 21, 1974 the bodies of Charlie and Meyer were found by two deer hunters, Dennis Thompson and Walter Owens, near Perry, Georgia. Charlie and 7 another miles west where they were killed. Charlie and Meyer were found lying head to head at the base of a large pine tree. It appeared they had been restrained by handcuffs prior to being shot in the head. Charlie was in full FHP uniform, except his hat and gun belt. He had been shot with a .357 magnum, Claude Baker’s gun, the gun Charlie had requested Florida Highway Patrol issue to him after Claude’s death.
A Federal Grand Jury was impaneled in Macon and Sheldon Yavitz, Knowles’ attorney, was subpoenaed to testify regarding tape recordings he possessed that Knowles had made at the scenes of 18 murders he was charged with. He wanted someone to write a book about his exploits using the tapes.
A large number of reporters and curiosity seekers had gathered at the jail trying to get a photo or glimpse of Knowles, which caused authorities to be concerned about his security and the security of police officers at the jail. After careful thought, they decided to move Knowles to Douglas County Jail in Milledgeville, Georgia. The sheriff of Douglas County was Earl Lee who was a big affable man who had a solid reputation in law enforcement. After having served as a deputy for eight years, Sheriff Lee ran for sheriff and was elected. Lee had attended law enforcement schools to sharpen his skills and also graduated from the National FBI Academy. While he was there, Lee became friends with a Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) agent named Ronnie Angel.
After Knowles was incarcerated in the Douglas County Jail, Lee and Angel regularly visited his cell to establish rapport with him. The two lawmen were tenacious and wanted to get as much information as Knowles would give them about other murders he had committed. Sheriff Lee later testified before the grand jury that he had asked Knowles how many people he had killed and Knowles had written in the palm of his hand the number 18. The sheriff also testified that Knowles had written on the wall of his cell Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Connecticut, Mississippi and Ohio as the states where he had committed his crimes. Sheriff Lee and Agent Angel also asked Knowles what he had done with Charlie’s service revolver and after many conversations, on December 10, Knowles finally agreed to show them where he had discarded the weapon. The sheriff knew that Knowles was a vain, cocky man who was upset when he wasn’t mentioned in the media and might cooperate for the attention it would offer him.
On December 18th, Lee and Angel collected their prisoner from his cell and secured his hands and legs with cuffs and chains to prevent an escape attempt. Lee drove the cruiser and they proceeded south on Interstate 20 toward Henry County. Agent Angel had contacted several GBI agents and members of the Henry County Sheriff’s Office and requested they meet him and Sheriff Lee at Hudson Bridge Road and Interstate 75 to provide additional security for the search for the gun.
At the county line road bridge Knowles lit up a cigarette and Lee directed him to throw the cigarette out. He pulled over to the side of the road for Knowles to dispose of it, but Knowles said he would put it out in the ash tray. Shortly after that Sheriff Lee saw and felt Knowles’ arm reach over his shoulder and grab his gun. Agent Angel also saw Knowles grab the sheriff’s gun. Shots were fired and the vehicle left the roadway. Upon coming to a stop, Sheriff Lee got out of the vehicle and confirmed that Knowles was dead. The latter had actually fired the sheriff’s gun while it was partially holstered and at approximately the same time, Agent Angel fired the shots that killed Knowles.
Examinations by the state crime laboratory recovered three bullets from Knowles body during an autopsy. A metal paper clip was found in the Douglas County Sheriff’s vehicle that Knowles had used to pick the handcuff lock from his right hand. On December 30, 1974, a coroner’s inquest was held in Douglas County to examine the facts surrounding the death of Knowles. After hearing nine witnesses testify, the coroner’s jury ruled that the death of Knowles was justifiable homicide.
In a single year’s time, two outstanding law enforcement officers, Claude Baker and Charlie Campbell, colleagues and the best of friends, lost their lives in the line of duty. Henry Lorenzo Payne was off the streets for life, no longer a threat to innocent Florida citizens. The spree killer, Paul John Knowles, a man who had at the same time gone on a murderous six-month rampage, was also now dead. Without the courage and persistence of men like Baker and Campbell, there is no doubt that the world would be a vastly more dangerous place. We are grateful for their lives. May they rest in peace.