Murders of Eustis couple shocked area 10 years ago
EUSTIS — The slayings were so gruesome that many shocked Central Floridians could hardly believe the killer was a teenage “vampire.”
A Eustis couple was found bludgeoned to death at home three days before Thanksgiving 10 years ago.
Their assailant: a 16-year-old Kentucky boy who claimed he’d live forever.
The slayings would come to be known as the “Vampire Cult Killings,” and the story has since been made into a low-budget film, several true-crime books and a TV docudrama.
But since 1996, the tragedy of Richard and Ruth Wendorf — and their youngest daughter, Heather — has become more than a repeat episode on Court TV.
“It would rank as one of the more notorious murder cases in Lake County history,” said State Attorney Brad King, the lead prosecutor in the teenage killer’s case.
Today King teaches the case to high school students as a warning about how easy it is to fall into a situation with “monumental consequences.”
Serving life in prison, self-proclaimed vampire-cult leader Rod Ferrell wasn’t the only one convicted in the Wendorfs’ slayings. Along with him, three teenagers who didn’t aid Ferrell in slaying the couple — but who knew his plans and agreed to help — were sentenced to prison.
Rumors of killing
Talk of the killings started as harmless chatter during a late November 1996 road trip. Ferrell drove from Kentucky to Eustis with a carload of followers to meet up with Heather Wendorf.
Ferrell, a Eustis High dropout who moved to Murray, Ky., had met and befriended Heather, 15, the year before. Wearing black clothing, lipstick and black nail polish, the group called themselves vampires, drank each other’s blood and declared Ferrell their “maker.”
They later told investigators they were as close as family.
“I’m not sure they really, really knew that he [Ferrell] was capable of doing what he did,” said Al Gussler, a Lake County sheriff’s detective who was lead investigator in the case. “It was their little group of vampires just talking bad stuff.”
But on a Monday night — Nov. 25, 1996 — Ferrell and Howard Scott Anderson, 16, entered the Wendorfs’ home through the garage.
Anderson later told detectives he couldn’t kill Ruth Wendorf, as planned. It was Ferrell who fatally beat Ruth, 54, and her 49-year-old husband with a crowbar. Their bloodied bodies were discovered by Heather’s 17-year-old sister, Jennifer.
After the slayings, Ferrell, Anderson, two other cult members — Ferrell’s girlfriend Charity Keesee, 16, and Dana Cooper, 19 — and Heather took off in the Wendorfs’ Ford Explorer.
Detectives tracked them down three days later in Baton Rouge, La.
In the months that followed, a judge found all teenagers involved — except Heather — shared guilt in the killings.
Ferrell pleaded guilty to murder and was initially sentenced to death. But because of his age, he was later given a life sentence. He is serving his sentence at New River West Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka.
Anderson, now 26, pleaded guilty to being a principal to first-degree murder and also is serving a life sentence.Cooper, now 29, knew about the murder plot and joined the road trip. She pleaded guilty to two reduced counts of principal to third-degree murder and one count each of principal to armed burglary and principal to armed robbery. She is slated to be released from a Florida Panhandle prison in 2012.
Keesee, now 26, pleaded guilty to the same charges as Cooper. She was released in March but couldn’t be reached for comment.
“It’s sad that these young people would get involved in something like this and follow a particular individual in that direction . . . but they put themselves in that situation,” Gussler said.
Ferrell was proud of his crime, authorities said. “He bragged about the ordeal, about how after killing them he felt this power,” Gussler said. He called himself by the vampire name Vesago and told reporters he was immortal.
“He had his own little fantasy world that he lived in and he thought he was smarter than everybody else,” King said.
Because of his brazenness, the other so-called cult members were afraid of him, Gussler said.
Heather said she was terrified of Ferrell.
“He was your maker,” Heather told the Orlando Sentinel in 1998. “We were one blood, like kin.”
When asked why she didn’t leave the other teens after she learned her parents were dead, Heather told detectives, “I was afraid if I tried to leave he would hurt me.”
Anderson told investigators he entered the Wendorfs’ house with Ferrell intending to rob them, but, he said, “Rod went crazy.”
In court, Cooper’s attorney said her client thought Ferrell was “joking” about killing the Wendorfs. She told authorities she became a vampire to have friends.
Cooper and Keesee left the Wendorfs’ neighborhood with Heather during the murders.
Still, Heather’s involvement — her participation in the vampire cult and her desire to run away from home — was the target of widespread suspicion.
Despite Ferrell’s accusation that she asked him to kill her parents, Heather told investigators and jurors that she didn’t know about their deaths until she left Eustis. She was cleared by two grand juries, which found no proof she knew her parents would be harmed.
In the year following her parents’ murders, Heather lived with a Tavares foster family, where she learned to drive a car and played the piano, said defense attorney Jeff Pfister, who was Heather’s foster parent for about 10 months.
“We tried to protect her,” Pfister said. “Everyone carries their burdens. She carries whatever someone who’s a part of this would.”
He said they never talked about the slayings or Ferrell.
In 1998, during the second grand jury probe, she was attending the North Carolina School of the Arts. Her listed address is still in North Carolina.
Heather, now 25, did not return phone calls for comment. Her surviving family members declined to comment, as did Ferrell’s family, who said they’ve moved on from his violent past.
Prosecutor warns students
Years later, students at several Florida high schools listen to the details of the “Vampire Cult Killings.”
It’s part of a yearly lesson State Attorney Brad King gives to American government and legal studies students — with documents and photographs from the case, along with Ferrell’s videotaped confession.
“He’s made a big impact on the students,” says John Dunn, a social studies teacher at Forest High School in Ocala. “It’s not abstract anymore because the students could see the photographs of these people who could be their classmates.”
Showing students how a group of young people could be so easily manipulated teaches them about the legal system, Dunn said. And King added that it might make them think twice before making a bad decision.
“That’s where these kids started, and look where they ended up,” he said.