Assailants fatally bludgeoned the parents of two Eustis High School students late Monday, and investigators today are trying to figure out whether the couple’s missing daughter was involved.
Did Heather Wendorf, who at age 15 favors purple hair and black fishnet stockings, plot the killings of her parents, Richard and Ruth?
Or was she kidnapped after their deaths by a friend – a Eustis High dropout who faces charges in Kentucky of tearing all four legs off a dog in some kind of unexplained ritual?
Investigators think the answer lies with five teens, including Heather, whose whereabouts were still unknown late Tuesday, along with the dead couple’s 1994 Ford Explorer.
”You’ve got one wild bunch on the loose,” said Calloway County, Ky., Sheriff Stan Scott, who investigated the beating and mutilation of 40 dogs at a shelter in his county.
The Wendorfs’ eldest daughter, Jennifer, 17, discovered the bodies of her father, a 23-year employee of Crown Cork & Seal in Winter Garden, and her mother, who was a volunteer in the Eustis High office.
Later in the evening, Seminole County deputy sheriffs found an abandoned Buick owned by the family of one of the teens from Kentucky. It had been ditched in Sanford off U.S. Highway 17-92 near the Central Florida Zoo.
The license tag on the Buick belonged to the Wendorfs’ Explorer, and investigators think the teens switched tags. They’re looking for a blue Explorer now bearing Kentucky tag DTB-836.
Detectives think the teens were headed to Kentucky or Louisiana.
Richard Wendorf, 49, and Ruth Wendorf, 54, were discovered beaten to death shortly after 10:30 p.m. Monday when Jennifer arrived at the family’s home east of Eustis from her job at Publix in Mount Dora.
The panic-stricken teen pleaded hysterically with dispatchers to send help after finding the couple at 24135 Greentree Lane.
Why anyone would want to kill the Wendorfs is unfathomable to friends, who said the couple worked hard and lived a quiet life in their brick home in a rural part of Lake County.
If there was trouble in the Wendorf home, ”they sure kept it inside the family and away from the school,” said Eustis High Principal Jim Hollins.
Ruth Wendorf worked from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at the high school’s office, and nothing appeared to be amiss.
That changed 10 hours later when Jennifer met deputies at the back of the house and told them her parents were dead and she could find no trace of Heather.
All night, deputies gathered evidence from inside the Wendorf home and from a large area outside.
Sheriff’s spokesman Chris Daniels said there was no sign of a struggle inside the house. Richard Wendorf’s body was found lying on a couch in the living room, and Ruth Wendorf’s body was on the floor in the kitchen.
Investigators found a white poodle lying on a throw rug next to Ruth Wendorf’s body, and they had a difficult time persuading the dog to let them get close to the body. They found the family’s golden retriever wandering aimlessly outside the house.
Early Tuesday, deputies standing 10 abreast combed the crime scene that stretched over much of the front and side lawns of the Wendorf property. Tiny orange cones marked spots where a throw rug and a pair of shoes lay.
Deputies in golf carts and on foot searched for evidence along State Road 44A, County Road 437 and County Road 439. Daniels wouldn’t say why investigators think the crime scene is so big.
Members of the Lake sheriff’s underwater search and rescue team Tuesday afternoon combed part of Lake Monroe near the abandoned car looking for a murder weapon. They found none.
How the four Kentucky teens ended up at the Wendorfs’ 3,129-square-foot, three-bedroom pool home is a tale that began at Eustis High last year, deputies said.
Heather became friends with Rod Ferrell, 16, after meeting him at the school before he dropped out last year, authorities said. When he moved to Kentucky about six months ago, they stayed in contact.
A bespectacled teen with shoulder-length black hair and a scruffy goatee, he dressed in black, frequently wore a black trench coat and carried a wooden walking stick, Lake deputies said.
He also wore an inverted cross on a chain around his neck – a sign devil worshipers often wear, Kentucky authorities said.
While in Murray, Ky., where Ferrell lived with his mother, the teen met Howard Scott Anderson, 16, who lived in nearby Mayfield, Ky.
Last month, authorities in Murray charged the pair with cruelty to animals, criminal attempt to commit burglary and criminal trespass after more than 40 dogs were beaten and abused at the Murray-Calloway County Animal Shelter. Four dogs could not be found.
Authorities in Kentucky said Tuesday that two Labrador retriever puppies weighing about 15 pounds each died – one was stomped to death, and the other had its legs wrenched off.
”The legs weren’t to be found,” said Darla Speed, manager of the animal shelter where the mutilations occurred Oct. 13.
Speed said it appeared that the animal killers ”had some kind of dance” because a circle of tall grass in a field had been flattened around where the animals had been tortured. A crushed, dead dog was at the center.
The two teens, Ferrell and Anderson, are part of a large group of teens who call themselves ”Vampires,” Speed said.
Scott, the sheriff, said, ”We felt at that time that it was cult-related.”
The case involving the dogs had not come to trial when Anderson’s parents on Monday reported their Buick – the car found abandoned in Sanford – had been stolen and their son was missing.
Two teenage girls, also from the Murray area – Charity Kessee, 16, and Dana Cooper, 19 – also were reported missing Monday, said authorities, who think they’re with Ferrell and Anderson.
Kentucky officials said Ferrell ran away to Florida twice in the past couple of months and visited Heather both times.
Across rural western Kentucky, the talk Monday was of one subject: the murders in Lake County and the suspected connection to the teens from Kentucky.
”When we got the teletype, it just beat anything we’ve ever seen,” Scott said.
”I don’t know if they’ve been watching Natural Born Killers or what,” said Sgt. Mike Jump of the Murray Police Department. ”It’s got us scared to death.”