TAVARES — A Lake County grand jury on Friday once again declined to press charges against Heather Wendorf in the vampire cult slayings of her parents. “It’s a great day for I-told-you-so’s,” said Wendorf’s lawyer, James Hope. “It’s a day for the sheriff to listen.”
In another high-profile murder case, grand jurors indicted Richard Lee Adams of Clermont on a charge of first-degree murder in the pummeling of his 6-year-old daughter, Kayla McKean, on Nov. 25. No date has been set for a trial.
While the Adams case is new, it was the second time the vampire cult case has gone before a grand jury. Wendorf was freed by a previous grand jury shortly after her parents, Richard and Ruth Wendorf, were bludgeoned to death on Nov. 25, 1996.
News of the grand jury’s findings came as something of a relief to members of the Wendorf family, who have become estranged from Heather.
“If there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence,” said Gloria Wendorf, who is married to Richard Wendorf’s twin brother, Bill. “It’s over.”
Heather Wendorf had left Eustis with a group of Kentucky teens and was arrested with the cult in her parents’ Ford Explorer in Louisiana, but she testified she did not know her parents would be harmed.
Ever since, Sheriff George Knupp, thinking Wendorf got off scot free, has pushed for a new grand jury probe.
On Friday, the sheriff and his investigators presented what they considered to be important new evidence – a 4-inch-thick report with statements and court transcripts, including allegations by cult leader Rod Ferrell, who claimed Wendorf encouraged him to steal the Explorer and kill her parents. Ferrell is now on death row.
Three other cult members are in prison.
“We find that the evidence identified as new is not credible and will not act upon it,” the grand jury said in its report. “We share the opinion of the first grand jury that the actions of Heather Wendorf were inappropriate and wrong. We also share its conclusion that while wrong, her actions did not rise to the level of criminal activity.”
The first grand jury pointed out that her choice of friends led to tragedy and questioned whether she should have stayed with the group after she learned her parents were dead. But the panel said those actions were not criminal.
The 20-member panel said it was aware of criticisms of the first grand jury.
And in an almost unheard-of move, the panel even called State Attorney Brad King to the stand to talk about how that first group reached its decisions. King was the lead prosecutor in the Ferrell case.
Grand jurors said they had questions about the first grand jury’s findings, too, but said they had access to all of the evidence, “not just that portion reported in the media.
“Upon beginning our service, we were instructed by the court that we were to be `both a sword and a shield’ … a sword because the power of the grand jury has a chilling and deterrent effect on those who violate the law … a shield because of its power and duty to protect the innocent against persecution.”
Earlier Friday, Knupp told reporters he would be “satisfied” with the grand jury’s decision, even if it didn’t go the way he thought it should.
But he said “in my heart, I feel like she had a part in her parents’ deaths.”
Hope said he would contact civil lawyers if his young client’s name comes up again as a suspect. He said it was unfair for her to be classified as a “perpetual defendant.”
Wendorf could not be reached.
In the other major case before the grand jury, Adams, 24, was charged with first-degree murder, medical neglect, aggravated child abuse, tampering with evidence and obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence. That charge stems from reporting Kayla missing on Thanksgiving Day, which sparked a massive search.
Four days later, he confessed that he had beaten Kayla to death on Thanksgiving eve. He could face the death penalty.
His wife, Marcie Adams, 22, also faces charges. The grand jury charged her with medical neglect, tampering with evidence and obstruction.
She was charged with tampering for driving Adams to the Ocala National Forest, where he buried the body in a shallow grave.
She appeared before the grand jury to testify against Adams.
Marcie Adams’ attorney, Michael Graves, said his client had not had any contact with her husband.
Grand jurors also took a critical look at the child-protection network that failed to protect Kayla.
They said Richard Adams was scheduled to undergo a psychological evaluation but never was examined. He missed his first appointment. The appointment was rescheduled by the child protection team, but Adams was never told of a followup appointment.
“He was never evaluated for his potential to harm Kayla,” the grand jury report said. “Despite the failure to conduct a psychological evaluation of the natural father, the case was closed on Sept. 23, with a conclusion that there were no indicators of physical abuse and only `some indicators of medical neglect.’ The final report concluded that there was a low risk of physical abuse to Kayla.”
However, a pediatrician who examined Kayla on June 23 for scratches and bruises and a black eye had warned that the little girl was in “imminent danger.”
“The doctor’s records reflect that when Kayla was asked how she got these injuries, the father answered for her,” the report said. “When Kayla was pressed for a response, she gave three different explanations for the injuries. The father stated that he had spanked Kayla with a paddle in the past, is `hotheaded’ and sometimes `loses control’ of his emotions.”
After child protection workers did nothing, the pediatrician called the Department of Children & Families’ abuse hotline “and was told that Kayla would be immediately removed from the environment,” the report said.
“This was not done. The pediatrician was not contacted. No medical records were obtained or reviewed,” grand jurors said.
The grand jury noted that Kayla was “seen and assessed” by up to 10 child-protection workers during the last six months of her life, but none “sought to do a complete review of the entire history of the supposedly accidental injuries this child suffered.”
“The grand jurors recognize that the ultimate blame for Kayla’s death rests with her abuser. However, it is imperative that the children of Florida be protected from abuse better than Kayla was.”
The grand jury issued several recommendations, including making the optional use of photographing injuries mandatory; recruiting investigators with criminal-justice backgrounds; and implementing computerization of case histories with images of children.