Heather Wendorf-Kelly was cleared in her parents’ 1996 murder in Eustis. Now married and living out of state, she reflects on a tragic time.
She was called a killer. A gothic vampire. An awkward 15-year-old who fell in with the wrong crowd.
Today, at 25, Heather Wendorf-Kelly isn’t out to change minds. She’s just trying to move her life forward and give the scars of her past time to heal.
A decade after her parents’ brutal murder inside their Eustis home, Heather says she wished she had known how to stop the 16-year-old boy who fatally beat the couple — and captured the nation’s morbid curiosity with the “Vampire Cult Killings.”
“I regret that I was paralyzed with fear,” she said in her first interview with the Orlando Sentinel in more than eight years. “You can’t really anticipate what you’re going to do and how you’re going to deal with the situation if you’ve never been in anything like that before.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1996, Heather was arrested with teen “vampire” Rod Ferrell — and three other cult followers — and charged with bludgeoning Richard and Ruth Wendorf to death.
Ten years ago today, a grand jury refused to indict her in the slayings. She remained in detention, however, and was not officially cleared until Jan. 28, 1997.
She was vindicated, or so she thought.
In a faint Southern twang, Heather talks about her new life in North Carolina. About learning to sculpt at art school. And about marrying a local theater and film director last year.
She said she doesn’t harbor grudges against modern-day vampires, though she thinks her case — she calls it a “legend” — has generated a cult following of its own.
“It was mind-boggling to me how big it was,” she said.
‘He was charming’
Heather’s voice quivers a bit when she recalls details surrounding the killings that have since been made into a low-budget film, several true-crime books and a TV docudrama.
Back then, she was a Eustis High sophomore with stringy auburn hair who tied a Barbie doll on a noose to her backpack.
She met Ferrell at school, a year before the Eustis High dropout moved to Murray, Ky. With long black hair and a matching trench coat, Ferrell claimed he could suck human blood and live forever.
“When I first met him, he was not like a lot of the other kids,” she said. “He seemed older just because of how he spoke, how intelligent he was.
“He was charming. . . . He could tell a lie like it was the truth.”
Ferrell, then 16, was later given a life sentence for fatally beating Richard Wendorf, a 49-year-old manager at Crown Cork & Seal in Winter Garden, and his wife, Ruth, 54, a volunteer at Eustis High.
Several days before Thanksgiving, Ferrell drove from Kentucky to Eustis with a carload of teenage vampire groupies to meet up with Heather.
“Part of it was just a game to me,” she said about the “vampires” and their “crossing-over” rituals during which the teens drank one another’s blood.
“I didn’t take a whole lot of it seriously,” she said. “It was something to have, something special in your life that you felt secret about.”
Sister found bodies
Heather wasn’t there on the night of Nov. 25, 1996, when Ferrell and Howard Scott Anderson, 16, entered the Wendorfs’ Greentree Lane home through the garage.
Anderson later told detectives he couldn’t kill Ruth Wendorf as planned. Instead, Ferrell beat Richard Wendorf, asleep on the couch, and repeatedly clubbed Ruth with a crowbar when she threw hot coffee on him.
The Wendorfs’ bloodied bodies were found when Heather’s 17-year-old sister, Jennifer, returned home from work.
Heather didn’t know about their deaths until later — when she was on the way to New Orleans with Ferrell and his friends in the dead couple’s Ford Explorer.
“I just wish I knew exactly what I could have done and did it,” she says. “You’re just second-guessing yourself and paralyzed with fear by the whole thing.”
Three days later, detectives caught the teens in Baton Rouge, La.
In the following months, all the teenagers involved — except Heather — pleaded guilty to some role in the killings.
Ferrell pleaded guilty to murder and was initially sentenced to death. But because of his age, he later was given a life sentence.
Anderson, now 26, pleaded guilty to being a principal to first-degree murder and also is serving a life sentence.
Two other girls, who knew about the murder plot but didn’t aid Ferrell, were convicted of being principals to third-degree murder, armed burglary and principals to armed robbery. Dana Cooper, now 29, is slated to be released from a Florida Panhandle prison in 2012. Charity Keesee, now 26, was released in March but couldn’t be reached.
Denies hating parents
Although she was cleared of any wrongdoing in the slayings, the tragedy alienated Heather from her friends and family.
“It’s hard not to feel guilty when every news station in America is telling you you’re guilty,” she says.
Ferrell told detectives and the media that Heather hated her parents and wanted him to kill them.
A decade later, she still denies it.
“Most of my childhood was just perfect,” she says. “I’ll always have that to build upon.”
As a little girl, Heather watched her mother draw and “took after her.” Before and after Ruth’s death, going to art school was Heather’s “golden shining” dream, she said.
When she started high school, she favored purple hair and black fishnet stockings. And becoming a vampire seemed like a cool thing to do.
In the months leading up to the killings, Heather’s grades dropped, said Al Gussler, a Lake County sheriff’s detective who was the lead investigator in the case. “She started having problems in school,” he said.
He remembers interviewing Heather days after her parents were killed.
“Just how many vampires are in Eustis?” he asked.
“And she just sat back and folded her arms and said, ‘You’d be surprised.’ ”
Moved out of state
Heather lived with Lake County foster parents after the killings.
“I had to keep some distance from my family so everyone could heal,” she said. “I don’t think there was any animosity, just avoidance.”
At 17, she escaped the small town where everyone knew — and judged — her and attended a summer art program at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
She went by the nickname Xoey in hopes she wouldn’t be recognized.
“Not a whole lot of people [at the school] knew,” she says. “Sometimes people would get clever and figure things out.”
Her future husband, Dan Kelly, was one of the first people Heather told.
It was surprisingly easy divulging her secret after a couple of weeks, she says.
“I was straight up about it, really,” she says, and remembers blurting out the story at his house one night.
“There’s some people you get closer and closer to, and it’s just not right not telling them,” she says.
Kelly says his wife doesn’t live in fear of being recognized or taunted.
“There are some people who have less-favorable opinions,” he says.
Heather doesn’t spend time searching for all the “Vampire Killings” stories that still spread. She did, however, edit her own Wikipedia.org entry on the Internet because it spouted lies, she says.
Heather is working on her sculptures and sketches and hopes to finish art school next year. She acts in community theater near her home in central North Carolina and jokes about all the therapy she has had.
“It’s really about me learning,” she says of her life now.
Someday, Heather says, she’ll tell her story to the children she hopes to have.
Some things about Heather haven’t changed much in 10 years.
“I don’t have anything against goth,” she says. “I still wear black sometimes. It’s not like I’m happy sunshine girl.”
As for the rest of her family, Heather says she broke their silence with a Christmas card. A letter to relatives in 2002 described what she had been doing during the past years. And in the months before her grandmother died, Heather got a response.
“She called up, and we didn’t talk about it; we just said, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” she says.
Heather attended her grandmother’s funeral in 2003 and saw the rest of the family.
“It was weird because it’s a funeral, so you’re sad,” she says. “But it was weird because it was a family reunion.”
She’s expecting another family reunion at Christmas, when she will stay with her sister who still lives in Lake County. Heather says that despite the trauma of the killings, she and Jennifer have remained close. Other people she hasn’t seen in years simply remember her face.
“I can go to Lake County and get people turning their heads,” she says. “They definitely recognize me.”