Some places are only evil in retrospect. Something horrible happens and people see the act for only the events that took place. Later, with time to contemplate what has happened and the benefit of hindsight, we see the stage might have had a bigger part in the play than the plot itself. We look forward from that evil event and see the place as tainted somehow. The circumstance now becomes the cause of all the bad that happens after it, the trigger for the darkness that finds its way to the place. Take a step back though. History usually tells us that what we thought was the cause of tragedies taking place is often just the effect of something that happened before, and with enough perspective, enough moving back of the camera, you can tell some places have been drawing this kind of thing in for longer than we know. The places themselves might even just be evil.
Most people will tell you Gerard Schaefer is the root of the evil that lurks in Oak Hammock Park in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He fits the part well, having confessed or been linked to the killing of more than 30 women in a short time span in the late 60s and early 70s before being caught, convicted, and eventually killed by a fellow inmate. His habit of physically and psychologically torturing his victims, often visiting them afterwards to be with them after death and keeping souvenirs, makes him one of the more sinister serial killers in American history, even for a murderer working out of Florida. His friends in jail included Ted Bundy and Ottis Toole, the latter of whom was suspected of setting up Schaefer’s death. All of this from a man who was once known as a soldier, teacher, and officer of the law.
Schaefer’s actions, how many women he killed, how he killed them, what his motives were, are the sort of lies and blurry area serial killers often build around themselves after they are caught. He was no different as his jailhouse confessions and contradicts seduced people in to listening to him and debating his place in the pantheon of other murders, but ultimately left people instead arguing over how much of what he said could be trusted or backed up. It is no wonder then, all these years later, that the spot of one of one of his crimes should take on a life of its own and unfold as one of the most notoriously haunted locations in Florida.
Maybe its this embracing of the folklore of his own life that encouraged Schaefer to deny he had killed anyone in the one spot most closely connected to his name.
Tripping on Legends had first heard of the Devil’s Tree in the early days of the show. I had found several location around Florida all obsessed with the idea that somehow there was something evil in these places.
The Devil’s Tree is located in a corner of Oak Hammock Part in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and has been deeply rooted in the area since before there was even a park. It’s a sprawling tree with branches that seem intent on trying to get away from the massive trunk they are connected to. It’s set off from the main area of the park, on a path between the swing sets and a canal Schaefer is rumored to have carried the two young women he killed in on. If you were walking you might even ignore it if it were not for its intimidating size among the smaller trees that surround it and the odd blackened shapes on the trunk, as if someone had tried to burn the tree, which appear on all sides.
The tree acts as a sort of touchstone for the darkness that is said to lurk in the area. Black figures have been spotted near the tree at night, and the rumors and folklore say they are not all human. There have been reports of rituals being held there and men with robes wandering the woods nearby and near the great oak, but some have also claimed to see what they describe as people made of black smoke. These figures, sometimes referred to as shadow people or shadowmen, are somewhat common in areas where there is heightened paranormal activity. Another theory, the one spread most by those who see them or hear the stories and are not as familiar with ghost television shows, is that these are demons or dark spirits who are drawn to the forest and feed of the negative energy there.
Either theory might be right, but only one horrible act can be confirmed as having happened there. In April of 1973 the remains of Susan Place, 17, and Georgia Jessup, 16, were discovered on Hutchinson Island, a little over twenty miles from where the tree sits. They had been missing since late September and suspicion quickly fell on a deputy for the Martin County Sheriff’s office. Gerard John Schaefer had committed a crime similar to it in 1972. The two teens he picked up hitchhiking had been bound, threatened physically and sexually, and left hanging from a tree on Hutchinson Island. They had escaped when he was called on his police radio, and after they had made their way to the police station, the very station he worked at, he claimed he had done all of it to scare them into never hitchhike again. He was convicted and served time for that attack.
The crimes were similar enough, and Schaefer’s rapidly deteriorating image was tainted enough, that he was brought in for questioning on the murders. A search warrant was executed for the house he and his wife shared with his mother. Among the items found were fictional stories filled with details of unsolved murders, including the death of his former neighbor, personal effects and jewelry from crime scenes, and a torn ID and a book of poetry belonging to a hitchhiker from Iowa who had gone missing a few months before.
This hitchhiker, Collette Goodenough and her friend Barbara Wilcox, both 19, had made their way from the Midwest in late 1972, last being seen in Mississippi in early 1973 on their way to Florida. Their bodies were eventually discovered in 1977 a few hundred yards from the Devil’s Tree. The reports say they had been hung from the tree and then cut down and disposed of in the thick growth nearby. Other reports say they were hung much closer to where their bodies were found. Although he both denied and embraced the attacks and murders of these women at different times for the rest of his life, the truth remains that at least five women were confirmed murdered, all connected to the deputy sheriff. He was convicted in 1973 of the two murders on Hutchinson Island and was sentenced to two life sentences but died in jail after being assaulted by another inmate.
If all of this seems confusing, you can understand why so much lore might develop around the murders and why people might confuse the details and fuse the events together. There are even some details being left out. Schaefer accused the DA of setting him so he could marry his wife. He was accused of informing on serial killer Ottis Toole for the famous murder of Adam Walsh. The definitive study of the case was written and published by an old friend of his. The list goes on and on.
It is that element of the story, that grasping at what might be truth, what might be lies, and what might be myth, that allows his acts to be so deeply associated with the Devil’s Tree. There is just enough truth in all the stories for him to have killed the women at the tree and cut them down later to visit them. There’s just enough confusion for people to believe a bit of his evil is left in the woods there.
The tree is now famous. In addition to the reports of hooded and dark figures, people have reported seeing shadows of bodies hanging from the twisted branches. They hear the whimpers and cries of the women in the public bathroom nearby. At times, people say, if you touch the tree the world seems to stop, that all the wildlife and noise around drops away, like you’re in a bubble.
The tree is also said to be indestructible. According to news articles published, several times the tree has been slated for destruction and people have been unable to complete the task. Saws used to try and cut it down have broken. The tree has been set on fire several times, but instead of catching and burning down, odd marks, like monsters and demons, have formed in the wood instead. One of the most persistent legends about the tree is that if you take a piece of the bark, bad things will happen to you.
Other details have added to the legend in the years since the murders. Throughout the woods near the tree are the ruins of houses that have been torn down and forgotten. People in the area, including the historical society, have no idea what the foundations are from, but their place in the area lead to the story that one of these was Schaefer’s house and was the location where the evidence was found.
This points at something perhaps tainted about the area. While most of Port St. Lucie exploded after its founding, something made this area fail. Why was construction stopped there? More importantly, why was there a battle for the land between the town and a religious school which tried to use the area for their school. The school lost the battle and set up camp only a few miles away, and since has been the target of multiple accusations of sexual and physical abuse.
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