Picture: Author Gilbert King, right, and producer Kelsey Decker created the nine-episode podcast "Bone Valley," which explores the case of Leo Schofield Jr., convicted in the 1987 murder of his wife, Michelle Schofield. King said he uncovered evidence supporting Schofield's claims of innocence.
The saga of Leo Schofield Jr. abounds in dramatic elements. ~ ~ ~
A woman stabbed 26 times, her body later found in a canal in Polk County. The suspect’s father discovering the corpse and claiming an “inner force” directed him to the site.
A convicted murderer maintaining his innocence for 35 years. A crucial fingerprint being identified years after the crime. Another man confessing to the murder and then seemingly recanting.
All of that captured the attention of Gilbert King, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Devil in the Grove,” a non-fiction book set in Lake County, Polk’s northern neighbor. After four years of investigation, King is releasing a nine-episode podcast, “Bone Valley,” which examines the Schofield case in granular detail.
Though this might seem like a spoiler, King came to the conclusion that Schofield did not kill his wife, Michelle Saum Schofield in 1987.
“The more and more I looked into it, the more and more I began to believe it was a wrongful conviction,” King said Friday by phone from his office in Brooklyn, New York.
King said he has made regular trips to Florida over the past 15 years, a period that includes his research for “Devil in the Grove,” which documented the prosecution of three Black men for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1949. The book also explored the legacy of the notorious longtime Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who was present for the fatal shooting of another suspect under suspicious circumstances.
Florida posthumously exonerated the “Groveland Four” last year.
King said he learned about Schofield’s case after giving a talk about “Devil in the Grove” at a judicial conference in Naples in 2018. “One of the people in attendance approached me and said, ‘This is a case you should know about. There’s an innocent man in prison for the last three decades,’” King said. “And he was the one who gave me the tipoff about this.”
At the time, King was at work on another book and had other projects planned. The stranger, a judge who had been involved with the Schofield case as a lawyer much earlier, urged King to at least read the court transcripts from Schofield’s case. King heeded that suggestion, and as he read the documents he agreed that it seemed to be a case of a wrongful conviction.
“I just kind of got really fascinated by it — this was back in the summer of 2018 — and sort of put my whole book project on hold and started to dive into it, thinking maybe I would just do a feature story or something like that,” King said. “But then I just got absolutely obsessed with it as I began to learn more and more.”
Here are the basic details of the case, taken from previous reporting in The Ledger: Schofield, then 21 and a Lakeland resident, reported his 18-year-old wife missing in February 1987, launching a search by law enforcement. Three days later, Schofield’s father found Michelle’s body submerged beneath a piece of plywood in a phosphate pit along State Road 33 near Interstate 4.
Sheriff’s deputies soon arrested Schofield and charged him with first-degree murder. At his trial in 1989, a neighbor testified that she had seen the couple arguing just before Michelle’s reported disappearance. The neighbor also told investigators that she had observed Schofield carrying something heavy from their mobile home and later cleaning inside the dwelling.
The prosecution presented no physical evidence at the trial tying Schofield to the crime. A jury convicted him, and he received a life sentence.
Michelle’s vehicle had been found abandoned along I-4 after her disappearance, and investigators had detected a fingerprint that didn’t match Schofield’s. In 2004, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, using improved technology, matched the print with Jeremy Scott, a man serving a life sentence for another murder.
Schofield, now 56, sought a new trial based on the fingerprint evidence but was denied. During an evidentiary hearing in 2017, Scott said he had seen Michelle Schofield at a convenience store and had asked her for a ride. Inside the car later, he said, he dropped a hunting knife while reaching for a cigarette, and Michelle responded by hitting him, after which he “lost it” and stabbed her.
But Scott seemed to withdraw his confession after a prosecutor showed him autopsy photos of Michelle, saying, “I didn’t do that.” Prosecutors said Scott's practice of stealing from abandoned vehicles explained the presence of his fingerprint in the car.
Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals in 2020 rejected Schofield’s bid for a new trial, supporting a circuit judge’s ruling that Scott’s belated confession lacked credibility. The court said Scott had told Schofield’s defense team that he would confess in exchange for $1,000.
King said he has interviewed Schofield — now being held at Hardee Correctional Institution near Wauchula — multiple times, both in person and through phone calls and correspondence. The former contributor to The New York Times and the Washington Post said that Scott ignored his initial correspondences but eventually responded and agreed to a prison interview last year.
“He was extraordinarily candid and very relaxed and just told the whole story and gave me so many more details that we were able to corroborate,” King said. King said Scott had been off his medications and agitated when he appeared in court to talk about Michelle Schofield’s killing. The author said Scott presented a much different manner during the two-hour interview and said that he had killed Michelle.
“He maintains it,” King said. “In fact, he's much more detailed and much more specific. And he gives details that we were able to corroborate. And that's one of the things I think that's most extraordinary about this story is, the more you learn about the case and the more Jeremy Scott speaks, the more the evidence points to him and away from Leo Schofield.” King said Scott revealed details about the crime scene that were captured in forensic photos but not collected as evidence.
The author asserts that Scott did not actually recant his confession during the 2017 court hearing. King says Scott reacted to a gruesome photo showing Michelle’s decomposed body and that his statement — “I didn’t do that” — reflected the changed appearance of the corpse. King said Scott later restated his responsibility.
Schofield became eligible for parole after serving 25 years but has so far been denied release. (Florida eliminated parole in the 1990s, but it remains a possibility for those convicted earlier.)
Kelsey Decker, a researcher turned producer who assisted King on the project, interviewed Jerry Hill, the retired State Attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit, after Hill spoke against Schofield’s parole at a hearing in 2020.
King said investigators have recommended parole for Schofield, whom he described as “a model inmate,” but prosecutors always argue against his release, saying he hasn’t expressed remorse.
“I believe that's extraordinarily unfair,” King said. “Leo Schofield has maintained his innocence since day one. The fact that he's refusing to apologize for something that he says he didn't do seems to be held against him every time he shows up for parole.”
Jacob Orr, a spokesperson for the State Attorney’s Office, shared orders from two judges denying Schofield’s requests for post-conviction relief and the order from the appeals court denying his bid for a new trial.
Orr cited excerpts from the judicial rulings. In 2010, Circuit Judge Keith Spoto ruled the “evidence presented at trial against the defendant was strong and sufficient for a jury to convict the defendant.”
Circuit Judge Kevin Abdoney ruled in 2018 after the evidentiary hearing that Scott was “not credible” and “could not recount facts accurately.” The appellate court panel wrote that Scott’s testimony at the hearing had been “to put it mildly, bizarre.” The court said that Scott had confessed to every murder in Polk County in 1987 and 1988.
“The defense has argued that Jeremy Scott is the killer for years,” Orr said in an emailed statement. “This issue has been litigated extensively. It has been ruled on by multiple judges. It seems this is an attempt to promote a podcast.”
King has written three books and numerous articles for newspapers and magazines but had never before been involved with a podcast. He said his research for previous projects often involved old cases with few living principals available to interview.
“In this case, I was meeting with people, talking to them, and they're telling such great stories, and they're really charismatic characters,” King said. “The lawyers, the judges — even (Polk County Sheriff) Grady Judd, we spoke to him. I was like, ‘We have to do a podcast. These voices are just too great, and we have so many of them.’”
King said Judd was not directly involved with investigating the Schofield case. Judd talked about the turmoil the agency was facing in 1987, the year Sheriff Dan Daniels — who had connections to the Ku Klux Klan — resigned following a blistering grand jury report.
King has spoken twice in recent years at Florida Southern College as part of the Florida Lecture Series. He said he has formed lasting connections in Polk County through his lectures and research on the Schofield case.
The first two episodes of “Bone Valley” have been released, with seven more to follow. The podcast — named for an area of Polk County in which phosphate mining has uncovered remains of prehistoric animals — is produced by Lava for Good and available on popular podcast platforms and at www.lavaforgood.com.
The podcast and the Schofield case will be the subject of an episode of ABC’s “20/20” scheduled air on Friday.