A Secret Serial Killer
An American Serial Killer
Crime Spree: January 3, 1971 / September 15, 2004
Was Carl Brandt a secret serial killer who finally had only one way out?
The story begins here…
Michelle Jones was a successful TV executive living in Orlando, Florida. When a hurricane threatened the Florida Keys, Michelle invited her aunt and uncle to take shelter with her up in Orlando.
Days later, Michelle and that aunt were discovered savagely murdered: the uncle having obviously committed suicide.
As correspondent Susan Spencer reports, the investigation would unravel a dark family secret and lead detectives to the possibility they were dealing with a (now dead) serial killer.
It has now been many long years since the shocking murder of Michelle Jones, but her best friends, Lisa Emmons and Debbie Knight, still feel the loss.
“She wanted so much more out of life, but she was robbed,” says Debbie.
Michelle was 37, single and a successful executive at The Golf Channel in Orlando, Florida.
The three women had been friends since they were teenagers, but the events that would tear them apart began Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2004. A violent storm, Hurricane Ivan, gathered in the Atlantic, prompting an evacuation of the Florida Keys.
“Michelle kept an extra-close watch on it because her aunt and uncle lived there,” recalls Lisa.
“She said, ‘Of course, come stay with me,’ ” Debbie adds.
To Michelle’s delight, the aunt and uncle, Teri and Charlie, aka Carl Brandt, did come for the weekend. Michelle was close to both her aunt and uncle, but especially to Teri, her mother’s sister.
“Twenty minutes after they got there I got the phone call from Michelle. ‘Teri and Charlie are here, where are you? Why aren’t you over here?’ ” remembers Lisa. “They were all just hanging out.”
“Michelle had a Jacuzzi and a pool. She had a lovely home,” Debbie adds.
The Call of Concern
Meanwhile in North Carolina, Michelle’s mother, Mary Lou, wondered how the weekend was going. “We were very close, very close. We talked almost every day,” she remembers.
So Mary Lou was puzzled when Michelle didn’t pick up the phone. “We placed a call to Michelle Monday night and Tuesday night. We got her voice mail,” Mary Lou recalls. By Wednesday night, there was still no answer and Mary Lou was beginning to get very worried.
She called Debbie, asking her to go check on Michelle and stayed on the phone as Debbie walked up the drive to Michelle’s home.
Debbie says she thought something was wrong and was worried about what she would find. When her key wouldn’t open the front door, she headed to the back, with Mary Lou still on the phone.
“There was a garage door with almost all glass. So you could see in,” Debbie recalls. “I was instantly in shock.”
Inside the garage, she could see Carl Brandt, Charlie, hanging from a rafter.
Even Rob Hemmert, the lead investigator, had to steel himself for the gruesome scene in the sweltering garage. “I could see Carl hanging from the rafters in the garage. He was hanging from a bed sheet, which was around his neck and there was a ladder close by to his body,” he explains.
Carl Brandt had apparently committed suicide.
The Smell of Death
Little could Hemmert imagine what else awaited him inside Michelle’s meticulous house.
“It was just a nice home. It had that feminine kind of feel to it. All of those nice decorations yet the aroma was masked by the smell of death,” Hemmert says.
Teri sat slumped on the living room couch. She had been stabbed seven times in the chest. Michelle’s mutilated body, decapitated, with her heart removed, was in her room.
All three bodies were locked inside the house and Hemmert says there was no indication of any type of struggle or fight. That led the investigator to one inescapable conclusion: Carl Brandt had committed the murders and then hung himself.
As Hemmert pieced events together, the evening seemed to have started innocently enough. “I know they had dinner together. Carl cooked some type of fish. It looks like they may have had some drinks, some wine and so forth,” he explains.
But after dinner, Michelle spoke with Lisa and told her not to come over. “She said Teri and Carl had been arguing and they weren’t in the best of company. They had a little too much to drink. She was tired and she wanted to go to sleep,” Lisa recalls.
A Planned Murder
Hemmert learned that although the Brandt’s had planned to leave that day, their bags sat in the front hall, because Carl insisted on staying the extra night.
“There was no reason for them to stay behind,” Hemmert says. “The hurricane had passed so he chose to stay for a reason. I think that was because he knew what he was going to do.”
Carl Brandt used Michelle’s own kitchen knives to kill both her and his wife. “Teri was killed in a quick, repeated stabbing-type attack to her chest. In comparison, Michelle had one stab wound to the chest,” Hemmert explains.
Hemmert says Carl then carefully put her blood-soaked clothes in the bathroom sink, before dismembering Michelle’s body. “It all took time. And it took thought,” he says.
Mary Lou just couldn’t accept that this monstrous crime was the work of the mild-mannered brother-in-law she had known for 17 years. “When they described what had happened to Michelle, it was even beyond description,” says Mary Lou.
The crime was just as incomprehensible to Michelle’s horrified friends, who considered Carl a bit of an oddball, but certainly no threat.
A Loving Man
“He was just very quiet and reserved,” Lisa remembers. “He would just sit back and observe. Michelle and I used to call him eccentric.”
But Carl was well suited to Teri’s carefree personality”, says Debbie. “Teri was gypsy-like. Just happy-go-lucky. Nothing bothered her. She was a wonderful person. Very kind, very sweet,” she says.
Teri’s closest friend, Melanie Fecher, said Teri and Carl were inseparable. “If my husband could love me one-third the amount that Carl loved Teri, I’d be the luckiest woman in the whole world,” she says.
Melanie says she never detected any problems in Teri’s marriage, saying they never argued, that she never saw him get angry and that, to her knowledge, Carl didn’t have a temper.
Everyone agreed that it had seemed a perfect match. “They often did things for each other that would make each other feel good,” says Hemmert. “One of those things was that they would make their lunches for each other. Because the lunch tasted better when it was made by the one who loved you.”
Yet Carl stabbed his wife seven times. He left no note or an explanation. But the first hints came a few days later from an unexpected source: Carl’s older sister, Angela.
Angela was supposed to join other relatives for a briefing by police, but she didn’t show. “She was in a car in the parking lot. She basically came to us and said there’s something I need to tell you people,” explains Hemmert.
Angela shared with investigators an explosive secret, a secret her distraught family had kept hidden for more than three decades.
She told her story on tape to a stunned Hemmert, telling him exactly what happened on a hellish night in January 1971.
At the time, Angela was 15 and Carl was 13. They lived with their parents and two younger sisters in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
It was just after 9 p.m. and Angela was reading in her room. “My mom was in a bath and my dad was shaving. I heard my father yell, ‘Charlie don’t’ or ‘Charlie stop!'” Angela tells Hemmert.
“Carl walked into a bathroom while his father was shaving and shot him in the back. He immediately went down. Charlie then stood over his mother, she was in a bathtub, and fired several rounds into her body. He killed her. She was eight months pregnant,” says Hemmert.
The First Murder
“The last thing I remember hearing my mom say was ‘Angela, call the police,’ “she tells Hemmert. But Angela had no time. She told Hemmert that after shooting their mother, Carl had turned the gun on her but that it wouldn’t fire. “The next thing she knew they were physically fighting.”
She said she tried desperately to calm her brother down by telling him how much she loved him. “I saw the madness, the glazed over look. I saw it disappear,” Angela tells Hemmert.
With her brother calmed down, Angela ran out of the house screaming in her bloody, torn nightgown. She ran through the snow to her neighbor’s home and pounded on the front door, startling then-16-year-old Sandi Radcliffe.
But by the time Sandi got to the door, Angela had already headed to another house; instead, it was Carl waiting outside. “There was just a ‘knock, knock’ and I opened up the door and he goes, ‘Sandi, I just shot my mom and dad,'” she recalls.
Newspaper reports of the murder were sketchy; it was portrayed as a freakish crime by a quiet kid — the last kid on earth, friends said, who would shoot anyone, much less kill his mother.
“That’s why this whole incident was such a shock because they were very close, incredibly so. He was a mama’s boy,” says Sandi.
Only a few crime scene photos survive in the Fort Wayne police archives. Dan Figel, then a young detective, was in charge of the investigation. When the call came, he remembers hurrying to the hospital, hoping that Carl’s critically wounded father would survive and be able to explain what had happened.
“He just kept saying, ‘I don’t know why my son did this. I have no idea as to why my son did this,'” Figel remembers.
But he did confirm that his son had done it and Figel proceeded to take the boy into custody. “He was in shock. His eyes were dilated and he couldn’t understand why he had done this,” says Figel.
Police didn’t know what to make of their 13-year-old killer. The Indiana courts ordered that Carl Bradt undergo three separate psychological evaluations.
No Mental Illness
One was with psychiatrist Ronald Pancner, who agreed with his two colleagues that Carl was something of a mystery.
“Basically, I was looking for mental illness. And he wasn’t showing the signs and symptoms of any serious mental illness, which I thought was what the court wanted to know,” says Pancner.
Pancner talked with Carl about his friends, his family, his interests, trying to uncover some underlying problem. “This kid did well in school. He didn’t get into any trouble. He loved his family. And the family said that he was a loving kid. So, there wasn’t anything to diagnose,” the psychiatrist explains.
But there was something wrong with him.
“To the layperson, this doesn’t make sense. The guy killed his pregnant mother. He shot his father. Why doesn’t he have a mental illness? But he doesn’t have a diagnosable mental illness,” Pancner says. “We found no psychosis, no distorted thinking that would basically be a reason for this crime to be done.”
When asked why Carl Brandt turned violent, Pancner says, “We don’t know.”
Whatever his demons in Indiana, 13-year-old Carl was still too young to be held criminally responsible for his crimes. So he never was charged with murder, and he was never brought to trial. Instead, a grand jury investigated and issued an ominous warning, writing that such anti-social conduct could repeat itself in the future.
Carl Brandt was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed just over a year, only until his forgiving father could win his release. Herbert Brandt then pulled up stakes and moved the entire family, including ‘Charlie’, to Florida.
“He never spoke to Carl about what took place,” says Hemmert. “Never said, ‘Hey Charlie, why did you shoot me? Why did you kill your mother?’ You know? ‘What were you thinking? How about an apology?’ None of those things. He just accepted him back into the home as if nothing happened.”
Even Carl’s two baby sisters, too young to remember, were never told the truth about their mother’s death, all of which infuriates Michelle’s parents, Bill and Mary Lou.
“There’s something wrong here. There’s something wrong with a system that allows a 13-year-old boy to kill his mother, to try to kill his father and an older sister and nothing was done,” says Mary Lou.
Both Mary Lou and Bill are sure that, years later, Carl never told his wife, Teri.
“I don’t think she would have married him, period, at all had she known,” explains Bill.
The Jones’ say that, to this day, Herbert and Angela Brandt never have acknowledged that telling Teri might have saved lives.
Mary Lou says Herbert and Angela should have known that Carl had the potential and capacity to kill. She added that Herbert has never made any effort “to say how sorry he was that this happened to us.”
For Michelle’s best friend, Debbie, the anger goes even deeper. “Carl’s father should be exposed. He knew what his son did. He knew the crimes he did. I would love to see him sitting right next to me ’cause I find him guilty,” she says.
Herbert, now 75, lives in Florida, as does Angela, now 51.
But talking with them didn’t much help Hemmert understand the twisted psyche of Carl Brandt. He would find those clues in the Florida Keys, right where Carl left them.
Four hundred miles from Orlando, the Brandts’ house on Big Pine Key sat frozen in time, boarded up meticulously in preparation for the storm.
“I’d never seen anything like it. Carl Brandt took it to the extreme. Every piece of wooden panel that was cut for each window looked like it had been custom-fit. The holes for the doorknobs on the French doors were meticulously cut. Perfectly round circles,” explains Hemmert.
It was something one might expect from an engineer. Carl worked as a radar technician.
Inside the house, things were just as precise. The first shock came when Hemmert stepped into the Brandts’ bedroom and spotted a graphic poster of the female anatomy on the back of the bedroom door.
“Her hair’s put up in a bun. Which I had never seen before. And it’s showing the skeletal system and the muscular system,” Hemmert explains, describing the doctor’s office-style poster.
Teri would have seen the poster every day and Hemmert wonders whether she hadn’t considered it a big deal. “Carl and Teri were not in the medical profession. We saw no reason for that chart to be there. What is this doing in someone’s home?” he wonders.
The investigator had an unsettling answer to his own question. “I’m looking at a chart that’s got these portions of the body exposed. And he’s virtually duplicated or exposed some of those areas of the body in what he did with Michelle,” Hemmert explains.
And there were other eerie reminders, including medical books, journals, and an anatomy book. “And in that book there was a newspaper clipping that showed a human heart,” says Hemmert. “Knowing what he did to Michelle and then finding those things, it all started to make sense.”
As did the Victoria’s Secret catalogs found in the house, addressed to Carl. “He always referred to Michelle as ‘Victoria Secret.’ He gave her that name. And he never referred to her as Michelle,” says Hemmert.
Far from being just a friendly uncle, to the horror of the Jones family, Carl had been secretly infatuated with his own niece.
Bill Jones says his daughter would have been livid had she known about the infatuation.
Hemmert thinks Carl was obsessed with Michelle. “He was fascinated by her, and I think ultimately he intended on killing her. I think that’s evident in the way he spoke about her and the things that he looked at on the Internet,” he says.
Not The First Time
When investigators examined Brandt’s computer, they found he had been on ghastly Web sites that featured death fantasies, necrophilia and violence against women.
“You saw where he may have gotten some of his ideas and thoughts and fantasies from,” says Hemmert. “The thing that we noted immediately was that the things he did with her body did not appear to be someone who had done this for the fist time.”
Hemmert was quite sure, if he looked hard enough, he would find evidence that Carl Brandt was a serial killer. The only real question was how many other victims had there been over some 30 years. To answer that, police first tried to match their unsolved murders with Brandt’s travels in the United States and abroad.
Potential cases poured in and investigators weeded through them by focusing on those with specific similarities to Carl’s murder of Michelle.
Criminal profiler Leslie D’Ambrosia has been asked to analyze dozens of these cold cases. “There’s no boilerplate profile for a – quote – serial killer. It doesn’t exist. It’s all individual; it’s based on a person’s life experiences and everyone has a different life experience.”
Carl’s trademark was precision and a methodical technique. “How a person normally behaves is translated into how they carry their crimes out,” says D’Ambrosia. “He’s quite organized and planned in what he does. He’s intelligent, very reliable, very responsible.”
And, to the outside world, Carl Brandt was just an ordinary guy. Teri’s diaries, found in the house, reflected that very ordinary life.
“They weren’t detailed writings, they were just something very simple from, went fishing, caught a good bull dolphin, to nice dinner with ‘Charlie’. Boat ran out of gas. Buy steaks for dinner,” explains Hemmert.
There were few hints of anything wrong. “We only found a couple of interesting notations and those were ‘weird day.’ But there’s nothing more specific, and we have no idea what occurred to cause her to write that,” says Hemmert.
Teri also noted times when Carl was out late, even out all night, but never added explanations in her diary entries.
Musician Jim Graves spent time with Carl Brandt in the 1980’s, when he was married to Angela. He’ll never forget the day she confided in him that, decades before, ‘Charlie had shot their parents, killing their pregnant mother’.
“I came home one day and she was crying rather uncontrollably and said she had something that she absolutely had to talk to me about,” Jim recalls. But he says that, after getting to know him, it seemed clear that whatever had happened years before, Carl was OK now.
Carl Brandt Marries
“He was so gentle that when there was a bug in the house he would refuse to step on it and carried it outside,” Jim remembers.
Today, Jim regrets that he didn’t pay more attention, especially during one instance after he and Angela split up and the two men got to talking.
“We were havin’ a few beers after fishing all day and everything. I was just really despondent. Somehow we started talking about revenge. Well you know you get your feelings hurt and wanna lash out. I believe he looked at me and said, ‘Well, if you really wanna get revenge, you should kill somebody and cut their heart out,’ ” Jim recalls. “It creeped me out at the time.”
But Jim dismissed it and, years later, when a new girlfriend wanted to fix up her friend Teri, Jim called Carl Brandt.
“No way in the world would I know that they would fall in love and get married!” says Jim.
Carl and Teri married on Aug. 29, 1986. Jim was their best man.
“I did have a conversation with ‘Charlie’. And I insisted that he inform her of his past,” Jim says.
He says Carl did tell Teri about the 1971 shooting. “After they got married and I went down to visit them I asked them when they were gonna have kids. And she told me, considering everything, that she didn’t think it was a good idea.”
Jim took her response to mean that she knew.
“Here’s the thing about Carl Brandt that’s disturbing, beyond what we already know, is how he commits his crimes,” says D’Ambrosia. “He’s very well traveled. For many years, he has traveled all over the United States and even outside the United States.”
More than 30 years had elapsed from the time he shot his mother until he killed his wife and niece, and what investigators desperately want to know is how many other crimes Carl “Charlie” Brandt committed.
D’Ambrosia doesn’t think we’ll ever know how many murders Carl is responsible for. But she is working with Hemmert and a task force from around the state to at least try to narrow it down.
In the search for unsolved murders that fit Brandt’s peculiar profile, one case immediately jumped out.
It was the 1995 murder of Darlene Toler, a prostitute in Miami’s Little Havana section.
Det. Pat Diaz handled the investigation and remembers that it was an unusual case. Like Michelle Jones, Toler had been decapitated and had her heart removed.
Toler’s body was found along a highway. Apart from the manner of her death, two bits of evidence convince Diaz that Carl Brandt was the killer. “The body was wrapped up in a blanket, then wrapped up in plastic and tied, almost like a package,” he explains.
In that blanket, dog hairs were found; police also found dog hairs in the back of Brandt’s truck. Brandt’s truck also yielded another clue.
“Every time he put gas in the truck, he kept the mileage,” Diaz says.
In those mileage records, Diaz says, a spike occurs right around the time Toler was killed, 100 miles away from Brandt’s home.
Asked whether he thinks Carl Brandt drove from the Keys to Miami just looking for somebody, Diaz says, “He had come to Miami. Him and his wife worked opposite shifts. And he did what he had to do.”
DNA analysis of animal hair is difficult and costly, but police say that, if they get it, a match would close the Toler case.
“That’ll get me to 100 percent. It wouldn’t be 99, it’d be 100 percent,” says Diaz.
But a second murder, much closer to home fits the pattern even more convincingly. It dates back 17 years to a summer night in July 1989. It happened just four blocks from ‘Charlie’ Brandt’s house.
Under a bridge off Big Pine Key, local fishermen had made a frightening find. Initially thinking they were reeling in a mannequin, the fishermen actually discovered the body of a woman.
Monroe County Homicide Det. Trish Dally was the lead investigator in the murder of 38-year-old Sherry Perisho, a local woman who lived on a small rowboat.
“She had her bicycle that she would put on the bow of the boat and then she would take the boat out approximately 100 yards off shore and that’s where she lived,” Dally explains.
Investigators believe it was also where she died.
“What we believe happened is that she was placed on the bottom of the boat, possibly with her feet off the stern,” Dally says.
For years the boat has been locked away in the evidence yard. In the wood, one can see cutting marks, leading Dally to believe the bottom of the boat was used as a cutting table.
As with the other victims, Perisho was decapitated, her heart cut out. For years, all police had to go on was a sketch of a man spotted running across the highway near the scene. That is until ‘Charlie’s’ former brother-in-law, Jim Graves, revealed something Teri had told him just after the Perisho murder.
“She goes, ‘Well you know, somebody was killed not too far from our house. I’m thinkin’ about, you know, callin’ the sheriff.’ And I said, ‘Well, why?’ And she goes, ‘Well, because of ‘Charlie’s’ past,’ ” Graves recalls.
Stunned, Graves says he later confronted Carl Brandt. “I look at him and I said, ‘You know your wife thinks you might’ve committed this heinous act.’ And he was like, ‘I didn’t do it,’ ” he says.
“You didn’t think, ‘My God, you know, could he have done this?’ ” Spencer asks.
“You know, I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking at the time,” Graves replies.
But recently, when investigators were looking again at the Perisho murder, they talked with Graves, who, under oath, was much more specific about Teri’s story.
“She apparently found Carl downstairs and he had blood on him. And she asked him what had happened and he gave an excuse that he was filleting fish, although it was a workday, it was in the evening, she went ahead and believed him,” Det. Dally recalls.
Graves’ bombshell statement was enough to close the Perisho case, officially.
Still, questions persist why there is nothing about the incident in Teri’s diaries, or whether she really believed her husband’s explanation. If not, why did she stay with him?
Dally has her own theory. “You’re talking about somebody that you’re in a relationship with, you don’t want to believe somebody that you have you committed your life with would commit a crime, especially that heinous,” she explains.
But in the end, Carl Brandt fooled everyone.
“And that’s the sad part about this. These people were completely misled,” says Hemmert. “They knew Carl Brandt to be this guy that they could rely on, that was a friend and was there when they needed him. ‘We knew Charlie.’ They knew the ‘work’ Charlie. The ‘go out on the boat fishing’ Charlie. They didn’t know the true ‘Charlie’. We do.”
In the months since the murders of Michelle Jones and Teri Brandt, family and friends have struggled to accept their deaths.
Asked if he holds Herbert and Angela responsible for the murders, Bill says, “Well, I do, because they should have gotten the man help. And they knew he needed help.”
Mary Lou says Angela told her right after the murder that she had been terrified of Carl for years.
“Angela said that she was glad that Carl had committed suicide because now she could sleep at night,” says Mary Lou. “For 20-some years, she would not allow the air conditioner to run, the windows to be open and unlocked in her home because she was afraid. She was afraid ‘Charlie’ would come back to kill her.”
Despite what Jim Graves says, the Jones’ still find it hard to believe that Teri knew anything about her husband’s past.
“It’s just very hard for me to conceptualize my sister could know something about a person who could do what Carl Brandt did,” says Mary Lou. “If she knew that, could she have stayed with him? I don’t know. I don’t think so. In my heart I don’t believe so.”
Records from Carl’s brief stay in the psychiatric hospital might shed more light on his past, but the Brandt family refuses to allow the state to release them.
“They had a family secret,” says Mary Lou. “The tragedy is that they’re going to try and preserve the family secret.”
“I’d love to see the medical records and find out what type of treatment he had. If any. And how they handled him,” says Hemmert, who is left with a host of unresolved questions as well. “What triggered him back in ’71 to kill his mother? What actually was the breaking point for him? I don’t know.”
Asked what he would want to ask Carl if he had the opportunity, Hemmert says, “Why? What was going through your mind at that specific point in time that caused you to do what you did? And why was it so different than how you took the life of Michelle Jones versus your wife Teri?”
Mary Lou has her own theory of why Carl Brandt did what he did. “I believe he had a covert, evil nature, and I believe he was able to control it and cover it,” she says. “He was an invisible criminal walking around.”
An invisible criminal whose total number of victims is unlikely ever to be known, despite law enforcement’s best efforts.
“A lot of these cases are cold cases. They’re old. They may not have the physical evidence,” Hemmert explains. “They require an enormous amount of time and legwork. And the resources are limited everywhere. But we’re not going to give up.”
Nor will the Jones’, who want new laws to ensure that the outrage of Carl ‘Charlie’ Brandt never be repeated. They are pushing for a public database, much like that for sex offenders, including anyone of any age who ever has killed another person, regardless of the circumstances.
“If we can do something to help somebody else to prevent them from facing what we did, then Michelle’s life will have meaning. Teri’s life will have more meaning. There should not be ‘Charlies’ on the street,” says Mary Lou.
Charlie Brandt is gone, but for Hemmert this case is, in many ways, not closed.
“I still think about it every day what happened here,” he says. “Michelle and Teri and how evil Carl ‘Charlie’ Brandt really was.”
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