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10. Rosemary

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

Almost one year after The Ledger ran it's Ralph Miller series, they covered the murder trial of a man named Dennis Wayne Smith. Smith was facing trial for the death of a young man named James Wagner. Wagner went missing shortly before Miller, and Ralph's mother suspected their murders were linked. Dennis Wayne Smith eventually admitted to police that he lived off-and-on with Sara, the woman known as the "Witch of Lakeland." He also claimed that he knew what happened to Ralph Miller. In order to reveal how Wagner and Miller may be linked, we're going revisit the reports on the James Wagner murder. Wagner was one of many young adults and children who went missing in Lakeland back in the 1960s. Because so little information exists about Miller's case, we will be looking at Wagner's murder in an attempt to find any information linking the two young men. The article below is the first mention of Dennis Wayne Smith's involvement in Ralph's disappearance, as well as the true identity of the Witch of Lakeland. From here, we will go back to the original reports of the James Wagner murder.

The following has been transcribed from an original 1976 Lakeland Ledger digital newspaper archive. This article has been re-typed and organized from existing digital Lakeland Ledger archives; I've simply transcribed them for informational and readability purposes. I do not claim any ownership/authorship of these particular articles.

The Lakeland Ledger original newspaper article - Wednesday, September 22nd, 1976.

Sourced from Google News Lakeland Ledger Digital Archives.


The Lakeland Ledger:

Wednesday, September 22nd, 1976

Smith Tells About Missing Youth

Believed Killed in 1970

By Tom Roe Oldt | Ledger Staff Writer

BARTOW - Two second-degree murder please were accepted from convicted killer Dennis Wayne Smith Tuesday after he provided law enforcement officers with detailed information about missing Lakeland youth Ralph Miller who is believed to have been killed six years ago next Sunday.

Smith pleaded guilty to murdering Caleb McDowell and no contest to the slaying of James Wagner, both of whom were Lakeland residents. Circuit Judge Oliver Green immediately imposed two consecutive life sentences on Smith but ordered that they run concurrently with Smith's death sentence from an earlier murder conviction.

The negotiated settlement came in late afternoon after 11 jurors had already been picked to hear Smith's trial for the murder of McDowell, who was shot to death and burned in the trunk of his car Aug. 3, 1973.

Behind locked doors in a courtroom one of the Hall of Justice, Smith told law enforcement officers and prosecutors what he knew about the disappearance of Miller of Lakeland, who was 17 the day he was last seen by friends and family - Sept. 26, 1970.

Smith's revelations provide police with the first break they have received on the long-dormant Miller case. Smith is believed to have been with Miller on the night of his murder or to have known who was with the missing teenager.

Investigators believe a woman Smith lived with intermittently six years ago may have ordered the death of Miller because she thought he was an undercover narcotics agent. The middle-aged woman, whose name is Rosemary Herrera, was known as the "Witch of Lakeland," due to her sway over a group of drug-oriented teenagers with Satanic inclinations.

Miller was allegedly beaten to death after being forced to ingest a high quantity of LSD. His body was never found but it is believed to have been buried in a citrus grove near Banana Lake south of the Lakeland Highlands area.

The Polk County Sheriff's Department has previously tried to locate Miss Herrera in California, where she used to maintain ties with the Hells Angels.

When Judge Oliver Green called the partially selected jury back in court to explain that the plea bargaining arrangement canceled the need for a trial, he only hinted at Smith's cooperation in the Miller case.

"These matters have been completed and a good deal more," the judge told a packed courtroom of potential and already seated jurors. Then Green made a pitch for a new courthouse facility to the assembled four-score onlookers.

Green also sentenced Smith's accomplice in the triple murders. Three concurrent life sentences for the first-degree murder were given to Wesley Irvin Johnson, 20, who will not be eligible for parole for 25 years. The handcuffed and shackled Johnson was led into court several minutes after Smith was escorted out.

Smith's two life sentences are for second-degree murder, which carries a minimum sentence of six months. However, Smith is presently under sentence of death for his conviction in the killing of Mulberry construction foreman John Mitchell Arnsdorff. The case is on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Wearing a blue blazer and maroon slacks, Smith stood with his hands on the bench before Green and quietly answered, "Yes, sir," when asked if he was pleading guilty to the murder of McDowell because he was, in fact, guilty.

Sheriff's deputies Syd Boydston, Al Lang, and Chuck Kenney interviewed Smith for more than an hour in the sealed off courtroom yesterday afternoon before the plea negotiation was formalized.

Prosecutor Robert McDonald and defense attorneys Ray McDaniel and Joe Williams were also present during Smith's questioning and later agreed to the plea terms.

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