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14. James Wagner: Missing.

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

The following has been transcribed from an original 1975 Lakeland Ledger digital newspaper archive. This article has been re-typed and organized from existing digital Lakeland Ledger archives; I've transcribed them for informational and readability purposes. I do not claim any ownership/authorship of these particular articles.


The Lakeland Ledger:

Thursday, August 14, 1975

Missing Man Feared Murdered.

By Ledger Staff

Scuba Divers in the water, deputies in airplanes, and deputies on foot were searching a secluded phosphate area off Luther Road this morning for a possible murder victim, also possibly connected to the incident involving a man found burned in the trunk of a car.

Acting on a tip from The Ledger, Sheriff's Dept. Chuck Keeney, investigating the burning death of John M. Arnsdorff, was leading a major manhunt for the whereabouts of James "Jimmy" Wagner. It all began early Thursday afternoon when Wagner's parents, Phillip and Marjorie Wagner of 1105 Hartsell Ave., came into The Ledge to talk to reporters about their son's disappearance.

Dep. Keeney is conducting the search on the suspicion that Wagner may be victim of foul play. The parents said their 19-year-old-son left the house to pick up a newspaper in the yard. That incident occurred on the same night, July 28, that Arnsdorff was burned to death in the trunk of a car off Luther Road near Interstate 4.

They said their son vanished the same night. The senior Wagner, in recounting his son's whereabouts on the night he disappeared, told Ledger reporters, "He never came back in the house; he just vanished." The worried parents notified police he was missing. Then they began thinking of the friends and associates of their son, the mysterious surroundings involving the burning death of Arnsdorff, and the subsequent arrest of Dennis Wayne Smith of Lakeland on murder charges.

The parents recalled having heard their son speak of Arnsdorff, and the name "Lurch," the nickname given to Smith. Through investigations last night, the sheriff's department discovered Wagner and Arnsdorff were seen in the same bar for a few hours before Arnsdorff's body was found in the car trunk.

Deputies said last week blood was found in the trunk of Smith's Cadillac, indicating someone had been transported in there. There were also pry marks inside the trunk, deputies said. The blood and other evidence, including clothes possibly belonging to Wagner, is being examined in Washington, D.C.

Arnsdorff's burning car was found by a newspaper carrier early in the morning on July 29 on Lake Luther Road near Interstate 4 north of Lakeland.

The phosphate pit being searched today is about a half-mile from where Arnsdorff's body was found. The sheriff's department is using its spotter airplane in the search and scuba divers to investigate a water-filled pit.

Smith, 23, 728 Valencia St., Lakeland, was arrested Aug. 6 and charged with first-degree murder in connection with Arnsdorff's death. Smith is being held in Polk County jail without bond. Witnesses had earlier told police they had seen Arnsdorff and Smith together the night of July 28 in the Green Parrot bar in Lakeland, the same bar Wagner was at that night.

Sheriff Monroe Brannen last week a car similar to Smith's, a large white car, possibly a Cadillac, was seen in the Lake Luther Road area the morning of July 29. Brannen said at least two people had to be involved if two cars were in the area. The sheriff's department has been searching for other suspects in the case.

Arnsdorff, who lived on Jewell Avenue in Lakeland, had only been in Polk County about two weeks. He was transferred here from Jacksonville to the Mulberry branch office of the A.C. & S. Construction Co. Both Smith and the missing Wagner were unemployed construction workers. Wagner had worked for Universal Builders in Auburndale.

Wagner had only been in Lakeland since June, moving here from Georgia, Arnsdorff's former home. Wagner's parents said their son had quit his job a week before he disappeared. Officials at Universal builders said Wednesday was "real quiet" and was a loner.

The series of events which led today's massive search for Wagner unfolded this way Wednesday:

Wagner's parents, Phillip and Marjorie Wagner of Lakeland, visited the Ledger with the report their son has been missing for three weeks. They had filed a missing persons report with the Lakeland Police Department soon after their son's mysterious disappearance but did not reveal to police then any suspicious circumstances.

The Wagner's told a Ledger reporter their son had gone outside their home about 9:30 p.m. on July 28 to pick up a newspaper in the yard. They said that"Jimmy", who was a heavy smoker, left his cigarettes on a table along with a half-empty bottle of soda pop. "He just vanished, never came back in the house," the senior Wagner said. "Jimy wouldn't have gone anywhere long without his cigarettes. We were baffled."

The Wagner's said the night their son disappeared he was wearing a pair of Navy work jeans *he had served in the Navy for two years), a blue short-sleeved shirt, and boots. They added he had two tattoos, one being a Cobra that ran down the length of his right arm from his shoulder.

When the Wagners told The Ledger reporter their son was an unemployed construction worker, the reporter told them Arnsdorff was in construction and that maybe there was a connection with their disappearance. When Mrs. Wagner heard that comment, she said, "When I saw the headlines about the Arnsdorff's murder the morning after Jimmy disappeared, shivers ran down my spine."

Mrs. Wagner told the Ledger the names "Arnsdorff" and "Lurch" (the nickname used by Smith), were repeated in their home by Jimmy, who had not made many acquaintances in Polk County since his arrival here in June. She also said her son had taken an ocean cruise just prior to his disappearance. Sheriff's detectives have revealed that Arnsdorff also made a cruise, possibly to the Bahamas, shortly before his death.

The Ledger carried its investigation to Sheriff's Deputy Keeney, who is heading the Arnsdorff case for the sheriff's department Wednesday afternoon. After further investigation by his department and The Ledger Wednesday night, Keeney called for the search of the phosphate pit today.

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