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:
Friday, August 15, 1975
Wagner Search Continues.
By Calvin Engh and Jim Degenero | Ledger Staff Writers
James "Jimmy" Wagner is still missing.
Wagner is believed to be connected with the death of John M. Arnsdorff, whose charred body was found in the trunk of a burning car north of Lakeland July 29 on Lake Luther Road near Interstate 4.
Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Keeney said Thursday Wagner "is either a suspect or a victim" in the three-week-old- case. Keeney, who is heading the Arnsdorff murder investigation, made that statement following a several hour search by sheriff's deputies of a secluded phosphate pit about half mile from where Arnsdorff's body was found.
The sheriff's department used its spotter airplane, four-wheel-drive vehicles, deputies on foot, and SCUBA divers in the futile search over the rough terrain along I-4 about one mile east of the first rest area in the east-bound lane near Lakeland.
Deputies indicated Thursday they would return to the pit area today with a boat and draglines. The massive search for Wagner was prompted by information developed by The Ledger and turned over to Lt. Keeney Wednesday.
Sheriff's investigators had heard the name "Jimmy" mentioned since the beginning of their investigations but could not make a connection until The Ledger provided them with information about Wagner.
Wagner, 19, disappeared from his home at 1105 Hartsell Ave., in Lakeland, on the night of July 28 after going out his front yard to pick up a newspaper.
Sheriff's department and Ledger investigations have revealed that Wagner was acquainted with Arnsdorff and with Dennis Wayne Smith, 23, who was charged Aug. 6 with first-degree murder in connection with Arsndorff's death.
If Arnsdorff and Wagner knew each other, it would not be surprising:
• Both men were raised in small towns in Georgia.
• Both men had lived in Jacksonville at the same time (Wagner was stationed at the Naval air station there).
• Both men were in the construction field.
• Both men frequented the same local nightspots
• Both men were new to Polk County and were looking for friendships
• Both men collected old and rare coins
Until Thursday afternoon, neither Wagner's parents nor friends had seen or heard from him, However, a source who knew both Wagner and Arnsdorff, 33, said he had talked with the missing man on July 30 or 31 in a local tavern.
"He didn't seem nervous or frightened when I saw him at the bar. He was the same old Jimmy. He bummed some cigarettes from me just like always and left," the source said.
It must be noted, however, this source was only one of many persons interviewed by The Ledger Thursday who knew Wagner personally or recognized his photograph. No one other than the source Wagner allegedly borrowed cigarettes from claimed to have seen the slender, young man since his disappearance three weeks ago.
The sequence of events involved Wagner, Arnsdorff, and Smith since July have unfolded in this fashion:
• Arnsdorff and Smith were seen playing pool on the same table at the Green Parrot Bar in Lakeland, July 28 and they left together about 11 p.m.
• Wagner was also in the bar and had watched the other two men play pool. He left either shortly before or shortly after Arnsdorff and Smith.
• About 4:45 the morning of July 29 a newspaper carrier discovered Arnsdorff's green Ford Galaxie 500 burning on Lake Luther Road and called the sheriff's department.
• When sheriff's deputies first found the body in the trunk they could not determine the sex or race of the badly charred victim. Arnsdorff was later identified through dental charts sent to Polk County from Jacksonville where he had last worked.
• On Aug. 6 Sheriff's Sgt. Al Lange spotted Smith's car in Lakeland and arrested him on the first-degree murder charge. Other persons were thought to have been involved and the investigation continued. There were very few positive leads in the murder case until Wednesday when Wagner's parents came into The Ledger to talk about their son's disappearance.
• Phillip and Marjorie Wagner of Lakeland said their son had been threatened by a gang of young men who demanded money from him just prior to his disappearance. It was this fear of being beaten by the gang that lead to an automobile accident the junior Wagner was involved in during the ear;y hours of July 17, the parents said.
• Wagner was charged by Lakeland police with driving while intoxicated and fleeing to avoid arrest that morning after he smashed his car into a utility pole at Hancock Street and King Avenue. A passenger in Wagner's car, Lou Erwin Dahlman, 18, of Lakeland, was slightly injured. Wagner's parents said Thursday their son told them that he fled from police because he mistook their cruiser for a car belonging to one of the gang members who had made threats against him.
• Eleven days later Wagner walked out of his home to pick up the newspaper in his front yard and disappeared.
Even though one arrest has been made, there is still a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of other persons possibly involved in Arnsdorff's death. Anyone with information about Arnsdorff, Smith, or Wagner is asked to contact the sheriff's department at 533-1181.