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
Sunday, September 7, 1975
Man Seized in Unsolved Killings
Fiery Car Deaths Linked to Suspect.
By Calvin Engh & Jim Degennaro | Ledger Staff Writers
A man who said he has information about the recent death of John M. Arnsdorff, the murder of a man two years ago, and the fate of James Wagner, missing since July 28, was arrested Saturday by sheriff's deputies and charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Wesley Irvin Johnson, 19, originally from Lakeland and most recently living in Daytona Beach, was booked into county jail without bond. Johnson is charged with the following deaths:
• Arnsdorff, 33, who was found burned in the trunk of his car on Lake Luther Road north of Lakeland near Interstate 4 in the early morning hours of July 29.
• Wagner, 19, who walked out of his home on Hartsell Avenue in Lakeland the evening of July 28 to pick up a newspaper in the front yard and never returned. Sheriff's deputies, with the assistance of Johnson, searched for Wagner's body all day Saturday in the Highlands area of Lakeland.
• And Caleb McDowell, a 39-year-old black man who was shot and killed with a shotgun Aug. 3, 1973. His body was found in the trunk of a burned car in an orange grove east of the new Holiday Inn near I-4 and State Road 33, several miles from where Arnsdorff's charred body was found. The grand jury was asked to reopen the case last week.
Dennis Wayne Smith, 23, Lakeland, was arrested Aug. 6 and charged with first-degree murder in connection with Arnsdorff's death.
Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Keeney said his department has been looking for another suspect since Smith's arrest and Johnson's name had been mentioned during the investigation.
Keeney and Polk County Sheriff Monroe Brannen described Johnson's arrest this way:
• Polk County officials received a telephone call from Daytona Beach Police Department about 2:30 a.m. Saturday saying they had a man in custody who had called them and said he had committed three murders in Polk County. His house had been under surveillance while Daytona Beach police tried to get information about several robberies there.
• Daytona officials said Johnson had been living there with his 31-year-old wife and stepchildren, ages 9 and 11.
• Johnson said he met Wagner at Zimmerman's bar on South Florida Avenue in Lakeland and the two of them went to the Green Parrot Bar on East Main Street where Smith and Arnsdorff were.
• From there, the four went to Johnson's home and then possibly to Arnsdorff's apartment at 1049 Jewel Ave., in Lakeland.
• Arnsdorff was robbed of $11, tied up, and placed in the trunk of his car. Johnson said Arnsdorff was told he was only being taken for a ride and would not be harmed.
• According to Johnson, Wagner was an accomplice at this time and not a victim. When Wagner was first reported missing, Keeney said he was either a suspect or a victim.
• Johnson said because they had been drinking and the car windows (Arnsdorff's vehicle) steamed up, they hit a bridge abutment off U.S. 98 on Griffin Road.
• They drove to a nearby convenience store and tried to change a flattened tire but were unsuccessful.
• From there, they took the car to the Luther Road location where it was originally found burned several blocks from a number of secluded phosphate pits.
• Johnson, according to the police, said the car would not travel any further because of damages received when it hit the bridge and became stuck. He said he got out of the car, opened the trunk and stabbed Arnsdorff several times with a tire iron. Following this, someone went back to U.S. 98 and bought gasoline and returned. The flammable liquid was then poured over the trunk and set afire, he said.
• Police said Johnson said they then went to the site of the old YMCA campgrounds near Lakeland, became worried that Wagner would tell officials what had happened and they killed him. Johnson and Wagner was stabbed in the chest times with an ice pick but didn't die, so then they held his head underwater at one of the pits until he stopped moving.
• Johnson said they then drove around the Lakeland area aimlessly and finally buried Wagner in a shallow grave in the Highlands area between Highlands City and State Road 37 south of Club House Road.
The sheriff's department had deputies searching the area Saturday on horseback and planned to continue combing the area today with the aid of Johnson.
Sheriff Brannen said infrared aerial photographs will also be taken today of the entire area. Keeney said Johnson has not implicated Smith in the murders. "He keeps referring to 'we' but doesn't say who 'we' is," Keeney said.
Keeney said the investigation will continue.
Wagner had been discharged honorably from the Navy earlier this year. "Jimmy went out in the yard about 9:30 p.m. that night and he never returned," said his father, Phillip Wagner. "He left his cigarettes and a half-empty bottle of pop on a living room table. It all seemed pretty mysterious to us."
Wagner was seen later that night - about 11 p.m. - in the company of Arnsdorff and Smith in the Green Parrot Bar in Main Street in Lakeland. Arnsdorff and Smith were seen leaving the Green Parrot together on the night of July 28, and Wagner left either shortly before or after the other two men, witnesses said.
About 4:45 in 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. Arnsdorff's charred body was found inside the trunk of the car.
Sheriff's deputies at the death scene said the construction company official was alive when his car was burned after being doused by gasoline. His body had been burned beyond recognition, and identity was established through dental charts from Jacksonville, Arnsdorff's previous home.
Although no one in the Lake Luther Road neighborhood told sheriff's investigators they had heard any unusual noises that night, one resident said that he had seen a large, white car in the vicinity earlier that evening.
On Aug. 6, Sheriff's Sgt. Al Lang arrested Smith after following his white, 1969 Cadillac into an alley behind the 200 block of Pine Street in Lakeland. Since then, sheriff's detectives have been to the FBI's laboratory in Washington, D.C., with 17 pieces of evidence and said plaster molds of tire tracks made at the murder scene match those of Smith's car.
Blood, pry marks, and clothing were found inside the trunk of Smith's car at the time of his arrest, leading investigators to believe someone may have been transported in it.
No further positive leads in the bizarre murder case were developed until The Ledger presented the sheriff's department information on the missing Wagner on Aug. 13. From that information, detectives established that Wagner was either a victim or a suspect in the Arnsdorff case.
For the next several days, deputies used their spotter airplane, four-wheel-drive vehicle, and SCUBA divers in their futile attempts to find Wagner's body in a secluded phosphate pit near the Arnsdorff murder scene.
Both The Ledger and A.C. & S. Inc, the construction company Arnsdorff had worked for, offered $1,000 rewards for information in the Wagner-Arnsdorff cases. On Aug. 29, the Polk County Grand Jury indicted Smith on first-degree murder charges in connection with Arnsdorff's death.
McDowell's charred body was found in the trunk of his burned car around 6 p.m. on August 3, 1973, north of Lakeland, approximately 50 yards from the old Cave beer tavern, which is now a hollow building surrounded by auto parts.
Sheriff's investigators said McDowell, who lived at 838 W. Eighth St. in Lakeland, had been shot through his left side with a shotgun. His body was discovered on Lakewood Drive, a dirt road entering citrus groves, near Interstate 4.
A spokesman for the Daytona Beach Police Department told The Ledger Saturday that Johnson had called their office late Friday and said he wanted to turn himself in "for some trouble he had gotten into in Polk County."
"We turned Johnson over to the Polk County Sheriff's Office early today. That's all we have now," the spokesman said.