21. "WAGER'S BODY FOUND", Part 1

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

Tuesday, September 16, 1975


3 Grove Workers Find Suspicious-Looking Mound


By Calvin Engh & Jim Degennaro | Ledger Staff Writers


Three grove workers found the badly decomposed body of James Wagner Monday in a shallow grave near Scott Lake Road and Lake Miriam Drive South of Lakeland, one day before the massive search for the 19-year-old might have been discontinued.


Playing a hunch after reading about the search for Wagner in Sunday's Ledger, the grovemen dug into a suspicious-looking mound of dirt between two citrus trees until they uncovered a piece of blanket which was wrapped around the body.


They then stopped digging and called the sheriff's department about their discovery at 2:45 p.m. Sheriff Monroe Brannen and Capt. Dan Weatherford rushed to the graveside and finished the task of unearthing Wagner's remains.


The men found the body in a 40-acre citrus grove about 360 feet west of Scott Lake Road and approximately 1,230 feet from Lake Miriam Drive, several miles west of where deputies had concentrated their search last week off Clubhouse Road in the Lakeland Highlands. The citrus workers, who wish to remain anonymous, said they first noticed the fresh mound several weeks ago but were reluctant to report it because "people bury animals in orange groves all the time, plus we told authorities last week about another possible grave several miles east of here north of Clubhouse Road that turned up nothing."


Above: Map showing the location of James Wagner's body. - The Lakeland Ledger, September 16, 1975. (Click here to view current map of location)


After reading news accounts Sunday that the search location would be moved westward this week from its origin in groves around Peterson Road, the mound became more interesting to the three men and they decided to probe there themselves before calling investigators.


Wagner had been missing since the night of July 28 and is connected with the death of John M. Arnsdorff, whose charred body was found in the trunk of a burning car early the next morning on Lake Luther Road north of Lakeland.


Sheriff's investigators have charged Wesley Irvin Johnson, 19, with three counts of first-degree murder, one of which dates back two years.


Johnson confessed Sept. 6 to taking part in the murders of Wagner, Arnsdorff, and Caleb McDowell, who was shot and killed Aug. 3, 1973, and found in the trunk of a burned car in an orange grove not far from where Arnsdorff's body was found.


Dennis Wayne Smith, 23, was charge dAug. 6 with first-degree murder for the death of Arnsdorff. Sheriff Brannen said Monday, after discovering Wagner's body, his office would file two more counts of first-degree murder (Wagner's and McDowell's) against Smith.


Johnson led deputies on several futile searches of orange groves on the south side of Clubhouse Road last week but could not pinpoint the spot where he said he had helped bury Wagner.


After making a row-by-row inspection of that location for several days, deputies moved the search east about a half-mile to groves north of Clubhouse Road following a tip from the three citrus workers about a possible gravesite.


The day after that lead produced no results, investigators received promising information from an elderly woman who had heard men working in a grove behind her house early in the morning about six weeks ago.


She lives on the north side of Clubhouse Road about two miles west of the previous search area. Lt. Chuch Keeney, who is heading the investigation, had said he wanted to comb that area with dogs today, and if no body was found, the search for Wagner would have been discontinued.


At the gravesite Monday, Brannen theorized Johnson's inability to show deputies the exact location of Wagner's grave might have stemmed from the fact that the accused murderer thought he was helping transport the body to groves on Lakeland Highlands Road when he probably was on Cleveland Heights Boulevard.


"Johnson was confused and not in the right frame of mind to remember details when he allegedly buried Wagner," Brannen said. "Also, in the dark, all these groves look the same."


Even though Johnson could not pinpoint the gravesite for the search parties, his description of the burial spot was accurate right down to some small details. "Things are just like the boy (Johnson) told us," Brannen said.


The sheriff said that when Johnson turned himself in to Daytona Beach authorities Sept. 6, he said he had wrapped Wagner's body in a blanket or rug and placed it in a shallow grave about nine rows off a road under the overhang of an orange tree. He also said one boot was left on the body while the other was tossed on top of the dead man.


The body was found off a bumpy road about 12 rows in, in an 18-inch deep grave wrapped in a red and white blanket with one boot on and the other lying on the body.


Also, Wagner was wearing the type of clothing his parents said he had on when he disappeared from his Lakeland home six weeks ago.


Medical examiner Dr. D. Richard Jones of Lakeland was called to the gravesite to make a preliminary investigation of the body.


He performed an autopsy at Lakeland General Hospital Monday night and Sheriff Brannen said this morning the doctor had found multiple stab wounds in the chest area. Brannen also said the body had a tattoo of a snake on one arm.


Wagner's parents said their son had a tattoo of a Cobra snake on his right arm.


Wagner is believed to have been stabbed in the chest with an ice pick and then drowned after witnessing the death of the 33-year old Arnsdorff, who was allegedly jabbed with a tire iron and then set on fire.


Read the digital archive here - The Ledger, September 16, 1975.

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