Forty years ago on January 23, 1974, in broad daylight, during a savage and incredibly brutal act in one of the city’s most established neighborhoods, Athalia Ponsell Lindsley, the estranged wife of St Augustine mayor James Lindsley, was hacked to death with a sharp machete — a horrifying murder which haunts the community to this day.
The events on Marine Street, just before 6:00 p.m. on the night of January 23rd, stood in stark contrast to those one would expect in the quiet little town of St Augustine in 1974; not too much traffic, not many worries, and not too much trouble.
Assistant State Attorney Richard O. Watson was informed of the homicide by St. Augustine Police Investigator, Dominick Nicklo; who requested an autopsy be performed on the virtually beheaded body, discovered and reported to police by the next-door neighbors. Nicklo told Watson that Lindsley “was hacked to death by an unknown weapon on the front steps of her house.” When the actual Lindsley autopsy was performed, Dr. Arthur Schwartz agreed; finding that death was caused by multiple lacerations with an unknown weapon and a fractured skull.
Athalia Ponsell Lindsley was beautiful, well bred, and well read. She was disciplined of mind and body, maintaining a trim figure and a keen mind.
She had been a resident of St. Augustine for just over two years. Athalia Lindsley made her share of friends – and her share of enemies. Friendly and convivial with those who shared her interests; she could be abrupt, curt, and sometimes arrogant with those who did not view the world with her perspective. During her time here, her focus narrowed on the cultural and political life of the city.
Lindsley marched to the beat of a different drum. A human character, mixed in such fashion, made passionate friends – and passionate enemies.
Lindsley appeared before the city commission — she told the city fathers, bluntly, that they were dead wrong on the issue of fluoridating the city’s water supply. And later, in public comments before the county commission, Lindsley was equally blunt and direct.
She was highly critical of a host of county miscues – real or imagined – from the condition of county roads (Joe Ashton Road, Cabbage Hammock Road) – to the status of County Manager Alan Stanford. Directly she criticized Stanford for his management of county projects.
On the day just before her murder, she flailed away at Stanford for signing his name to official documents as “county engineer”. On that day, Tuesday, January 22, 1973, she appeared at the county commission to criticize Stanford’s competency, his legal ability to be county manager as well as his recent salary raise to $20,000 per year.
Wonder what she would think of the current county administrator’s salary and severance benefits?
Stanford, consistent with his quiet demeanor, politely declined to respond to Lindsley, perhaps in the knowledge that she was carrying over a neighborhood feud into the county courthouse.
Lindsley was the center of a neighborhood dispute involving a host of dogs – seven dogs at one point – that she kept at her 124 Marine Street home. They were described as “yapping dogs”, dogs that “barked and whined constantly”, dogs that were a “continuing nuisance” in the Marine Street neighborhood. At one point, several neighbors signed a court complaint about too many dogs in too small a place.
There are as many theories on who killed Athalia as there are people who knew her.
The only man tried for the murder, County Manager Alan Stanford, was acquitted by a St. Johns County jury. He has since passed away; but, steadfastly maintained his innocence. The sheriff during the investigation, Dudley W. Garrett, Jr., has also passed away; but, remained convinced that there were no other suspects to investigate.
There is no “statute of limitations” regarding the prosecution of a murder in Florida, however, many of the likely suspects and witnesses are also dead. The Sheriff’s Office still maintains a case file on the investigation from the early 1970′s; however, cold case detectives are not actively pursuing leads.
So, for all of the arguments over St. Augustine’s best known “who done it”, and all of the evidence that makes for interesting reading, one fact that seems indisputable is that no one will ever be punished for this heinous and violent murder.
Historic City News editor Michael Gold, has accumulated copies of many of the trial exhibits, photographs from the crime scene, and clippings about the murder. Quite a few are cataloged on facebook at http://facebook.com/athalia.lindsley