The Fateful Odyssey of Three Teenage Runaways May Take Them to Florida's Death Row for Murder

updated 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Wraithlike, he sits huddled in the stark prison visiting room, shivering not from the cold but from haunting anxiety. His hands tremble as he lights another cigarette. Nineteen-year-old Gary Bown has been having nightmares, he says; his victim appears to him each night in his cell, hands and feet still bound, his face obscured by a burlap bag tied over his head. When the vision speaks, it utters only one word: "Why?"

It is a question to which Bown has no answer. Nor do Gainesville, Fla. police, though for their purposes one is not required. It all began last Labor Day weekend when University of Florida professor Howard Appledorf, 41, a prominent nutritionist and sometime talk show celebrity, was found murdered in his lakefront condominium. Appledorf, a popular teacher who had become known as "the Junk Food Professor" for championing the nutritional value of Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken, lay trussed, gagged and blindfolded—suffocated on his living room couch. His head had been wrapped in a pillow, then covered with a tote bag and a sheepskin rug. A cigarette had been snuffed out on his abdomen. Because the word "murder" and its mirror image "redrum" had been scrawled on the food-spattered walls and half-eaten meals were found next to the body, police suspected a ritual killing.

The mystery quickly unraveled. Within four days three male prostitutes were picked up in New York, where they had brazenly driven in Appledorf's Pontiac, subsidizing their flight with his credit cards. Charged with first-degree murder were Bown and Paul Everson, 18, both of whom have confessed to being involved in the killing but have pleaded not guilty, and their companion, Shane Kennedy, 15, who has also pleaded not guilty and will be tried as an adult. Yet if the case has been solved, questions remain. How did these three, the pathetic flotsam of ruinous childhoods, come to be cast up in the life of a respected professor? And what was the impulse that may have led them to kill him?

On campus, he was "Apple" or "Dr. A," and his twice-a-week lectures were standing-room-only at the 750-seat Carleton Auditorium. His impeccable credentials, including a B.S. from Tufts and a master's and Ph.D. from MIT, combined with a lively sense of humor to make him one of those rare academics who stand high with both colleagues and students. Though Appledorf was sometimes criticized for guest-shotting on the John Davidson and Toni Tennille shows and for giving interviews to national tabloids, he also co-authored two books and received numerous professional honors. "As a teacher, he made things current," says a University of Florida junior. "He lectured on the Pritikin and Scarsdale diets and Starch Blockers. But he was tough—not an easy A."

Appledorf's lecturing and his consulting fees for firms including Kentucky Fried Chicken enabled him to nearly double his $40,000-a-year professor's salary, but he spent little money on himself. Instead, he donated more than $13,000 to the university's scholarship fund and anonymously subsidized local sports teams. "He was the guy the kids called to bail them out when they were arrested for drunk driving or something," says Charlie Gordon, owner of Gainesville's Red Lion bar. "He was full of compassion for others."

Away from campus, the professor, known simply as "Doc," mingled easily with the white-collar professionals at Winnie's during happy hour, then headed for the Red Lion for sports talk and a few games of pinball. "He was in here every night and he flirted with all the girls," says Winnie's entertainer, Bobby Griffen, whom Appledorf often joined at the piano for duets in his uncertain baritone. Griffen and his wife included Doc in family gatherings and they attended football games together. "If he led two lives, he was very discreet," says Griffen. "I don't believe a word of it." After the murder, however, a waiter at a Gainesville restaurant claimed to have had an affair with Appledorf six years before. "He would look for relationships out of town," said the waiter in an anonymous interview with the university paper, the Alligator. "He went to California, to San Francisco a lot. He really let loose there."

Investigators learned that Appledorf first met Gary Bown in San Francisco while attending a National Soft Drink Association convention in June. After meeting Bown on Polk Street, the professor took him to his room at the Hilton, split a $75 bottle of champagne with him, and reportedly contracted for sexual services for two nights for $200. Later he bought clothes for Bown and gave him another $200 before returning to Florida. Appledorf wired Bown $100 in New York on Aug. 14 and sent $25 to Orlando a week later—the day Bown, Everson and Kennedy first arrived at his condo. They showed up in a car rented with a stolen credit card and spent two nights with Appledorf before they were arrested for forging his signature to a $900 check.

When Appledorf refused to post bond or drop charges, Bown phoned WCJB-TV reporter Janet Bigham from the Alachua County Detention Center. "He was very angry," she recalls. "He claimed that Appledorf had paid him and his friends for services. He wanted me to do a story saying Howard Appledorf was gay." When Bigham told Bown such a story would be libelous, he told her they were going to charge Appledorf with child molesting because of Kennedy's age. Presumably intimidated by the threat of prosecution and exposure, Appledorf persuaded the state's attorney not to pursue the case if the three would agree to leave Gainesville at once. At the same time, he had all his car locks changed and a new dead bolt installed in the front door of his condo.

The next day Appledorf left for New York on business and Bown, Everson and Kennedy were released. Reneging on their agreement to leave town, they walked more than six miles to Appledorf's home. Unaware that the professor was away, they waited outside for hours before prying open the back door around 9 p.m. Thursday. Friday evening Appledorf caught the last flight into Gainesville and stopped at the Red Lion before driving home. "It was around 12:30 when he left," Gordon recalls. "Doc said he was tired. We talked about the Miami game the next day. That was the last anybody saw him alive."

Evidence and statements by two defendants indicate Appledorf took them by surprise when he entered his apartment and was attacked when he tried to escape. According to one account, Everson struck him on the head with a heavy saucepan, knocking him briefly unconscious. Then the professor was bound and gagged with his necktie. Before Appledorf was suffocated, Everson obtained his bank card code number and left to withdraw $200 from a mechanized teller, being photographed, unwittingly, in the process. After Appledorf died, the three staged the bizarre scene police later discovered, in hopes of diverting attention from themselves. Then they lowered the thermostat to preserve the body and left the apartment before dawn. At 9 a.m. police responded to a routine call from one of Appledorf's neighbors, who had noticed the professor's splintered back door. Within hours a manhunt was under way.

Because the suspects had given the police only aliases when they were arrested the first time, investigators weren't certain for whom they were looking. But, acting on tips from jail-house informants, they soon knew where to look. The trio had headed for a two-block area on New York's East 53rd Street, a place known to them as "the meat rack." There, in a community of gay hustlers, they could earn $250 to $350 a night peddling sex. Juvenile authorities estimate that nearly half a million boys between 10 and 17 leave home every year and that one in 10 turns to prostitution as a means of survival. Most are refugees from unhappy homes and are easy prey for "chicken hawks," older men who provide money, gifts and drugs in return for sex. Because the youths are paid for their services, they often come to see themselves not as victims but as predators. "It's a love-hate relationship," admits one 53rd Street prostitute. "I know I've got something you really want, and when I get your money, that's a real high."

If prostitution was a high for Gary Bown, it was probably his first. His father had walked out even before Gary was born in Long Beach, Calif. to a teenage mother. Soon afterward she was married and six years later divorced. Then she married a home repair contractor named John. "That's when all the trouble began," says Bown's mother, an astrologer and psychic who prefers anonymity. "The main problem was that the relationship was sick. I was a masochist and John had sadistic tendencies, and the poor kids fell right in between. John doesn't like kids. Period."

When Gary was 10, his younger brother, Darrell, was sent to visit his father for the summer but never returned. "I don't know why," shrugs his mother. Shattered by the loss, Gary repeatedly attempted suicide—once by setting himself on fire—and within two years started running away. Once he managed to find his brother, in Klamath Falls, Oreg., but police intercepted him and returned him to his home in Orange County. A year later his mother and John were divorced, but not before John worked out his animosity by hurling Gary against a wall and nearly gouging out one of his eyes.

In 1979 Bown's brother was raped by a family friend in Oregon and was sent back to Orange County, where he and Gary were reunited. Five months later, however, Gary was convicted of burglarizing a convenience store and began serving 19 months in three juvenile institutions. After escaping from the first two, he earned his high school diploma at the third. It was there, he claims, that he was introduced to homosexuality by a counselor.

After his release, his mother remarried John—whom she has since divorced again—and moved to another state. Gary moved from one West Coast gay community to another, accumulating arrests and the occasional beating. In North Hollywood he found Darrell, who had run away at 16, also working as a hustler. Together they phoned their mother collect and told her what they had become. "That's the first I knew of it," she says now. "I would like it to be different, but I'm not proud of my life or my past. I'm not going to judge my two boys."

Last June Gary called her collect again from San Francisco's Hilton Hotel. "He told me all about Appledorf, this fantastic man who was a millionaire," she recalls. "He said he was going to Florida, and this man was going to give him a job." During the summer he called several times from New York, where he told her of meeting Everson and Kennedy, and boasted of clearing $1,200 a night as a hustler, sometimes dressed as a woman. During his stay there he was interviewed, using an alias, by WCBS-TV and freely admitted to seven prostitution arrests. "I think the hustling was motivated by Gary's need to feel important," says his mother. "Gary achieved a certain amount of success and recognition that he didn't have before."

Paul Everson's arrest record is the kind that makes cynics of cops and a mockery of the criminal justice system. From the age of 14, he has accumulated at least 19 arrests and warrants in Massachusetts and New York on charges including auto theft, breaking and entering, forgery, prostitution and assault with a deadly weapon. Yet he never served a day in jail. "Paul always lucked out," says a Massachusetts detective. "Maybe if he'd been incarcerated, they could have forced help on him."

Everson was born in Boston, where his father worked as a printer. In 1974 the family moved to Cape Cod, where Paul was a frequent truant, finally dropping out of school at 16. A West Yarmouth neighbor, Lydia Pender, remembers that as a boy he often took refuge in her home in order to escape his own troubled family. "He felt very inferior with the other kids and didn't have many friends," she says. "He was always an outsider."

Disabled with a shattered ankle about five years ago, Everson's father, William, remained housebound while his wife took a job as a nurse's aide. Described by neighbors as "a loud, angry man" who often came to blows with his sons, Everson Sr. was equally unpopular with the police. "He may have leaned too much on the crutches as an excuse for not taking care of the kids," says Yarmouth detective Nelson Souve. "The father was always in the station with the youngster and expected us to perform miracles. But he wouldn't follow our advice to seek professional help." In 1980 a judge sentenced Paul to a year of counseling at the Cape Cod Mental Health Clinic in Hyannis. After the boy made several visits there, Everson Sr. told the Boston Globe, a doctor said there was nothing wrong with him. "I told them something was wrong," said the father. "Well, now the proof is in the pudding."

When he wasn't grappling with the law or his father, Paul was apparently struggling with his sexual identity. One day, says Mrs. Pender, he showed up at her house dressed as a woman. But when she asked him if he was a homosexual, he denied it. "He said he didn't like gays at all," she recalls. Later, however, when he began running away for months at a time, he confessed to Mrs. Pender that he was selling sexual favors in Boston. "Paul needed discipline, but he also needed to be loved," she says. "He'd sit here and cry. He'd say, 'If only my father would hug me and tell me he loved me one time.' They just didn't get along."

In July 1981 Everson ran away for the last time. Six months later he was charged with auto theft and assault in Boston. By February he had moved on to New York, where he was arrested for prostitution five times. His hustler confederates say the 6'3", 170-pound teenager sometimes dressed as a transvestite. But when his parents visited last July, he apparently concealed his occupation effectively. "When his mother, Jeanette, came back, she seemed happy," remembers one of her co-workers. "She said that Paul had an apartment and was working several jobs. Maybe Paul didn't tell her the whole truth."

Shane Kennedy, a shy ninth grader with braces, disappeared from his suburban Woodbury, Conn. home last April. He is remembered as an industrious boy who painted his family's large ranch-style home, tended the three-acre grounds after school and earned money on the side mowing neighbors' lawns. Yet those close to the family say Shane had never recovered from his parents' divorce in 1979. "The mother let the father have the children because she was destroyed by the breakup," says a social worker who knew them at the time. When Thomas Kennedy, a long-haul trucker, remarried in 1980, he and his two sons moved into the home of his new wife, Linda, in Woodbury. It was a strict household. "He had to be home by 5 o'clock," says a neighbor whose son was friendly with Shane, "and at exactly one minute past, the phone would ring and his stepmother would be very annoyed. I'd say, 'Give the boy time,' but she was already angry. If the boy missed the school bus, he'd come here all doubled up because his father had punched him."

On weekends Shane cut and stacked wood for financial planner Robert Norsen and Norsen's father-in-law, John Schnabel. Norsen found Shane withdrawn ("The ride to the woods was 22 miles, and he didn't say more than 25 words the whole way over or back"), but the boy often confided in Schnabel, who enjoyed ribbing him as they worked side by side. "He and his dad were always feuding," the older man remembers. "I'd give him fatherly talks and tell him to bear with it until he was old enough." Schnabel is bitter about Thomas Kennedy. "He didn't ever give the kid a break," he says. "He should have taken him under his wing instead of pushing him aside. The father worked with us one weekend, and I did not like his attitude toward anybody."

Schnabel has good reason to remember Shane fondly. One day last winter he was lighting a cigarette in the woods when his jacket, apparently impregnated with gasoline fumes from his truck, suddenly burst into flame. Instantly Shane pulled him to the ground and extinguished the fire with his body. Among Shane's classmates at Nonnewaug Junior High, however, he stood out not for his bravery but for his effeminate walk and his fussiness about his appearance. "Shane was a nellie type," says a gay hustler he later knew in New York. "He looked like a really attractive 14-year-old girl." Last April several girls grabbed Shane outside the school cafeteria, tied his hands and feet, put rollers in his hair and polished his nails. Witnesses say Shane put up with the indignities meekly, offering no resistance. Several days later he ran away to New York. Five months afterward he was arrested for murder.

It seemed at first a bizarre crime that evoked comparisons with the Manson murders. The reality was far simpler. There was no deeply sinister motive for the slaying of Howard Appledorf, no real profit to be had, and virtually no chance of the trio's escape. It appears, in fact, to have been the pointless act of young men—boys, really—for whom childhood had been a time of betrayal, and whose victim had inspired a kind of revenge. Though the case is scheduled to come to trial Jan. 17, it may be delayed until March. Alachua County Prosecutor Ken Hebert will ask for the death penalty.

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