Saturday, June 25, 2016

Murder at McDonald's

In 1974, Jimmy Earl Berry was a Coffee High School graduate attending what was then called Florence State University. Berry had not come from a home with many financial advantages and he worked while attending school to help support his mother and younger sister. Friends said he was going places.

On the night of January 11th, Berry was working as an assistant manager at the Muscle Shoals McDonald’s on Woodward Avenue. Before the era of fast food restaurants remaining open 24 hours a day, the small eatery closed at midnight. Three employees clocked out at 12:57 on the morning of Saturday, January 12th, leaving Berry alone to finish his nightly duties.

At approximately three o’clock a janitor arrived to clean the facilities and found the key in the lock to a side door. He then entered the building, walked to the office, and discovered the safe open. The custodian immediately called Muscle Shoals police, and Sgt. Robert Hall arrived within minutes. Hall soon found Jimmy Berry’s body in a storeroom with three bullet holes in his abdomen. An autopsy later found the college junior was also shot once in the back, with the bullet travelling upward and piercing his heart.

Records from the previous night indicated approximately $1,390.00 was missing from the safe, almost half of which was in rolled change. Investigators speculated that the rolled coins weighed around 80 pounds.

Muscle Shoals homicide detectives immediately recruited their counterparts from Sheffield and Tuscumbia to assist in the investigation. The city also offered a $500.00 reward for any information in the case leading to an arrest. As time passed, contributions from the state and local businesses increased the reward to almost $10,000.00.

Yet days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and police were no closer to solving the heinous murder. There had been no robberies in the area either in the days leading up to Berry’s death or in the ones that came after. Murmurs of something even more sinister than a robbery began to circulate.

Despite his humble origins, Berry was known for his intelligence, wit, and good looks. At the time of his death, the victim was reportedly dating a young woman from Colbert County who had left her high school sweetheart to be with him. The former boyfriend was the son of a well-known Colbert County businessman and had allegedly vowed to win back the young woman at any cost. Had the robbery been a cover-up for a much more personal crime?

The months began to turn into years, and local police were no closer to solving what had become known as simply the “McDonald’s murder.” Clouds of guilt remained over the jilted lover’s head, and Jimmy Earl Berry’s family was no nearer to closure.

Roger Dale Stafford

Roger Dale Stafford was born in the Shoals area in 1951 and for the first 27 years of his life often returned to visit relatives. In June 1978, almost four and one-half years after the murder of Jimmy Earl Berry in Muscle Shoals, Stafford was traveling around Oklahoma with his wife Verna and his brother Harold. On June 22, Verna Stafford engineered a plan to lure motorists into a trap on a lonely Oklahoma road. When a family of three stopped to assist the ostensibly stranded Verna, Roger pounced from a hiding place to demand money. Meeting resistance, Roger shot the young husband, wife, and finally their 12 year-old son; the Staffords dumped their victims’ bodies in a field by the road and fled with $600.00 in cash.

A month later, the three Staffords drove to Tulsa where they set about robbing the Sirloin Stockade in the moments after the steakhouse closed. After pocketing the money, the three herded six restaurant workers into a walk-in freezer and shot each of them dead. Five of the six employees murdered were teenagers. The Staffords netted $1,290.00 in the robbery that became known as both a mass murder and a serial killing.

A week after the Sirloin Stockade murders, Harold Stafford was killed in a motorcycle accident. Roger and his wife Verna soon had a falling out that was never to be mended. In anger, Roger Dale Stafford made an anonymous call to Tulsa police implicating his dead brother and estranged wife in the killings that had rocked the large Oklahoma city.

After her arrest, Verna Stafford began to bargain for her life. Not only did she tell authorities of the crimes in which she had participated, she also related a list of killings to which her estranged husband had confessed during their years together. Roger Dale Stafford’s alleged first murder? That of Jimmy Earl Berry in Muscle Shoals.

While Muscle Shoals police officially issued a warrant for Roger Dale Stafford’s arrest, it was obvious that the serial killer would never leave Oklahoma. Stafford was convicted of the six steakhouse murders as well as those of the family of motorists the month before. He received nine death sentences, vowing to fight them all and promising he would never be executed. For her part in the Oklahoma crimes, Verna Stafford received a life sentence plus 999 years.

On July 2, 1994, Roger Dale Stafford was executed by lethal injection in the State of Oklahoma. While he had reportedly confessed many of his murders to fellow inmates, he declared his innocence as he lay on the gurney awaiting his fate for crimes against the state and nature.

Detectives in Oklahoma pieced together information obtained from Verna Stafford with reports from jailhouse informants and theorized the Stafford brothers were involved in at least 22 murders besides the nine in Oklahoma. They further postulated that Stafford, who was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, may have been involved in many more, some as far away as England where he once visited.

After the arrest of Roger Dale Stafford in Oklahoma, the reward money in the Jimmy Earl Berry murder was given to Berry’s mother. After five years, anyone else under a cloud of suspicion was now cleared, and Muscle Shoals gained the dubious honor of being the city in which the infamous serial killer/mass murderer Roger Dale Stafford first struck.

Memories of the murder that rocked Muscle Shoals in the mid-70s have faded, but the crime is often included in television programs documenting the Staffords’ violent spree. In 2014, Athens mystery writer Cassandra Clairage published a fictionalized account of the Muscle Shoals slaying entitled Murder at Biscuit Village. Jimmy Earl Berry, forever 20 years old, lies buried in Sheffield’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Money & Death at UNA: The Greg Engle Story

GREGORY K(eith) ENGLE, director of student life, was a man dedicated to the University of North Alabama. He had a smile and a "Hi” for everyone he met, limitless time for each student, and the gift to make every person feel special and important to this campus. Greg will be missed and remembered for many years to come by students, faculty, administration, and each individual life he touched. 1997 Diorama

Photo circa 1984

Gregory Keith Engle was born in Haleyville, Alabama, on October 17, 1964, to Herbert Ray and Carolyn Engle. Herbert died when Greg was just six years old, and Carolyn continued to live in the small Winston County town with her three children. Greg went on to graduate from Haleyville High in 1983 and the University of North Alabama in 1987.

After graduation, Engle immediately went to work for his alma mater as director of intramural sports and recreation; at the same time he began work on his master’s degree, graduating with an MS in Education in 1989 and becoming director of student services in 1994. During his tenure at the university, Engle also served as director of judicial affairs, director of fraternity affairs, and assistant to the dean of student life. By 1995, Engle had begun work on his doctorate at the University of Alabama and had opened the Tang Soo Do Karate School in Muscle Shoals. Gregory Keith Engle was a man on the move up the academic ladder.

However, Greg Engle’s personal life wasn’t quite as successful as his professional one. His first marriage to Susan Marie Perdue in late 1987 failed after a few years, and Engle later married one of the students with whom he had worked closely, Maria Claudia Hanao of Columbia. The South American beauty was tremendously popular with the university crowd and had been the recipient of the Turis Fidelis award her senior year.

An announcement of the late June 1996 Hanao-Engle wedding indicated Greg Engle was to receive his doctorate the next month, but for whatever reason, his graduation didn’t take place. Seven months later, Gregory Keith Engle was dead.

Between marriages, Engle was often rumored to have dated an inordinate number of the female students with whom he came in contact professionally; some rumors even included accounts of illegitimate children. Rumors about young and attractive male faculty or staff members at any university are always abundant; if the tales of Engle’s romantic exploits were true, the university never publicly cautioned him.

Besides the rumors of illicit romances, talk of Engle’s lavish lifestyle began to permeate the campus. How had Greg Engle funded air travel for approximately 15 students to JazzFest in New Orleans in the spring of 1995? When one curious student began to ask questions, he was told that Engle had left over money from his yearly student life budget which had to be spent—all during an era of strict financial constraints.

The revelation in 1996 that a Flor-Ala employee had misappropriated over $50,000.00 from that organization created a suspicious mood on campus, and when a rumor concerning Engle’s excessive spending came to the attention of UNA President Robert Potts, he announced an audit of all organization treasuries overseen by university employees. It was the beginning of the end for Gregory Keith Engle.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 4, 1997, Greg Engle missed an important meeting on campus. Co-workers attempted to page him, but received no answer. Worried about Engle whose wife was attending a conference in Tuscaloosa, a co-worker drove to the Engle home on Finley Drive in the Cedars to check on the 32 year-old UNA employee. After failing to get anyone to the door, the co-worker let herself in with a key she had previously been given and was immediately aware of noxious fumes wafting in from the closed garage. She managed to make her way to the garage and turn off the ignition of Engle’s vehicle before sounding the alarm

Responders quickly cleared the garage of the carbon monoxide and removed Engle’s body from his Jeep Wrangler. Lauderdale Coroner Myron Crunk stated the UNA employee had been dead for several hours when the body was found.

Word of Engle’s death spread quickly, and so did the questions surrounding it. Engle had last been seen alive at around 8:30 p.m. that Monday, and Florence Police had received reports of a prowler in Engle’s neighborhood during the night. A car window at the home next door had been broken during the same timeframe. Had Gregory Keith Engle been murdered? Engle’s body was sent for an autopsy, but the post mortem soon confirmed what those who had been at the scene already strongly suspected: Greg Engle had committed suicide.

UNA President Robert Potts officially reported Greg Engle’s death at 11:00 o’clock the morning his body was found; by the close of business that Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his death, Engle’s co-workers had established the Greg Engle Leadership Scholarship, a scholarship which exists until this day. The university arranged a special memorial service for Greg Engle and provided counselors on campus for several days after his death. The effect of Engle’s death on the UNA campus was so strong that President Potts ordered all U.S. flags lowered to half staff—an act that legally only a president or governor can command.

Besides his paid position on campus which offered him unlimited access to the student life budget, Engle had been an SGA sponsor and also worked with several other campus groups for which he volunteered in a fiduciary function. By the end of March, the initial audits had been completed, and one UNA spokesman indicated that while the exact amount might never be known, Engle had usurped over $100,000.00 for his personal use.

A later report on the UNA commissioned audits of the 171 campus organizations falling under its fiduciary umbrella was released in August 1997, and the examiners officially announced $39,000.00 unaccounted for in treasuries overseen by Greg Engle. As is often the case with a bad bookkeeper or a good embezzler, some sets of books are in such disarray as to prohibit an extremely accurate accounting. Nevertheless, the officially reported $39,000.00 was not a small amount, and the unofficial amount of $100,000.00 in 1997 dollars was a sizable chunk of cash; where did all the money go? That question has never been answered.

In February 1998, Engle’s widow Claudia petitioned the Lauderdale County Probate Court to declare her late husband’s estate insolvent, stating there weren’t enough assets to pay off his debts. In 2002, Claudia Hanao Engle remarried and now lives in Mission Viejo, Texas. Neither the university nor any of the groups which fell victim to Greg Engle ever recovered any of the missing money.

Gregory Keith Engle is buried in Littleville Cemetery in Winston County. His Find-a-Grave memorial page is filled with remembrances; here are two of them:

The sorrow remains, even today. Such a senseless end. I wish you could have reached out, but none of that matters now. You are gone and the pain I feel is mine alone to bear. You were a good Tang Soo Do instructor and friend. I think of you from time to time, but it is painful. The way you took yourself away from everyone still hurts. 


Gosh,'s really, really amazing how quickly time goes by...just ten years ago, we were such good friends-- and then the unthinkable happened and you chose to end your life, leaving behind a beautiful wife, lots of devoted Phi Mu hotties, and a bank account full of pilfered money. So sad. When I think of how close you came to getting away from Florence with all that loot, I still shed a tear...but don't worry, Greg-- I'll never forget the times we shared. 

Note: Special thanks to a UNA alumnus/writer for providing information incorporated in this article.