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Chillingworth murders our crime of the century

By Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

“The motor is fixed.”

Lucky Holzapfel said the four code words and hung up. At the other end, Judge Joe Peel understood.

Palm Beach County’s crime of the century had come to its brutal end.

After 50 years, the tale of the murders of senior Circuit Judge Curtis Chillingworth and his wife, Marjorie, is still riveting. It had everything: Political assassination. Murder at sea. A case with no bodies. An unlikely villain. A dubious deathbed confession.

The offense was horrific in itself. What made it sensational was the prominence of its victims.

“It was not just a man’s life that was taken,” a judge said as he sentenced Lucky. “It was Judge Chillingworth.”

To understand the magnitude of the slayings, it’s important to understand how small West Palm Beach was at the time, and how big Curtis Chillingworth was.

The city had about 50,000 residents, half what it has now, and the entire county had perhaps 150,000 residents, compared with 1.2 million today. Manalapan, now an enclave of mansions, was a sparsely populated stretch of beach. The 15th Judicial Circuit, now limited to Palm Beach County, then included Broward. It had two judges in West Palm Beach. The senior judge was Curtis Chillingworth.

His grandfather, Richard Jolley Chillingworth, was a mayor of West Palm Beach and a justice of the peace and was sheriff of Dade County, which then included present day Palm Beach County. Richard’s son, Charles Chillingworth, was the first city attorney for West Palm Beach and Lantana, and developed Palm City, near Stuart.

Curtis Chillingworth spent two years in the U.S. Navy before joining his father’s law firm and served in both World Wars. He married the daughter of his father’s closest friend. He was a county judge for two years before becoming the youngest circuit judge in Florida history, at age 26, in 1923. He would serve for three decades. Sometime in 1955, in a note scribbled in pencil to then-governor LeRoy Collins, Chillingworth had said he planned to retire.


Marjorie McKinley Chillingworth, Marie Chillingworth, Judge Curtis E. Chillingworth standing behind Ivanhoe Holland, Governor-elect and Mrs. Spessard Holland in 1940. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Photographic Collection at the State Library and Archives of Florida)

The most Chillingworth ever earned as a judge was $18,000, but he built a small fortune in land, including an undeveloped beach parcel in Manalapan, which at the time had all of 27 registered voters.

The Chillingworths had had dinner with friends in Palm Beach the evening of June 14 and had left about 10 p.m. for their two-story Manapalan cottage. They had hired a Boynton Beach carpenter to come the morning of June 15 to build a playground for the grandchildren. The carpenter arrived promptly at 8 a.m. The door was open. The home was empty.

At the courthouse in West Palm Beach, a 10 a.m. hearing on Chillingworth’s calendar came and went. By noon the Manalapan property was crawling with police.

They found a shattered porch light, drops of blood on the walkway to the beach, and two used spools of adhesive tape, one in the sand and one in the living room. Also found: dry swim suits, discounting the idea of accidental drowning during a morning swim. Money still in the judge’s billfold and $40 still in Marjorie’s pocketbook all but ruled out robbery. The keys were still in the ignition of Chillingworth’s Plymouth.

Missing: a pair of men’s pajamas, a nightgown and two pairs of slippers.

Boats and even a helicopter from Palm Beach Air Force Base – now PBIA – scanned the waves without result. Divers combed the ocean floor. Gov. Collins sent down the state’s top two investigators. The family, Chillingworth’s colleagues and even the legislature set up rewards.

The bodies were never recovered. The family installed an empty double grave with a twin headstone in West Palm Beach’s Oak Lawn Cemetery. In 1957, Curtis and Marjorie Chillingworth were declared dead. Named to replace the judge on the bench: James P. Knott, who would serve for two decades and become a luminary of the county’s historical society.

The Chillingworth family eventually sold their parents’ home at 211 Dyer Road, near Belvedere and Dixie, and maintained its $25,000 reward offer. In 1959, the legislature voted to keep the $100,000 reward it had approved on the books “for eternity” or until the case was solved.

It didn’t take long.

“There’s a hole in the ocean”

Joseph Peel, born in West Palm Beach to a motel owner, was married with two children. He became a lawyer in 1949 and three years later was named the city’s only municipal judge.

Peel was protecting bolita operators and moonshiners. Police would take warrants for him to sign so they could raid gambling dens. As soon as they’d left, Peel would call the crooks and tip them off. Each operator gave $500 in protection money.

But it was Peel’s law work, which he was allowed to continue even while a judge, that threatened his career. In 1953, he represented both sides in a divorce. His superior, Chillingworth, gave him only a reprimand, with the warning that this was his last chance. But in 1955, Peel told a client she was divorced, although he’d never finished her case. She remarried and had a baby, then learned Peel’s misconduct made her a bigamist.

Lucky Holzapfel, a Kansas native, had moved from Oklahoma City to California as a teen and worked with his father, a bookmaker. After serving as a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge, and earning a Purple Heart, he became a fingerprint technician for Oklahoma City police and later enrolled in college but was then arrested for armed robbery. He served 18 months, then was paroled after promising to enter law school. He went to college for a year, getting high grades and serving on the debate team.

Lucky then moved to West Palm Beach, where he held odd jobs, selling beer, tires and pots and pans. He was a carpenter’s apprentice, a service station attendant and a bartender. He went through three marriages; one ex-wife said a beating sent her to the hospital for five days. He was a Young Republican and a Jaycee and a Cub Scout leader.

The Chillingworth case began dribbling from Lucky’s lips in 1959. Lucky had told his friend, a local insurance agent named James Yenzer, he knew who had killed the Chillingworths.

“Man, there’s a hole out there in that ocean nobody’s found the bottom of,” Lucky said.

Yenzer was also a pal of Peel and told the now ex-judge that Lucky might be preparing to squeal to the cops. Peel gave Yenzer more than $8,000 and told him to kill Lucky.

But the insurance agent had a better idea. He made a deal with an officer of the Florida Sheriff’s Bureau, forerunner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In September 1960, he and a friend lured Lucky to a Holiday Inn in Melbourne.

The friend was bondsman and former West Palm Beach cop Jim Wilber. In 1962, when he put in a claim for a $100,000 reward – he later received $66,000 – Wilber would say he’d known six weeks after the couple disappeared that Peel had arranged the slaying and had confronted Peel, who’d said, “It was either that S.O.B. or me.”

For three days in the hotel, Lucky and the two friends emptied three bottles of Scotch, one whiskey, and one vodka. Unknown to Lucky, the other two dumped their booze down the drain. But Lucky drank. And Lucky talked. In an adjacent room, the officer was getting it all down on 30 reels of tape.

On Saturday morning, Oct. 1, 1960, a Brevard County investigator broke in and cuffed Lucky. Told his ramblings were on tape, Lucky later slashed his left wrist in jail with a razor blade. Guards found him in time.

The news that the area’s biggest riddle had been solved after five years, and the added horror that a fellow judge had ordered the murders, rocked Palm Beach County.

It took only two months to put together the case against Lucky – and Joe Peel.

The very thing Peel had been trying to avoid when he ordered the judge killed had ended up happening anyway: A Broward County judge suspended Peel for 90 days over the non-divorce case. Peel quit as judge soon after that and resigned from the Bar in 1959. For a while, he was a partner in a construction business. After Lucky’s hotel room “confession,” Peel took off, but a friend set him up and he was nabbed in Chattanooga a month after Lucky’s arrest.

“I’m innocent,” Peel said from Tennessee. “I want to go back to Florida as quickly as possibly so I can have a speedy trial and clear myself.”

Lucky told a reporter he wouldn’t know Chillingworth if he saw him, saying, “It’ll be a damn dirty shame if they execute me for the Chillingworths. They might come home in the next week.”

Bobby Lincoln was already in prison on a 1958 moonshine-related conviction when State Attorney Phil O’Connell Sr. came to him with a deal. Because he had no bodies, O’Connell needed an eyewitness.

Granted immunity for the murders, Bobby Lincoln agreed to testify.

Faced with that, Lucky decided not to fight. At a Nov. 7, 1960, hearing, as spectators crowded the courtroom, a sobbing Lucky told all.

Lucky’s story

In June 1955, with Judge Chillingworth possibly about to end Peel’s career over the non-divorce fiasco, Peel had been in a panic. Lucky and Bobby Lincoln had a stake as well. With their cohort off the bench, where he could protect them from raids, their bolita partnership was out of business.

The three met in a car on a dirt road on Singer Island. Peel said, “Bobby, a man is trying to ruin us and I have got to kill him.”

Twice Peel drove Lucky around town and pointed out Chillingworth. It was Peel who came up with the murder plan. He figured: no body, no conviction. He drove Lucky and Bobby Lincoln to the beach house so they could case it.

Lucky had bought a skiff, and a second anchor, with a sack of $1 bills from his bolita stash. On the night of June 14, they pushed off from the Blue Heron Docks in Riviera Beach and made their way south along the coast at a slow 5 knots, passing a bottle of whiskey.

Around 1 a.m., they got to Manalapan and landed on the beach behind the house. The porch light was on. Bobby Lincoln crouched in the bushes as Lucky knocked on the door. A man answered in his pajamas.

“Aren’t you Judge Chillingworth?”

“Yes, I am.”

Lucky started a rehearsed story, that he was the captain of a yacht that was sinking and needed to call for help. But he swiftly abandoned that and pulled a pistol from under his shirt.

“This is a holdup.”

Lucky asked if anyone else was in the house. The judge said yes. “Then call them out.”

The judge shouted, “Margie.” His wife stumbled out, pulling a robe over her nightgown.

Bobby Lincoln stepped out of the dark and smashed the porch light with his gun, He helped Lucky tape the couple’s hands. On the way to the boat, Marjorie screamed. Lucky hit her with his gun, opening a gash.

The boat shoved off.

The engine, clogged with sand from the boat’s beaching, stalled. The two killers got it started, but it soon overheated and Lucky stopped it. The boat drifted for about an hour.

The judge offered $200,000, telling the black moonshiner, “Boy, if you take care of us, you will never have to work again.”

Finally, Chillingworth, for some reason, told the men how to restart the engine. The boat moved out several miles into the Gulf Stream.

The henchmen pulled out two surplus Army belts they’d bought and strapped lead weights onto the judge and his wife.

“Ladies first,” Lucky said, pushing Marjorie overboard.

“Honey, remember, I love you,” the judge told his wife.

“I love you too.”

Marjorie went over and down “with a few bubbles,” Lucky would testify.

The two then went for Chillingworth. But he dived overboard. Even with his bound hands, the Naval Academy veteran was holding his own in the waves as his killers watched. Lucky restarted the boat. It caught up to Chillingworth. One of the men brought a shotgun down on the judge, breaking the barrel. Chillingworth was dazed but stayed afloat.

Finally the two pulled him back on the boat, tied a 25-pound anchor around his neck, and let go. The two shined their flashlights and watched the judge vanish into the water.

The boat returned to Riviera Beach. Peel was home, where he’d been waiting, watching The $64,000 Question on television, to establish an alibi. Lucky stopped at a pay phone and dialed Peel.

“The motor is fixed.”

” . . . not fit to live with decent people.”

As courtroom observers reeled from the horrific tale, Lucky had one more piece of information for prosecutor O’Connell.

“It didn’t stop there. The fact is, just a short time after judge Chillingworth was murdered, Joe Peel drove me to another house in West Palm: your house. He wanted you killed.”

Lucky said he never was paid by Peel, “not even expenses.”

But he told the judge he blamed only himself for his troubles.

“People like us,” he said, “should be stamped out like cockroaches because they aren’t fit to live with decent people.”

On Dec. 12, Lucky pleaded guilty to both murders. The judge withheld the sentencing for the time being.

Two down. One more to go: Joe Peel.

Peel, meanwhile, had stayed busy. Twice he had plotted to have another inmate kill Lucky, once with cyanide-laced cigarettes and once with a gun. He’d also planned an escape from jail, but that also had failed.

In trial, Peel had a defense. He said the two henchmen had acted alone and had fingered Peel because Lucky thought the judge had slept with his wife.

Trying a judge in West Palm Beach for ordering the murder of another was out of the question. The case was moved to Fort Pierce. All 100 seats in the courtroom were filled.

“Judge Chillingworth would be on a bench like this tonight it if weren’t for Joseph Peel,” prosecutor O’Connell said in his summation. “But the judge is here tonight. And Joe Peel knows it.”

The next day, March 30, 1961, jurors took just five hours and 24 minutes to pronounce Peel guilty of accessory to murder. Two jurors had said they would vote to convict only if Peel were spared the electric chair.

Despite his cooperation, Lucky was sent to Death Row.

Now Peel had to be tried for killing Marjorie Chillingworth. That trial was moved to Bartow, east of Tampa. But Peel pleaded no contest. He got another life sentence.

Peel spent 18 years at Florida State Prison in Raiford. He was a model prisoner who attended church regularly and worked on the prison newspaper. In 1979, the state paroled him so he could start serving an 18-year federal sentence for mail fraud related to a phony investment company. Three years later, ill with cancer, he was paroled for good. He left his Missouri prison and moved into the Jacksonville home of the woman who’d been the flower girl at his wedding. The two planned to marry. Peel’s wife had divorced him while he was locked up.

Former prosecutor O’Connell said, “I see no reason to show any mercy toward Mr. Peel, for he has never shown any in any act of his adult life.”

A dying Peel granted a newspaper interview. He said he didn’t plan the murders, but knew about them and was guilty only of not stopping them. Few believed the “confession.” It soon became moot. After only nine days of freedom, Peel was dead.

Lucky would later tell friends he drank a bottle of bourbon every night so he could cope with the murder of Marjorie Chillingworth. That didn’t stop him from appealing, saying his alcohol-fueled testimony was designed “to impress two-bit punks.”

In 35 years of custody, Lucky had only one disciplinary report. In 1966, the state commuted his death sentence. His parole date: May 3, 2009. He wouldn’t make it. In 1992, Lucky suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed his right side. He died in October 1996.

Bobby Lincoln finished his federal prison term in Michigan in 1962 and went to Chicago. He converted to Islam and changed his name to David Karrim. He later moved to Riviera Beach. In 1996, he declined an interview, saying he feared for the jobs and reputations of his children. In May 2004, after living in obscurity for four decades, the last surviving player in Palm Beach County’s most sensational crime died at 80.

The principals

Curtis Eugene Chillingworth, 58
He was the senior circuit judge for Palm Beach County and had been on the bench for three decades. Chillingworth’s daughter said years later that one governor offered him a seat on the state Supreme Court. He declined. He wanted to stay in his home town. June 15, 1955, would have been the 32nd anniversary of his appointment as circuit judge. It was the day he died.

Marjorie Crouse McKinley Chillingworth, 56
The two married in November 1920. She and her husband had three grown daughters. Marjorie belonged to the Garden Club and won awards for her gerbera flowers.


Joseph Alexander Peel, Jr., 30 (above, with his wife Imogene)
Chillingworth might have been preparing to have him disbarred. That would have cost Peel his $3,600-a-year job as West Palm Beach’s only municipal judge, handling small cases, and severely hampered his ability to protect his bolita operation. By comparison, paying $2,500 to have Chillingworth killed was a bargain.


Floyd Albert ‘Lucky’ Holzapfel, 30
A World War II veteran, a journeyman worker and a frequent jailbird, he had gone to Peel for legal help in 1953.


George David ‘Bobby’ Lincoln, 30
The Riviera Beach moonshiner ran two poolrooms and two taxicabs. He also ran a numbers racket which brought him into the circle of Peel and Lucky.

This story was compiled from Palm Beach Post archives, Historical Society of Palm Beach County, and The Murder Trial of Judge Peel, by Jim Bishop.

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Posted in Archives June 15, 2005 at 12:57 pm.

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