TAMPA — Ten years ago, two 26-year-old men vanished.
Weeks later, Michael Wachholtz's body was found decaying in the back of his SUV parked in a Town 'N Country apartment complex. The remains of Jason Galehouse were never found.
Tampa police think both men were lured on successive nights from a gay nightclub to a Seminole Heights bungalow, where they were drugged and eventually met gruesome deaths. Investigators said the bungalow owner, Steven Lorenzo, and another man, Scott Schweickert, sexually tortured both men to death before they dismembered Galehouse, dumped his body parts around the city and left Wacholtz dead in his Jeep.
Police said Lorenzo and Schweickert were kindred spirits in an underground sadomasochistic subculture. They had plenty of evidence to support their theory: In Lorenzo's house, they found records of explicit Internet chats between the two men, copies of newspaper clippings about the murders and, chillingly, photos of Wachholtz in the home's bathtub. He appeared to be dead in the pictures; the photos showed someone had arranged his body in several different poses.
But though this month marks the 10-year anniversary of when Wachholtz and Galehouse disappeared from the nightclub, neither of the two men that police think killed them has been brought to trial on murder charges. Both are in prison, but on federal drug and conspiracy charges. Lorenzo is serving a 200-year sentence; Schweickert a 40-year sentence.
In September 2012, nearly nine years after the killings, Schweickert was indicted for murder. Two months ago, the prosecution filed notice with the court that the state intends to seek the death penalty. Investigators told Galehouse's mother that Lorenzo would be charged after Schweickert's case was done.
But 15 months after Schweickert was charged in Hillsborough County, he has yet to be arraigned. He remains in federal prison in Tuscon, Ariz. Lorenzo still has not been charged with murder.
“I'm getting antsy,” said Galehouse's mother, Pam Williams, who lives in Sarasota. “It's just hard. The whole Christmas thing is hard for me. It's just hard getting through it. I don't have him and it's lonely. And it gets worse. Every year it just gets worse, especially since this trial has not come to fruition yet.”
“It's hard to believe that Michael has been gone that long,” said Wachholtz's mother, Ruth. “I miss him every day, I talk to him every day, and I see his picture whenever I walk in the front door, so he's always there. He's also always in my heart so I'm comfortable with that. I haven't heard anything as far as any kind of progress with either case.”
When Galehouse and Wachholtz disappeared, their names were added to a burgeoning list of young gay men who had gone missing in the Tampa area and beyond.
There were candlelight vigils, as people demanded answers and Tampa area gay men worried they might be in danger.
Equality Florida organized a forum in January 2004 where gay people could air their concerns to law enforcement.
Some men who had been drugged and tortured by Lorenzo had been turned away by police because they couldn't remember what happened, said Brian Winfield, the managing director of Equality Florida. Winfield has been active in galvanizing the Tampa area's gay population over the cases for the past decade.
Winfield said there were rooms during the forum where people could talk individually to detectives. Several mentioned the name of Lorenzo, who was well known in the community.
Months later, Lorenzo, was arrested on federal drug charges. Authorities said he had drugged and sexually tortured six men. That number would eventually grow to nine.
Investigators searched Lorenzo's bungalow home on Powhatan Avenue. They uncovered a trove of evidence, including hundreds of Internet chats using AOL instant messaging. There were photographs of naked men bound and tortured; some wore gas masks; one was wrapped head-to-toe in duct tape.
There was a book,“Murderers Among Us,” and an envelope with newspaper stories about Wachholtz and Galehouse and other missing people.
As investigators searched through the pictures, they found images of Wachholtz inside Lorenzo's home. He was naked and apparently dead. His body was contorted into a bizarre pose. In other pictures, he was draped in Lorenzo's bathtub.
Authorities also searched for evidence linking Lorenzo to the disappearances of other gay men in the Tampa area as well as Fort Lauderdale and Chicago.
Lorenzo was indicted on federal drug charges in November 2004. The same day, authorities searched Scott Schweickert's Chicago-area home. Detectives had evidence Lorenzo and Schweickert had talked online about torturing unsuspecting men and making them vanish.
Lorenzo and Schweickert, who lived in Orlando at the time of the killings, had been introduced to each other by a fellow traveler in Pennsylvania who said he worked both as a physician and a funeral home director. “How convenient,” Lorenzo wrote to the man identified in chats as LimitXpander.
“My name is Scott,” Schweickert wrote in his first email to Lorenzo — or, as they were known online, MstrScott and DomDudeForSub — “and I believe you had talked with LimitXpander here on AOL. He had suggested I contact you regarding a particular boy from the Tampa area called Johnny Torture or fieldslave2. I would definitely like to discuss this boy and the possibilities of what might be done with him if you have the time.”
That email was sent in October 2003, less than three months before Wachholtz and Galehouse were killed.
Lorenzo and Schweickert chatted online about finding both willing and unsuspecting men and making them disappear after torturing them.
And the timing of Galehouse and Wachholtz's killings, days before Christmas, may have been intentional, as was the annual suffering endured by their families.
In one online conversation, Schweickert wrote, “Taking someone just before xmas is ideal tho.”
Lorenzo responded, “Why? Think it plays their minds more?”
“Absolutely,” Schweickert wrote. “Knowing the entire family is together and he will never be with them again.”
“Man you are sadistic,” Lorenzo wrote. “I would do the same.”
The two had numerous chats in the weeks before Galehouse and Wachholtz disappeared. In the days afterward, they talked about evidence in a conversation in which they appeared to agree that the cloth seats in Wachholtz's car meant no fingerprints would be found.
After Lorenzo was identified as a suspect, he steadfastly denied any involvement in the killings, saying his online chats were merely fantasy.
But when shown pictures of Wachholtz — who appeared to be dead at the time — being posed in his bathtub, Lorenzo acknowledged his hand was in one of the photographs.
Schweickert gave a detailed description of the killings and the dismemberment and disposal of Galehouse's body. Investigators later found Galehouse's DNA in blood on the floor of Lorenzo's garage, where Schweickert said Galehouse had been dismembered.
When the sentencing hearings were held for Lorenzo and Schweickert on the drug and conspiracy charges, judges called on local authorities to bring murder charges.
Authorities are “working diligently” to bring Schweickert to Tampa to face trial, said Mark Cox, spokesman for Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober.
One factor that may be delaying the transfer of Schweickert from federal to state custody is that the charges against him carry a possible death sentence.
Connecticut lawyer Todd Bussert said when federal prisoners are transferred to state custody, there are a slew of issues, some involving the fact that the federal government maintains primary custody and would expect to have the inmate returned.
That prospect would be diminished with the potential of a death sentence.
“I've been doing this for 16-plus years, I've never heard of (the Bureau of Prisons) refusing to grant a writ” to turn an inmate over for prosecution by state authorities, said Bussert, who used to co-chair the American Bar Association's Correction and Sentencing Committee. “There may be general safety and security issues with respect to him.''
For Winfield, the people who were touched by the brutal killings deserve better.
If Ober can't move the cases forward, Winfield said, “then we need him to make it clear who does have the power to get this moving. ... The simple status quo of it just remaining unresolved is just not acceptable to us as an organization, to the community and especially, it's unacceptable to the families.”
Though Lorenzo and Schweickert are in prison, they still have not been held accountable by the state of Florida for killing Wachholtz and Galehouse, Winfield said.
“They have never been held responsible for the brutality, for the physical harm and murder of Jason and Michael. And that's what really keeps things unresolved for the families.”