After a messy divorce, 38-year-old-Susan Hamwi moved with her 18-month-old daughter Shane to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On November 8, 1983, a concerned friend called the police, saying no one had heard from Susan for a week. When the police arrived at her home, they found the reason: Susan lay in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor. She had been strangled with a telephone cord and stabbed to death with a carving knife. In a bedroom, the lifeless body of baby Shane lay in her crib. The helpless infant had perished from dehydration after being unattended.
Two pieces of evidence found at the crime scene were a bloody carving and red human hair. The knife had been wiped of fingerprints, so investigators focused on the hair.
Authorities interviewed Susan’s neighbors, one of them being forty-two-year-old John Purvis. He and Susan knew each other casually. Immediately upon questioning him, investigators were struck by his noticeably red hair.
Unbeknownst to the police, John had been diagnosed as a non-violent schizophrenic with the IQ of an adolescent. He lived with this mother as he was unable to care for himself.
John was taken to the police station for questioning; his mother Emma, accompanied him, but she was not allowed into the interrogation room. Police questioned John for several hours, and as the interrogation became more intense, he became more agitated. When Emma, who was sitting in the police station lobby, heard the detectives yelling at her son, she stormed into the interrogation room, and immediately ended the proceedings.
The detectives, Rick Rice and Rich Martin, however, were sure they had their man. They were determined to continue questioning John, even if that meant sidestepping ethical police procedures.
In early December, four weeks after first questioning John, Detectives Rice, and Martin returned to the Purvis home, knowing Emma was not there. They coaxed John into again coming to the police station to be questioned.
Upon arrival, Dr. Joel Klass, a psychiatrist, proceeded to administer a personality test to John. John was not capable of comprehending his rights and was given the impression he had to adhere to police orders.
Dr. Klass administered a series of tests on John using the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) cards, featuring ambiguous drawings requiring interpretation from the tested subject. Several of the cards elicited unusual responses from John, and at one point, he asked Dr. Klass if he was going to jail and if Klass thought he had killed Susan. John repeated the questions several times before stating he liked Susan and had killed her when she rejected his attempts for a closer relationship.
When the detectives were brought in, they told John if he confessed to the crime, he could go home. John then repeated what he had told Dr. Klass. Instead, he was sent straight to a jail cell and charged with two counts of murder.
Only John’s confession to Dr. Klaas was allowed into evidence at his trial. The account was inconsistent with the details of the crime, and his hair, though red, did not match the hair strands collected at the scene. Nevertheless, John Purvis was convicted of the murders of Susan and Shane Hamwi.
In 1993, ten years after the murders of Susan and Shane Hamwi and following mounting pressure brought about by an “Unsolved Mysteries” broadcast of the case, the Fort Lauderdale Police re-opened the murder investigation.
Tim Bronson and Bob Williams, the new detectives assigned to the case, found their predecessors, detectives Rice and Martin, had been derelict in investigating the most obvious suspect, Susan’s ex-husband, Paul Hamwi.
Susan had divorced Paul after several years of abuse and only a few months after giving birth to Shane, whom Paul had little interest in raising. At the time of the murders in 1983, Paul Hamwi was in Aspen, Colorado, stricken with a broken leg. That was enough for Detectives Rice and Martin to eliminate him as a suspect, but their successors found he still should have been investigated.
Following on a tip received but dismissed by detectives Rice and Martin in 1985, detectives Bronson and Williams zeroed in on Aspen resident Robert Beckett. A woman who had been beaten by his son, Robert Jr., claimed she had heard him boast that his father had killed a woman in Florida.
Under questioning, Beckett admitted his involvement in the murder of Susan and Shane Hamwi. In return for immunity, he told police that he and Paul Serio had each been paid $14,000 by Paul Hamwi to kill Susan. Paul Hamwi’s motive was to avoid paying Susan $180,000.
Paul Hamwi had Susan sign a prenuptial agreement to protect himself in the event of divorce. Paul, a wealthy real estate developer, wouldn’t pay Susan anything. However, the deal was made under duress and declared null-and-void. Paul was ordered to pay Susan $180,000 in alimony.
In January of 1993, Paul Hamwi and Paul Serio were arrested for the murders of Susan and Shane Hamwi. They were each convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On January 15, 1993, John Purvis was released from prison after serving nine years for a crime he did not commit. The following month he was officially exonerated of all charges concerning the murders of Susan and Shane Hamwi.
John received a $1 million judgment from the city of Fort Lauderdale in exchange for his mother’s (guardian) dropping any claims against the city. The Purvis family likely could have received much more money, but, with the appeals, it would have taken years to collect.
A lawsuit against the prosecutor for failing to disclose exculpatory information was eventually dismissed.
Paul Hamwi, now 74-years-old, is currently incarcerated at the Union Correctional Institute in Raiford, Florida. Paul Serio died in 2004 at age 57.
Robert Beckett received immunity for his role in the murders of Susan and Shane Hamwi in exchange for testifying against Paul Hamwi and Paul Serio. In 1995, however, he was convicted of first-degree murder in Los Angeles as was his son, Robert Jr., whose big mouth provided the big break in the Hamwi case.
The younger Beckett said he and his dad met 18-year-old Tracy Stewart at Hermos Bach on the day of her disappearance, August 9, 1981. Robert Jr. said he and his father convinced Tracy to go their apartment, where they raped and tortured the teen for three days before clubbing and strangling her to death. He said they dumped her body somewhere in the desert outside Los Angeles, in either Riverside or Orange County. Father and son were convicted of murder even though Tracy’s body was never found.
Robert Beckett Sr. died behind bars in 1997, coincidentally on August 9, exactly sixteen years after Tracy Stewart’s disappearance. Robert Jr. remains imprisoned. I could not find a picture of either man.
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• Associated Press
• Charley Project
• Los Angeles Times
• South Florida Sun-Sentinel
• Unsolved Mysteries
Recommended Reading:Wrongly Convicted (Slater & Norman Mystery Series Book 12) Wrongly Convicted: Perspectives on Failed Justice (Critical Issues in Crime and Society)
More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:
Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)
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