By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Something unusual happened on Monday, September 9, 2002. Keith Gross was late for work. A 24-year-old with tanned white skin and brown hair cropped short on the sides, Gross was known around Kitchens to Go in Fort Lauderdale as a firebrand who spoke his mind. But during the five years he had worked at the store on NE Fourth Street, he'd virtually always been punctual. It traced to a short stint in the Army at age 18. "You could set a watch by Keith," remembers Ken Walker, Gross' friend and boss.
Gross had been expected at Walker's house in Victoria Park the day before to watch football. But the 24-year-old never showed. At first, Walker assumed his buddy had met some young girl that afternoon, making the Dolphins game only a secondary priority.
But at 10 a.m. the next day, when Gross was one hour late for work, Walker began to wonder. He called Gross' apartment. No one answered. "Why don't you go over there and see if he's home?" Walker remembers an employee asking.
"If he were at home," the boss said dismissively, "he'd be coming to work."
Two hours passed. Gross still hadn't reported. Around noon, Walker decided to drive the few blocks to Gross' home at 1022 NE Second Ave., a cream-colored duplex across from North Side Elementary School, near Sunrise Boulevard. As Walker strolled under three leafy trees that shade the west and south sides of the duplex, he heard the incessant hum of the living-room air conditioner.
He knocked on the front door. No answer. He knocked again. Still no response. Walker sauntered around toward the west side of the apartment and peeked through the living-room window. Nothing seemed unusual. But then the 44-year-old Fort Lauderdale native noticed that the bedroom air conditioner was also on. He walked to the rear of the apartment and looked in the window through an opening in the venetian blinds. "That's when I saw him," Walker recalls.
Gross lay facedown on the floor next to the bed, naked and gagged, a T-shirt wrapped tightly around his neck. Rope bound his arms and legs. "He was hog-tied," Walker says, tears welling in his eyes as his voice rises in a falsetto of anger. The young man wasn't moving; his throat had been slit. "I didn't see any blood on the floor; it must have gone under the bed," Walker explains. "But there's one thing I remember most about seeing him. There was a smudge of blood on his butt cheek. It looked like [the killer had] used Keith's butt to wipe off the knife, like how a butcher would wipe off his knife on an apron."
Walker hurried back to his car and returned to Kitchens to Go. He called police. One of his employees then phoned Michael Gross, Keith's 25-year-old brother. The two had been adopted at an early age. Michael moved from New York to Fort Lauderdale in 1997 to attend college. Keith, who had always been close to his older sibling, followed him south.
"You need to go to your brother's apartment right now," Michael remembers being told.
"Why?" he asked. "What happened?"
"Just go to your brother's apartment," the answer came. "Right now."
An ambulance was outside Keith's apartment by the time Michael arrived. Walker explained what had happened. Keith didn't show up for work, he told him, so he came over. The air conditioner hum. The window. The body. The smudge of blood.
Gross had been raped and murdered. Today, more than one year after Walker discovered his friend's body on that September afternoon, police have yet to file charges. But that may soon change.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Gross case is one of several throughout the Southeast that police have begun to reexamine following the September 17 arrest for murder of Henry Lee Jones, a 40-year-old violent drifter and occasional Fort Lauderdale resident. Jones' rap sheet, which extends back before he was 18 years old, documents his life and travels like a detailed time line. It also documents the steady escalation of his violence.
Jones was the product of an ineffectual justice system. As a teenager, he was a brutal thief. Jones spent his 20s in prison, rejoining the citizenry in 1997 at age 34 after serving less than half his sentence. Once back on the streets, according to public records, Jones graduated to more insidious crimes, from battery to rape. In fact, from 1997 to 2001, police agencies and state attorneys throughout Florida had at least seven opportunities to throw Jones back in prison. They all failed.
Now, police suspect Jones is a sexually driven serial killer responsible for the deaths of at least four people. Keith Gross may have been his first murder victim.
October 3, 1981, was a warm sunny day. Early that morning, 45-year-old used-car salesman Joseph Giovanni was anxious to make a sale. Giovanni worked at Johnny Harris Pontiac on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. At 9:10 a.m., he spotted his first customers. They were two black men, about 19 or 20 years old as far as Giovanni could tell. One stood nearly six feet tall and had short black hair and long arms. His companion, whose stockier frame measured about five feet, eight inches, wore his hair in long cornrows. The tall one was a 19-year-old from Fort Lauderdale named Jackie Johnson. The other was 18-year-old Henry Lee Jones.