MANATEE — A box full of letters from Thomas Fast, all with the return address of the Manatee County jail, is hard for Gary Daughtrey to ignore, but he says he does.
Daughtrey used to read the writings from the man accused of killing and dismembering his stepmother. But the letters, Daughtrey says, never change, filled with the delusions of his former employee of nearly two decades.
Delusions, says Daughtrey, that Fast is the victim of a conspiracy that has framed him for killing Susan Fast in June 2007, stuffing her body parts in garbage bags and dumping the bags in a storm drain behind a Lakewood Ranch shopping plaza.
Fast’s many letters from jail beg Daughtrey to contact federal authorities and prove his conspiracy theory to officials at the highest level in order to avoid a first-degree murder trial.
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That’s not going to happen. Fast’s trial begins Monday with jury selection at the Manatee County Courthouse.
Daughtrey has considered attending the trial to see what might happen to Fast, who worked as a mortician at Daughtrey’s funeral home and completed dozens of jobs for the Orlando funeral director over two decades. Fast often slept in Daughtrey’s home as he worked on a job for an employer who still calls him “talented and reliable.”
But Daughtrey has decided to stay away from Fast’s murder trial, which officials expect will draw intense media coverage, possibly including gavel-to-gavel coverage by truTV, formally known as CourtTV. He expects the trial will only bring him to the same conclusion as Fast’s letters have: that Fast is a tortured man whose unchecked insanity, authorities say, led to him to unimaginable violence.
“I don’t suspect in the end they’ll get much further than that he needs to be institutionalized,” Daughtrey predicted. “At first, I read all of his letters. But when I get them it is all the same ramblings, and I just can’t read them anymore. But I still keep them, they just go right in the box.”
‘He was different’
In the early 1990s, Daughtrey was in the market to hire a mortician to work at his Orlando funeral home. He went to Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service for a recommendation of one of its students. The school provided Thomas Fast.
Daughtrey interviewed Fast and liked him, hiring the man he would turn to as employee for many years to come.
“He was different, but extremely talented at everything he set out to do, and a very hard worker,” Daughtrey said.
Fast worked as a mortician at Dove Funeral Home for two years, then moved on to start his own business as a contractor, a handyman of sorts, Daughtrey says. And he was good with his hands, just as easily doing home repairs as building a boat.
“He worked on my offices and homes for years. He did the best work I have ever seen,” Daughtrey said.
But another side to Fast always came out, and it got worse over the years, Daughtrey recalls. Fast constantly talked to himself while he worked, often letting go with loud rumbling laughs.
“Every now and then I would ask him what was so funny,” said Daughtrey. “He would just say someone told him something.”
At the end of a hard day’s work, Fast would sit at a desk in Daughtrey’s home and fill notebook after notebook with his writings.
“He could sit there and write for hours. I never did see what he was writing, never really tried to. It was an amazing thing to watch,” he said.
Fast never talked much about any friends or girlfriends. He did mention being in the U.S. Army and spoke vaguely of serving in Vietnam, says Daughtrey.
“I got the impression he had tough time in the military, in Vietnam,” Daughtrey noted. “But like anything with him, it was hard to know what the truth was.”
He also often mentioned his father, Bruce Fast, a homebuilder, and his stepmother Susan, an interior designer, who had a home in Tara, in Manatee County. Thomas Fast called Susan Fast his “stepmunster,” Daughtrey says.
Fast’s behavior got more erratic, but his work never suffered. The continual conversations Fast had with himself seemed “bizarre” to Daughtrey, but he says he never feared Fast. Daughtrey even knew Fast had a gun and it didn’t bother him.
“He stayed in my house while he did jobs and I never had a problem with him,” Daughtrey said. “I never had the feeling I had to sleep with one eye open.”
But Daughtrey did not know that Fast’s anger toward his father and stepmother had started showing more frequently, according to court records. Threats of violence would appear out of the blue and frighten the couple.
“I could kill you at any time,” Thomas once said to his father.
Fast also began telling family and acquaintances that he believed his father had cut him out of his will, and his stepmother and her son were going to get all the money. He told Daughtrey that Susan Fast was continually under-bidding him for contracts on work he wanted just to spite him.
Prior to her death, Susan Fast told an acquaintance, “I think Tom is going to try to kill me,” according to court papers. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary as Fast completed a project on French doors on Daughtrey’s office, just one week before Susan Fast disappeared.
Susan goes missing
The last time anyone heard from Susan Fast, the 60-year-old interior designer was working hard as usual. She had just returned from a trip to the Bahamas with Bruce, where he had stayed behind.
On June 29, Susan Fast went to the office and did a little work, stopped off to see a few friends and went home to answer e-mails that had been sitting in her inbox while she traveled to the Bahamas.
At 3 p.m., she sent one of the last e-mails of her life to a friend, who had asked for some interior design advice.
“I think green and/or peach would make good backgrounds for a tropical theme,” she wrote.
At some point between when she sent another e-mail at 3:30 p.m. and when Bruce Fast returned home that night and reported her missing just after midnight, medical examiner’s reports say Susan Fast suffered a brutal attack during which she put up a fight. But a stab wound from behind struck her jugular and killed her.
Her killer then went on to dismember her body, with her body parts discovered in the storm drain a month later, after weeks of searches that drew hundreds of people to the Lorraine Road area to help find her body.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives focused on that location based on data obtained from a GPS system in Susan Fast’s sport utility vehicle after she disappeared.
Sheriff’s detectives had found the SUV in Bradenton, and a witness said she saw Thomas Fast leaving the vehicle with a duffle bag. Detectives arrested Fast on charges of stealing his stepmother’s SUV and carrying a concealed weapon after finding a weapon in the duffle bag. Investigators also found Susan Fast’s jewelry hidden in a deodorant stick in the bag.
Detectives also found Susan Fast’s blood in her home and in her vehicle. Court records show when Thomas Fast was questioned, he spoke of Susan Fast being dead before her body had been found.
After the month-long search and grisly discovery, Susan Fast’s family held a funeral service. Thomas Fast sat in jail, later charged with murder based on the discovery of the body.
News of Fast’s arrest on a first-degree murder charge had saddened Daughtrey, but it was no shock.
“It didn’t surprise me,” Daughtrey said. “I actually thought at the time, if he did it, they would never find her, because he is that smart.”
A media circus?
In the two years leading up to his trial, Fast has mailed dozens of letters not only to Daughtrey, but to high-level federal and state officials and newspapers outlining the conspiracy he believes landed him jail.
Dozens of handwritten pages mailed from jail to the Bradenton Herald claim the federal government, South American terrorist groups, the Russian mafia and members of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office killed Susan Fast and framed him for the crime.
He complained that his assistant public defender, Franklin Roberts, had failed him by not pursuing the conspiracy as a defense; he asked a judge to let him represent himself at trial. The request was denied.
Fast wrote Roberts’ actions hurt his case by “negating a true and factual defense showing cartel members had motive to murder Susan I. Fast to clean their tracks.”
Doctors for both prosecutor Art Brown and Roberts had differing opinions on whether Fast, who they said has suffered from mental problems since 1981, is competent to stand trial. A judge ruled he is.
As jury selection is slated for Monday, court officials are bracing for a heavy media presence, which could include gavel-to-gavel coverage by truTV.
“It definitely presents challenges as we have to discuss what they want in terms of access and what we allow,” said 12th Judicial Circuit Chief Information Officer Dennis Menendez.
Stetson University College of Law professor Robert Batey noted that intense media presence during a trial can also affect the judge and attorneys.
“It can certainly make life very difficult for the judge and attorneys to get the business of court done,” he said. “The deranged behavior of the defendant that is alleged and the gruesome nature of the killing are certainly factors that may capture the interest of the public.”
Robert Napper, law enforcement reporter, will be covering the Fast trial this week. He can be reached at 941-745-7024.