Gettis and Merrill Lee murder case rocked Parrish, and remains unsolved 58 years later

PARRISH -- For 58 years, it has stood as the perfect murder mystery.

Gettis and Merrill Lee disappeared from their Parrish home on March 7, 1957.

Gettis Lee was the flamboyant owner of a Parrish grocery store, a wealthy citrus grower and rancher. He was known as the unofficial "mayor" of Parrish, who helped widows and the poor.

He flaunted his wealth by peeling off bills from a large wad of cash that he always carried. It was not unusual for him to carry $2,000 or more, at a time when a working wage might be $100 a week. There were allegations that Gettis, 63, was a womanizer as well.

Merrill Lee was his opposite.

She was reclusive, kindly, and mostly stayed at home, out of the public eye.

Thirty-six hours after the couple was reported missing, Merrill Lee's body was found. The 60-year-old woman had been viciously beaten, her body slashed with a sharp instrument, and she had been shot four times. Her body was discovered face down in canal off Erie Road, less than a mile from home. She was fully dressed in a blouse, skirt and low-heeled canvas shoes.

Then the question became: "Where is Gettis Lee?"

Law enforcement and towns people searched the area intensively. People held hands

as they scoured a field east of U.S. 301 and south of State Road 62.

For the next six years, investigators and neighbors would ask that same question: "Where is Gettis Lee?"

Then on May 11, 1963, two men on their way home from work shot a large rattlesnake on State Road 62 and followed the wounded reptile into the brush.

They stumbled upon a skeleton. The bones were scattered and the skull contained a bullet hole. It was in the same field where townspeople had searched shoulder-to-shoulder six years earlier.

Investigators later confirmed that the remains of Gettis Lee had been found. The trajectory of the bullet wound perfectly matched a bullet hole in his hat, found in his car parked at Groover's Grocery in Palmetto years earlier.

At the scene where his skeleton was found, investigators also found his billfold, his gold Lord Elgin watch, his shoes and his dentures.

The violence of the crime shocked the Parrish community, which at the time had only about 600 residents.

Residents felt that their small-town innocence had been stolen.

The crime has never been forgotten in Parrish, although many of those who knew Gettis and Merrill Lee are now dead, too.

Sidney and Vivian Buice lived across the street from the Lees.

"Miss Merrill always came over to read the Bible to Sidney's grandmother, who was blind," Vivian Buice said.

The Buices were among those who took part in the long-ago search for Gettis and Merrill Lee.

"Miss Merrill was here the night before she disappeared. She said she had been combing her hair and saw someone outside her window watching her," Vivian Buice said. The Lees had no children, and Gettis Lee's sisters and his nephew have all passed on, she said.

"There's nobody here now related to them. Gettis was raised on Gettis Lee Road," Vivian Buice said, referring to the unpaved road that bears his name about one-half mile south of the Hillsborough County line off U.S. Highway 301 North.

"I liked him. He was good to us kids," she said.

"There has been all kind of tales about what happened, but nobody knows," Vivian Buice said. "I was always hoping they would find someone, but they are probably all dead now."

Sidney Buice, 87, believes that Gettis and Merrill knew their killers.

"Merrill always kept her door locked. She knew the person, because she opened the door to let them in," Sidney Buice said.

"Gettis was a -- I don't know -- he could be good, but if you did something wrong, he could get nasty with you," Sidney Buice said.

"He was always good to us. Mama always traded with him. He would deliver her groceries," Sidney Buice said.

JoAnn Rogers lived just a few doors from Merrill and Gettis, and her baby son was only about 6 months old at the time of the murders.

"Merrill didn't bother anyone," Rogers said. "I doubt it will ever be solved. After that night, everybody locked their doors."

Some people claimed Gettis Lee ran afoul of Tampa bolita-gambling interests, and that a professional assassin did him in, according to Bradenton Herald archives.

Memories fade, and many Parrish residents who knew Gettis and Merrill are long dead.

Even Gettis and Merrill Lee's home on 121st Avenue East is now gone. Built in the 1930s by Gettis Lee, the house was destroyed by fire in 2008.

The homestead is now a vacant lot.

Likely to remain unsolved

With few people left living who worked on the Gettis and Merrill Lee murder case and a lack of new evidence or leads, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office has lost hope that this cold case will ever be solved.

"At this time, it is safe it will go down as an unsolved homicide," sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow said. "The chances are that the person who did it is no longer alive."

The case unfortunately goes so far back, Bristow said, that no one who investigated it is still employed with the sheriff's office, and most are no longer even alive.

Despite poor recordkeeping when Gettis and Merrill first went missing in 1957, Bristow said the case's file still contains 2,425 pages of reports that have accumulated over the years.

Although the sheriff's office no longer has a cold-case unit, detectives with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office Homicides Investigative Unit do review cold cases from time to time.

The last time anyone officially did any work with the case was in 2012, when some property and evidence were sealed.

"Over the years, we've had some detectives who have gone through the case, but we haven't had any active investigation because we haven't had any new leads that would precipitate that," Bristow said.

The case, however, has been one that has remained an intriguing mystery, he said, still drawing attention and prompting media to ask questions every few years.

Regular as clockwork

Gettis Lee would drive past JoAnn Rogers' home on his way to work promptly at 6 a.m. every day.

"Every morning, you could set your clock by him," she said. "Then one morning he wasn't there."

Donald A. Durrance, 26, a helper at Gettis' grocery, was the first to report the couple missing. Durrance went to the store, and finding it locked up, went to Gettis and Merrill's home, where he found three lights burning, and the back door open, according to Herald archives.

There was no sign of the couple.

The last time anyone saw Gettis Lee alive was the night before, when he bought three chicken dinners and went to his mistress' home in Bradenton, according to Herald archives.

To date, nobody has ever been arrested in the case.

Roy Baden, who was Manatee County sheriff in 1957, told a Herald reporter in 1993 what he thought had happened:

As soon as Lee arrived home on March 7, 1957, he was killed, Baden told the Herald.

"He was shot right there at his house. (Merrill) probably heard it, jumped up and came outside," Baden said, according to Herald archives.

The killer, or killers, forced Merrill into a car, drove her out to Erie Road and shot her to death, Baden said.

Baden, who died at age 88 in 1995, also said he had an idea about who committed the crime, but didn't have enough evidence to make an arrest.

And neither has anyone else, including investigators for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI.

Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.