At first blush, the murder of Jeffrey Heagerty in West Palm Beach, Florida, had all the trappings of your standard unsolved murder, straight out of the swamp. Heagerty, a young man who was found floating in a canal in the summer of 1984, seemed by all accounts simply to have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person.
A passionate partygoer, aspiring stylist, and nightlife hound, Heagerty appeared to have fallen prey to the more predatory elements of the men’s club scene of the time. His friends and intimates had solid alibis for the night, and malicious cruisers of the day were known to pick out singletons and, plying them with drugs and booze, offer them a good deal more than they’d bargained for. This wasn’t the first tragedy of this sort in the area. Yet leads were so scant in Heagerty’s case that one amazing tip led investigators to interview everyone in the Palm Beach gay scene who dressed up like Boy George.
Yeah—like that really narrowed it down.
But without any viable evidence other than a single unidentified fingerprint on Heagerty’s car, investigators hit a brick wall, and the case gradually went cold—until a chance conversation in a jail cell three years later. In 1987, another young man named Kurt Eugene Emrich was awaiting trial for a crime that shocked even him—when in an act of self-defense months earlier, he strangled his longtime lover, Emery James Illenye. In 1986, Emrich and Illenye had been a couple for a year or so, moving in together to a modest house in North Palm Beach. While they both worked to pay the bills, it’s fair to say that Illenye had a slightly higher-profile job: serving as personal butler to Donald and Ivana Trump, at their newly-purchased Mar-a-Lago estate.
According to Graham Brunk, who tells the whole sordid story in his book Solving the West Palm Beach Murder of Jeffrey Heagerty, the future 45th President was so impressed with Illenye’s work ethic that they even invited him to join their household staff back in New England that summer. But not all was well back in paradise—Brunk describes how during Illenye’s summer away, Emrich and Illenye argued at length over the costly upkeep of their new house. Eventually, once Illenye had returned home to Palm Beach, an argument broke out, and as arguments can do between lovers, things went south fast. In an alcohol-induced rage, Illenye began to physically assault Emrich. Emrich threw up his hands to protect himself, and when the dust settled in their bedroom, Emrich was standing over a corpse.
To be fair, Emrich made for a terrible criminal, as least as far as the ‘getting away with it’ part goes. Fast-forward past burying the body in his own backyard (yep, you read that right) to the part where police find him holed up in a Holiday Inn and you can imagine how he ended up in the clink.
The twist? In that cell, awaiting trial, Emrich meets one Jeffrey Payne, a drifter locked up on other charges who strikes up a conversation. Payne decides he likes Emrich—maybe because he’s young, maybe because this is his first time in the joint—and starts telling him stories, bragging about his exploits, even about a murder he committed a couple of years back where he picked up a guy outside a bar one night and did some rather unspeakable things to him before dumping his body in a canal. Emrich is struck—either Payne is the best off-the-cuff storyteller in the Sunshine State, or he’s in possession of certain details that only someone very close to a crime might know. Either way, Emrich later took down careful notes of their conversation and sent them to the prosecutor on his case—and with the promise of even more details to come, bought himself some leverage in his trial.
What happens after that? We can’t spoil everything (that wouldn’t be any fun), but remember that mysterious fingerprint on Heagerty’s car? Wonder whose that turned out to be. Stranger things, friends, stranger things indeed—but had the former butler to the current President of the United States not once drunkenly assaulted his younger lover, Jeffrey Heagerty’s murderer might be walking free.
How’s that for a twist? Only one word to describe it—Yuuuuge!
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