Our card this week is James Rowe and John and Nancy Spivey, the Jack of Spades from
On a cool January evening in 1991, the three roommates hosted a small group of friends
in their St. Petersburg apartment for a night of drinks and card games.
But exactly what happened next that night has baffled investigators for three decades.
I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.
On January 10th, 1991, during the pre-dawn hours in the Tampa Bay area, a man, who we’re
gonna call Ralph, headed to pick up his three colleagues for work.
Ralph, along with 60-year-old James Rowe and married couple John and Nancy Spivey, who
were 33 and 37, were all day laborers and made their living by picking up odd jobs through
a temp services agency in St. Petersburg, where they lived.
It was around 5.30 that morning when Ralph climbed the stairs of the apartment complex
and knocked on the door to the small one-bedroom, one-bath unit, but nobody came to greet him.
He couldn’t even pick up any sounds of feet shuffling or people getting ready from inside.
Thinking maybe they were still asleep, he shrugged it off and went out to grab some
coffee and breakfast.
Since they got their work through the temp agency, they weren’t expected to clock in
at a certain time, so it’s not really a big deal.
First come, first served.
Ralph returned about an hour later and knocked again, but this time he noticed something
out of place, something that gave him pause.
This time, the door was slightly ajar.
Now whether he noticed the door was slightly open the previous time he showed up at the
apartment, or if it was even open then, police aren’t sure.
But now that he saw it, it made Ralph super uneasy.
So uneasy, he didn’t even dare go inside alone.
Ralph left the apartment and walked out to a nearby street where a St. Petersburg police
officer happened to be patrolling the area.
He flagged down the cop and directed the officer to the apartment as he explained why he was
When the officer reached the front door, he too knocked and called out for someone to
Taking in the silence, the cop thought this was definitely reason enough for a welfare
check, so since the door was technically already open, he stepped inside.
But nothing could have prepared him for what was waiting on the other side.
There on the floor were the bodies of John and Nancy, with blood covering their faces
and pooling around them.
Observing no signs of life, the officer continued to call out as he cleared the residence to
make sure there wasn’t any kind of looming threat.
When he got to the bedroom, the officer saw the couple’s roommate, James, lying on his
All three were so brutalized that it wasn’t immediately obvious how they may have died.
Over the next few hours, cops and first responders were all over the place, and investigators
began their work of processing the apartment for possible evidence as well as documenting
the crime scene with photos and a video walkthrough.
According to reporting from the Tampa Bay Times, which was called the St. Petersburg
Times back then, quote-unquote, bags of evidence were taken from inside the apartment, though
police both now and then wouldn’t say what was in those bags.
As far as police on the scene could tell, nothing had been rummaged through or taken,
and it probably would have been easy to spot if something was missing because the apartment
We’re talking like six, maybe 700 square feet.
St. Petersburg Police Detective Wallace Pavelski, who heads up the department’s cold case unit,
was the lead on the case.
The biggest thing I think they were trying to determine was what was the motive for what
And I think that’s the biggest mystery to the case right now, is there was no motive
Robbery didn’t appear to be any type of a motivation in this case.
Looking at the three bodies, investigators couldn’t help but notice that each of the
victims looked as if they had been attacked in the position in which they were found,
possibly while they were sleeping, because John and Nancy were lying on the floor and
James was on his bed.
Each of their autopsies were scheduled for the following day, January 11th, and St. Petersburg
officers got to work canvassing the rest of the apartment complex and the surrounding
neighborhood, hoping to speak with anyone who might have heard or seen anything.
The first person they spoke to was Ralph, who then brought police up to speed with the
events of that morning, but as far as we know, he didn’t have much else to add.
Investigators couldn’t provide us more context beyond this, but I have to imagine that this
guy was still in shock to some degree and processing the news of his colleagues’ murders.
For what it’s worth, Ralph was never considered a suspect, though police didn’t say why,
and again, they wouldn’t even release his real name.
Anyway, after Ralph, one of the other people that police talked to that day was a next
door neighbor named Jackie Gibson.
She told the officer who knocked on her door that it was technically James who was renting
the apartment and that he was letting John and Nancy stay there on a temporary basis
because money was tight, and they lived a transient lifestyle, regularly hopping from
one place to the next and not having any real long-term digs to call their own.
With that in mind, police said John and Nancy had been found on the floor, and there was
only one bedroom, so they very likely could have been sleeping there.
But police wouldn’t say if the couple was on sleeping bags or a makeshift bed or anything
If that was the case, if all of them were killed as they slept, that would maybe explain
why Jackie never heard screams or clamoring.
Jackie told police that she only really knew James, and that he was always nice and more
than once offered up his couch and floor space to friends or colleagues that needed a place
Jackie thought James had lived at the complex for a few years while John and Nancy had only
been there for a few months, and she said James, John, and Nancy were a social bunch.
It was a pretty regular thing for them to host card nights and open house-style get-togethers,
the most recent one taking place the night before.
Now, she said they were making some noise.
From what she could hear, it seemed like there was maybe two or three people there in addition
to the three that lived there.
It was kind of a late night for them, but this was a regular thing, so it didn’t stand
out to her.
Jackie didn’t talk as if the get-togethers annoyed her or anything, just that the walls
were thin enough that she knew John and his roommates liked to party.
But beyond the regular party noises, she didn’t hear anything that stood out to her late that
night or in the early morning hours.
They talked to the other neighbors, too, but they all pretty much said the same story.
But they did pick up the extra detail that James rarely locked his door.
So next stop, police needed to find and interview the card party attendees.
But much like John and Nancy, they were thought to be transient, so tracking them down ended
up being a major challenge.
News of the murders hit the papers the following day, on January 11th, the same day of the
One neighbor told a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, quote,
“‘All I know is he was just a nice person, a good neighbor.
This is very shocking,’ end quote.
The way information about the killings was framed in initial news reports really underscored
just how perplexed investigators were about the investigation.
According to a Tampa Bay Times story, police initially called the deaths a possible murder
suicide and said all three had gunshot wounds to the upper torso.
But what’s weird is, when the autopsy findings were published the next day, on January 12th,
there was no indication that this was a murder-suicide, nor did anyone appear to have been shot.
The medical examiner at the time concluded that John died of, quote,
“‘homicidal violence, including stab wounds of neck and blunt trauma to head and face.’
It was also concluded that he died within minutes after being attacked.
As for James and Nancy, officials confirmed that they too died of blunt trauma, but the
medical examiner said the office couldn’t release the reports since the investigation
was still ongoing.
We were only able to receive John since it was shared with us by a relative.
To this day, investigators remain in the dark about a possible murder weapon.
And Detective Pavelski told our team that there was nothing recovered from the crime
scene that police believed could have been used to bludgeon James, John, and Nancy.
I’m not sure how the situation was so misconstrued at the time, but it did eventually get cleared
And to add to the already horrific circumstances, police shared with local media that the Spiveys
were parents to a toddler, though thankfully their daughter was staying elsewhere at the
time of the murders, and investigators confirmed she was safe.
By now, two days had passed since James, John, and Nancy were found.
And their lives in St. Petersburg were starting to come into focus.
According to a January 12th news story in the Tampa Tribune, other laborers who worked
with James, John, and Nancy liked them, at least for the most part.
And I say for the most part because at least a couple of these colleagues were dismissive
of John and Nancy, calling them street people.
And they stuck their noses up at the couple’s lifestyle.
Other people interviewed seemed to be particularly fond of Nancy, and went on and on about her
solid work ethic.
In a Tribune article, one of the workers said she was, quote, an exceptionally good worker
who was often called back by customers, end quote.
As for James, a Tribune reporter tracked down a man named Joe Bells, who claimed to have
known James for more than a decade.
Joe talked about how James would walk up and down alleys in town, picking up discarded
aluminum cans that he would take to recycling centers for a quick buck.
Another thing said in the news story that really stood out to me is that James worked
really hard to hold on to as many paychecks as he could at one time.
He was also known to carry large amounts of cash on him.
Again, though, that didn’t give police much to work with, considering they’d ruled out
robbery as a motive for the killings.
Lastly, Joe Bells told the Tribune that James had roots in Michigan, where his family was
from, and that he had a daughter who lived locally.
As investigators pieced together more and more about the lives led by James and the
Spiveys, they also were starting to get a clearer understanding of the days leading
up to their murders.
Notably, in continuing to interview colleagues and acquaintances, police gathered that the
Spiveys didn’t exactly have a perfect marriage and often argued, especially when there was
According to reporting from the Tampa Bay Times, on the evening of January 9th, which
was the last time the Spiveys were seen alive in public and the day before their bodies
were found in the apartment, the couple showed up to the Gale Porter Temp office to see if
there was any work available.
The same story went on to say that when they walked in around 5.30 p.m., the supervisor
told them that there wasn’t any work.
As they turned around and walked out of the office, though, they began to argue.
A little later that same night, at around 8 p.m., John and Nancy stopped at a nearby
convenience store, which they reportedly did on a daily basis.
The manager who was on duty at the time told the reporter from the Tribune that the couple
seemed drunk and that they were fighting.
The manager didn’t say what they bought, if anything, or what John and Nancy may have
been arguing about, though.
The alleged argument in the convenience store was the last time that the couple was seen
alive by anyone who wasn’t at the card party later that night.
So, assuming for a moment that John and Nancy immediately returned to the apartment after
the store, that gave investigators a window from 5.30 to 11 or 11.30 p.m. in which the
Spiveys were definitely alive.
Now, we know James was at the apartment in the same window of time, but Detective Pavelski
couldn’t account for what he may have been up to earlier that day.
Slowly, detectives started tracking down people who might have been at the party, or at least
were maybe at some card party at some point.
I think their circle of friends would, it seems like it would change on a regular basis
depending on who they met at the day labor place.
So that adds to the difficulty of this, too.
So you could have a guy show up, he’d work for two weeks, then he’d disappear.
So I think what they’d have is every time they’d go back, they’d meet different people.
And they were very social people.
So they’d probably invite him back to the house and they’d have some drinks or whatever.
So if you wanted to stay there the night, they’d probably let you stay there the night.
So unfortunately, that makes it difficult to pin down specific people.
One by one, each of the card party guests were interviewed, quote unquote, exhaustively
according to Pavelski.
And ultimately, they were ruled out as suspects, though he declined to offer any level of detail
about their respective alibis and reasoning as to why exactly they were ruled out.
Any investigative means you can think of at the time that we had, they used.
So that would include interviewing by detectives, that would include polygraph testing.
So any of those means would have been used at that time.
One of the card party guests who was last to leave said that they left between 11 and
11.30 p.m. and that James, John, and Nancy were very much alive at that time.
This person indicated to police that the card night went off without a hitch.
No conflicts, no arguments, just a chill night of drinks and games.
So even though all of the legwork was necessary for the investigation, police were no closer
to figuring out what had happened in that apartment.
On January 24th, this is about two weeks after the murders, law enforcement announced a cash
reward, $2,000 for tips leading to an arrest in the triple homicide.
The call to action prompted several tips that investigators looked into, but police declined
to offer any details about those leads.
They just said that they were all dead ends.
Four more tips came in after the Crimestoppers call out, which in the grand scheme of things
really isn’t much at all.
In a triple homicide with so many close neighbors, you’d think a lot more people would be calling
in, even if all they could offer was speculation.
Now the detective wouldn’t tell us what those tips were either, but he did say that investigators
looked closely at interactions that the three had with some other people at work, folks
from the temp agency that they would go out on jobs with, but there was no beef between
colleagues or anything like that that they could tell.
That was the biggest thing I think that they spoke of.
Just generally speaking about the interviews they had is they didn’t seem to have a lot
Obviously, you know, they drank and they’d have disagreements, that type of thing.
But no one specific person was really considered an enemy of them that we could find at the
The way those involved, again, was thoroughly vetted.
Anyone they even considered they had disagreements with or anything in the past, they were all
It seems like in this 30-plus-year-old case that the beginning stages of the investigation
were arguably its most active, because after January 1991, activity in the case pretty
Nearly two years had come and gone with pretty much no substantial progress that could be
But in all that time, investigators were still grasping at straws as to a motive.
In this case, it’s probably there’s some type of emotional aspect to it.
And we just have to find the mistake that the person made.
And almost every case, there’s going to be a mistake in there that we can find.
If you’re involved in one of these homicides, it’s an emotional thing.
It’s probably something you may or may not have done before.
A lot of cases, you’re going to make a mistake.
And that’s the one thing that I strive to find is that mistake that you made.
And that’s what I focus on.
But that mistake, if there was one, has yet to present itself.
And with each passing month, the greater community was definitely not oblivious to the lack of
progress in the investigation.
People had started to wonder if police were even still trying to solve the triple murder.
In December 1992, ahead of the second anniversary of James, John, and Nancy’s murders, late
Tampa Bay Times columnist Elijah Gosier put into words what some people in the community
Under the headline, All Bodies Aren’t Created Equal, he wrote, quote, Homicide officers
will tell you in a minute that it doesn’t matter whose body is on the slab at the morgue.
Their integrity and pride demand that they put the same effort into trying to figure
out who put it there, end quote.
But the columnist went on to write, quote, Give them a few more minutes and they’ll
tell you just the opposite.
They’ll tell you that in fact, it does matter who you were, that solving your murder may
well depend as much on how you lived your life as on how you lost it, end quote.
The writer also noted that in the roughly two years since the investigation began, three
different detectives had been assigned to the case at one point or another.
Within the column, Gosier called into question the lack of attention paid to James, John,
and Nancy’s case, especially compared to another much more high profile triple homicide,
the murders of a tourist and her two teenage daughters that happened a year and a half
In June 1989, the mom and her daughters were on a return cross country road trip from Disney
World in Orlando back to their home in Ohio.
After getting lost and driving in the opposite direction, they stopped in Tampa, which again
is part of that same greater metropolitan area as St. Petersburg.
During their pit stop, the mother, 36-year-old Jo Rogers, and her teenage daughters, 14-year-old
Christy and 17-year-old Michelle, met a man who offered them a sunset boat ride.
All three were sexually assaulted and weighed down with ropes and cement blocks to the bottom
of Tampa Bay where they drowned.
The man was indicted in the murders just days before Gosier’s column ran.
His indictment must have been what prompted the Tampa Bay Times columnist to basically
write that police and local media alike cared more about the tourist triple homicide than
three blue-collar locals.
And his column struck me because the disparities in the cases do seem staggering.
I mean, during our research for this episode, it’s obvious there were tons of stories
about the Rogers murders, but we could barely find any information about who John, Nancy,
and James were, let alone who killed them or why anyone would want them dead.
Over the course of the 1989 triple homicide investigation of the Rogers women, the FBI
More than 3,000 tips came in.
And it resulted in the eventual indictment, arrest, and conviction of the man responsible.
And let me be clear, I am beyond relieved for the outpouring of support and tips that
led to identifying the man who stole these women’s lives.
But you can’t really help but compare the general attention paid to these respective
triple homicides that happened in the same jurisdiction and investigated by the same
municipal police agency less than two years apart.
But even with this call-out and comparison, the needle on James, John, and Nancy’s case
From 1992 to 2011, Detective Pavelski told us the case was pretty much at a standstill,
despite police calling it an active investigation.
The only development, if you can call it that, was a Crimestoppers billboard being
erected in the summer of 2011.
And that was only because the family of John Spivey approached the group about what could
be done to bolster the investigation’s visibility.
That billboard, according to Detective Pavelski, generated zero tips, nothing.
When we were reporting on this episode, our team interviewed one of John Spivey’s daughters,
Alana Lester, who’s 45 now and lives with her three kids in South Carolina.
I should point out that Alana is not the child of John and Nancy’s who was mentioned earlier
in this episode.
Alana is the daughter of John, but Nancy is not her mother.
Alana told us that she believes that, frankly, people cared less about the deaths of her
father as well as James and Nancy because they didn’t have a stable home or reliable
jobs and didn’t have scores of loved ones and media attention to drum up tips and investigative
There’s a void there that I’ll never be able to fill.
And the way that their deaths were investigated, or really were not investigated, I mean, you
know, to be honest, at the time, I’m not sure what, you know, the detectives currently are
But as far as the detectives that were on scene at the time, that does not seem that
there was much effort put into investigating, you know, the crimes against my father and
Nancy and James.
It seemed like other things were more important and that they weren’t the types of individuals
that warranted the time of the police on the scene is kind of how it, how it seems.
And that, that’s heartbreaking.
Like her father, Alana was born and raised in North Carolina, where a lot of their extended
family remains and where John was laid to rest in a family plot.
At the time of his murder in 1991, Alana was young and estranged from her father and
she had never met him.
When Alana turned 16, she decided to do some research of her own to try and track him down.
So she wrote a letter to a distant relative that knew her father.
When the relative wrote back though, Alana learned that her father had been murdered
just two years prior.
To this day, Alana’s extended family has no clue as to the possible motive behind the
But, Alana told our team that John’s wife, Nancy, sent a letter to family several months
before they were killed, saying that she and John were thinking about leaving Florida
altogether and soon because they’d run into some sort of trouble.
So I’m not sure if they had maybe gotten involved in something bad and they felt the
need to run.
I mean, he did have some possible drug offenses in his past.
I didn’t know if maybe, you know, they just met up with the wrong people and were just
trying to, you know, move themselves out of the situation.
That’s kind of the only thing that I, the only theory that I’ve ever really had.
They definitely made someone angry.
I mean, we don’t even really know who the actual intended target was.
It is my understanding that my dad was beaten a little worse.
Alana now has three children of her own, 19-year-old twin girls and a 12-year-old son.
And she made it a priority as she was raising them to ensure that they knew who their grandfather
I was never able to have the relationship that I wanted with him, but I had always hoped
that I’d be able to have an adult relationship with him and that he would be able to be in
my children’s lives in ways that he wasn’t allowed to be in mine.
And that has probably been the hardest part emotionally about it was, I don’t know, I
guess I feel like so many circumstances took away the possibility of me ever having a relationship
Detective Pavelski was assigned this case in 2020, but he said there haven’t been any
developments since that time.
Frankly, it’s why he’s agreed to do this interview with us.
If there is a case that desperately needs our listeners’ help, it’s this one.
For as much blood and potential DNA evidence that was collected from the crime scene all
those years ago, none of it belonged to anyone that wasn’t James, John or Nancy.
Three decades is a long time, but even with the same samples being tested again in 2019,
the results were no more illuminating than before.
If you think you know anything about the January 1991 murders of James Rowe and John and Nancy
Spivey, or maybe you or someone you know socialized with the three or attended a card party at
James’ apartment, the information you provide could be the key to solving this three decades
You can reach St. Petersburg Detective Wallace Pavelski directly at 727-893-4823.
You can also submit a tip or information anonymously to Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County, which
is offering a cash reward of up to $3,000.
Their number is 1-800-873-8477.
The Deck is an AudioChuck production with theme music by Ryan Lewis.
To learn more about The Deck and our advocacy work, visit TheDeckPodcast.com.
So, what do you think Chuck?
Do you approve?