Newsreal: The Return of Larry Singleton

He served only eight years for a brutal rape-mutilation, and a decade later, he slipped through society's safety bars again.


Amanda Spake
March 6, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

they think I'm hostile to prostitutes," Lawrence Singleton told me 18 years ago when I interviewed him in the yard at San Quentin, California's maximum security prison. Singleton had just been given a 14-year prison sentence after a jury had found the 51-year old merchant marine guilty of rape, kidnapping, attempted murder and mayhem in the brutal assault and mutilation of a 15-year-old female hitchhiker. Twenty years ago, these violent, sex-related offenses did not carry the life sentence they would today in California, and the leniency of the legal system shocked and outraged many. What was most surprising to me, however, was not his sentence. It was that Larry Singleton had worked his crimes around in his mind so completely that they did not warrant punishment at all.

Singleton was convinced that the psychiatrists who were evaluating him had it all wrong. Prison psychiatric reports written at several points during the eight years he ultimately served in San Quentin determined him to be "a paranoid personality, severe," "schizoid" and capable of "angry and destructive outbursts on those weaker than he."

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But according to Singleton, the shrinks did not understand the psychology of a seaman such as he. He told them, like he told me, that he'd been threatened by the 15-year-old hitchhiker. She was a prostitute who kidnapped him after he was nice enough to give her a ride. Then she tried to maim and kill him. "Everything I did was for survival," he wrote me in a letter. He wanted everybody to understand that he was the victim, not the girl. But that did not mean he hated prostitutes. "Sailors," he assured me, "are never hostile to prostitutes."

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on a cloudy Wednesday, Feb. 19, now 69-year-old Lawrence Singleton began his day by installing a drainpipe alongside his newly renovated home in the Orient Park neighborhood of east Tampa, Fla. He'd transformed the abandoned barracks his brother Herb bought him into a showplace. His yard was perfectly preened. He fastidiously wiped his cat's paw prints off neighbors' cars. "Bill," as Singleton called himself these days, brought steaks to neighbors and happily watched their kids play with Kala, his Rottweiler puppy. Down at the Brandon Crossroads Bowl, where Singleton was a regular in the Monday afternoon league, his fellow Golden Agers found him "a friendly guy," a good bowler, who'd stop by the snack bar for a midday beer.

Some of his bowling buddies heard he had a past -- a rape in California. "Bill" insisted he'd been "framed." Singleton seemed no more ominous than any other aging native son who returns to spend his last years at home and at peace.

No one in Florida -- not his family or friends, not the state correctional officials, not the psychiatrists at the mental hospital where he was briefly confined, not the sheriff who took a complaint from a relative worried over comments Singleton made about a neighbor girl, and certainly not Roxanne Hayes, the 31-year-old prostitute and mother of three who agreed to come to his immaculate home on that Wednesday afternoon -- no one understood Singleton's capacity for violence. In fact, only one person seemed truly to comprehend the savage rage Lawrence Singleton could inflict on another human being, and that was his first victim, Mary Bell Vincent.

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Singleton picked up Mary Vincent in his blue van on Sept. 29, 1978, as the teenager was hitchhiking from Berkeley to Los Angeles. She'd come from home in Las Vegas to visit an uncle and was setting out on her own to see California. Singleton told her he had a daughter, Debra, just her age and offered to drive her to Interstate 5, the fastest route south.

Instead, he kept driving east, toward Modesto. When Vincent realized something was wrong, she would later testify, she became "scared and mad" and found a pointed surveyor's stick beside the passenger seat. She picked it up and demanded he drive her back to the freeway. "I'm sorry," Singleton said. "I'm just an honest man who made an honest mistake." He turned his van around.

Soon he said he had to relieve himself and could not wait to find a gas station. Stopping in desolate Del Puerto Canyon, he got out of the van. Vincent got out, too. As she bent over to tie her tennis shoe, Singleton hit her. He tied her hands, tore open her white blouse and pulled her hair, forcing her mouth onto his penis. "You better suck hard, you bitch," Vincent remembers he said. He raped her there, then threw her back into the van and drove deeper into the canyon. It was almost dark when he pulled over again and repeatedly raped and sodomized her. "It hurt a lot," she said. She begged him over and over again to set her free. He made her drink alcohol from a plastic jug and she passed out.

When she came to, he was cutting the ropes off of her hands and she thought he was letting her go. Then, she looked up and saw an ax coming down as he held out her left arm. "You want to be free?" he said. "You'll be free." He chopped off her left arm below the elbow in three strokes of the ax. Vincent was screaming, fighting to pull away, blood was spurting everywhere. He held her down, grabbed her right arm and chopped it off in two strokes. Then he threw the girl over a railing into a culvert, saying, "OK, now you're free."

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Mary Vincent walked out of Del Puerto Canyon alive. Two vacationers found her wandering nude, in shock, holding up her arms "so the muscles and blood wouldn't fall out," she said. They wrapped her in towels and drove to an airport to call an ambulance. The first thing Vincent said was, "He raped me."

From her hospital bed Vincent was able to describe her attacker so well that a police sketch artist produced a drawing of a man that JoAnne Eversole, a San Pablo, Calif., housewife and bowling aficionado, instantly recognized as her longtime friend and neighbor, Larry Singleton. Vincent also picked his picture out of six others before the grand jury.

When he was arrested, Singleton insisted that Vincent was a prostitute, a "$10-a-night whore" he called her. There were two other hitchhikers in the van that night, including another "Larry." If anything happened to Vincent in his van -- and the blood and other physical evidence presented at his 1979 trial was overwhelming -- then the crimes had been committed by "the other Larry" while Singleton was passed out drunk. He insisted that he'd been framed.

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Singleton couldn't convince the California jury of his story, but years later he would find a more sympathetic audience in the good people of Orient Park. Singleton had settled in Florida after serving only eight years of his 14-year sentence. (The national uproar that followed his release was key to bringing about today's stiffer penalties for violent sex offenders.) Despite his infamy, Singleton's Florida neighbors came around to believing "Bill" was set up in that California rape. They bought his "other Larry" scenario, finding it just as hard as his neighbors on Flannery Road in San Pablo to believe a guy as nice and ordinary as Larry Singleton could commit crimes as cruel as those inflicted on Mary Vincent.

Then came the Wednesday evening two weeks ago, when a house painter returned to Singleton's home, unannounced, about dinner time and found Bill in his living room viciously beating a nude woman. The painter, who later told the media Singleton was "in another dimension," ran. By the time the painter called 911, Larry Singleton stood over Roxanne Hayes with a boning knife. He stabbed her a dozen times, once through her heart. Blood spurted over the new carpeting and matching blue-green sofa his brother had bought for him from Rooms to Go. Roxanne Hayes, who'd tried to turn a quick trick on her way to the store to buy groceries for her kids' dinner, lay dead, the newest victim of Singleton's overwhelming rage against women.

When the Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy arrived, Singleton answered the door smeared with blood. He told the officer he'd cut himself chopping vegetables. Then the phone rang. As Singleton went into the house to answer it, the deputy peeked around the door and saw Hayes' nude, bloody body on the living room floor.

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"They framed me the first time, but this time I did it," Singleton confessed as he was led away. However, by the time he was appointed a public defender, he had changed his story. He will plead not guilty at his coming arraignment.

Roxanne Hayes had worked from the same park bench every day while her children, Akiena, 11, Clifton, 7, and Malachi, 3, were in school and day care. "She was straight up about what she did," Tampa policeman Scott Bruce told the St. Petersburg Times. "She was on the street for her kids." Another prostitute once asked Hayes how she spent her money. "Rent and diapers," Hayes responded.

Bruce said it was unusual for a professional such as Hayes to agree to go to the home of a john. But another local prostitute suggested, "You don't think a 70-year-old man is going to stab you to death."

This was the same feeling expressed by the Tacoma, Wash., police when Mary Vincent complained of threatening phone calls after Singleton's release from San Quentin in 1987. "'Oh, it's your imagination, he's too old to do anything,' they told us," says Vincent's companion, Bob Clayton, who describes himself as her bodyguard. Clayton believes Singleton stalked Vincent after he was paroled. Vincent has always feared he would come back. "We heard he got speaking fees from militia groups, because he's so anti-Oriental and anti-black and Mary's half-Filipino," Clayton says, explaining how Singleton might be able to travel. There's no evidence, though, that Singleton left Florida after he landed there in 1988, after being driven out of six California communities.

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In the days before Roxanne Hayes' murder, Singleton once again slipped through society's safety bars. On Feb. 1, Singleton tried to commit suicide in full neighborhood view by attaching a dryer hose to the exhaust pipe of his van. A young neighborhood couple saved his life. He was briefly committed to the St. Joseph's Psychiatric Care Center and his family hoped doctors there would have him involuntarily committed under the state's Baker Act. A commitment petition was drafted and two St. Joseph's psychiatrists signed a statement swearing he "posed a real and present threat of substantial harm to his well-being." A court hearing was set for Feb. 13.

But on Feb. 10, Singleton signed himself out. St. Joseph's could not legally hold him without a court order. For some reason, the Baker Act hearing was cancelled. Nine days later, Singleton brought Roxanne Hayes to his home.

"Because he is so out of touch with his hostility and anger, he remains an elevated threat to others' safety inside and outside prison," read a prison psychiatric evaluation of Singleton shortly before he was released from San Quentin. Obviously, very little about Larry Singleton has changed since then.


Amanda Spake

Amanda Spake, a former Washington Post Magazine editor, now freelances for a variety of New York magazines.

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