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Judge Joe Peel and the Chillingworth Murders

Crime Files
Judge Joe Peel and the Chillingworth Murders

Joseph Alexander Peel was born in West Palm Beach and was married with two children. He became a lawyer in 1949 and three years later was named the city’s only municipal judge. But he was a crooked official. Peel granted warrants to investigating officers so they could raid a gambling den, but as soon as the police had left he would call the crooks and tip them off.

Each operator gave Peel $500 in protection money. “Scared of being struck off Peel recruited two ex-criminals and moonshiners, Floyd ‘Lucky’ Holzapfel and George ‘Bobby’ Lincoln, to dispose of Chillingworth.” He continued practicing law as well as being a judge. When he represented both the husband and the wife in a divorce in 1953 his superior, Judge Curtis E. Chillingworth, publicly reprimanded him, warning that any further misconduct would result in disbarment. Judge Chillingworth was widely regarded as an outstanding legal mind from a respected family and had married the daughter of his father’s closest friend, Marjorie.

At 26 he was the youngest circuit judge in Florida history and had served in both World Wars. In 1955, Peel told a client that her divorce was finalised when in fact it wasn’t. When the woman remarried and had a baby she then learned that she was a bigamist because Peel had never finished her case. Scared of being struck off Peel recruited two ex-criminals and moonshiners, Floyd ‘Lucky’ Holzapfel and George ‘Bobby’ Lincoln, to dispose of Chillingworth.

Lincoln was a poolroom operator who paired up with the contradictory Holzapfel. Holzapfel had earned a Purple Heart as a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge and after the war had became a fingerprint technician for Oklahoma City police and an organiser of a West Palm Beach Young Republican Club. He’d also served time for bookmaking and armed robbery and had been arrested for attempted rape The Crimes On 14th June 1955, the Judge Chillingworth and his wife had dinner with friends and returned to their Manalapan beach cottage at roughly 10pm. Around 1am Holzapfel and Lincoln sailed to Manalapan in a skiff and landed on the beach behind the house. Lincoln crouched in the bushes as Holzapfel woke the Judge saying he was a stranded boater.

The two men overpowered the Judge and his wife and marched them out of the cottage at gunpoint, fastened nooses around their necks, bound their arms behind them and gagged them with adhesive tape. Forced aboard the boat, the couple were taken out to sea and weighted with chains. Saying “Ladies first” Holzapfel threw Marjorie into the sea, but when the two men went for Chillingworth he jumped overboard.

Despite bound wrists, weights and an anchor tied around his neck, the Judge managed to stay afloat until Lincoln hit him over the head with a shotgun so hard the barrel broke.


1949 - Joseph Alexander Peel becomes a lawyer1953 - Peel publicly reprimanded by Judge Curtis E Chillingworth1955 - Peel misinforms a client that her divorce was finalised14th June 1955 - murder of Judge Curtis E Chillingworth and his wife Marjorie1959 - Peel quits as a judge and resigns from the Bar1st October 1960 - Holzapfel arrested after secret recordingNovember 1960 - Peel arrested30th March 1961 - Peel found guilty of accessory to murder1962 - Lincoln released and converts to Islam1979 - Peel paroled1982 - Peel dies from cancer1996 - Holzapfel dies in prisonMay 2004 - Lincoln dies

The Key Figures

Criminals: Joseph Alexander Peel - accessory to murder Floyd 'Lucky' Holzapfel - pleaded guilty to the murders George 'Bobby' Lincoln - offered immunity in return for testifying against Holzapfel and PeelVictims: Judge Curtis E Chillingworth Marjorie Chillingworth

The Trial

State Attorney Phil O’Connell Sr. had no bodies, so he needed an eyewitness and offered Lincoln immunity if he would agree to testify against Holzapfel and Peel, which he did. Lincoln was already serving time on a 1958 moonshine-related conviction.Knowing this, Holzapfel agreed to plead guilty to the murders and Peel realising he would soon be caught twice plotted to have another inmate kill him.On 30th March 1961, jurors took five hours and 24 minutes to find Peel guilty of accessory to murder. The prosecutor wanted the death penalty, but the jury recommended mercy and Peel was sentenced to two life terms.He spent 18 years at Florida State Prison in Raiford and the state paroled him in 1979 so he could start serving an 18-year federal sentence for mail fraud related to a phony investment company. Three years later he was paroled for good after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He planned to marry his ex-wife’s niece who had been the flower girl at his wedding, but nine days after his release he died.Despite his cooperation, Holzapfel was sent to Death Row. His sentence was eventually commuted to life and he died behind bars in 1996.Lincoln served out the rest of his federal sentence and in 1962 moved to Chicago. He converted to Islam and changed his name to David Karrim. In May 2004 he died aged 80.

The Arrest

When the usually punctual Judge failed to turn up for work the next day the alarm was raised by noon. The house seemed in order, but the porch light had been smashed and officers found two rolls of adhesive tape, as well as bloodstains on and around the wooden stairs leading to the beach.Boats and a helicopter scanned the water and divers combed the ocean floor, but the Chillingworth’s bodies were never recovered.“Five years were to pass before the police would arrest their murderers.”The police heard that Holzapfel had been bragging that he knew who killed the Chillingworths. For three days in a Titusville motel room, two undercover policemen got Holzapfel so drunk he confessed to the murders. In an adjacent room an officer was taping everything and on 1st October 1960 Holzapfel was arrested.The very thing Peel had been trying to avoid when he ordered the judge killed happened when he was suspended for 90 days over the non-divorce case. Peel quit as a judge soon after and resigned from the Bar in 1959. After Holzapfel’s ‘confession’ Peel went into hiding, but a friend set him up and he was arrested in Chattanooga a month after Holzapfel’s arrest.