Judge, Lawyer, Killer

On June 14, 1955, the Honorable Curtis Chillingworth, a well-respected circuit court judge from Palm Beach County, Florida, had dinner with his wife and some friends. It was the last time anyone — other than their killers — ever saw the judge and his wife alive.
Chillingworth was the youngest circuit court judge in Florida history and was known as an outstanding legal scholar and honest, fair judge. His wife, Marjorie, was a leading member of her community, active in many philanthropic affairs.
Aside from Chillingworth’s 30-year service on the bench, which caused him to sit in judgment on countless criminal matters, neither had any known enemies. Of course, the Chillingworth family, like many others, didn’t realize until it was too late that they did indeed have a very dangerous adversary. Few people would have thought that the man who wanted Judge Chillingworth dead was another judge.
That jurist was Joseph A. Peel, a municipal judge from West Palm Beach, who had recently been strongly and publicly rebuked by Chillingworth for a substantial breach of legal ethics. In 1953, Peel, who maintained his law practice while sitting on the bench, represented both a husband and wife in a divorce case — an obvious conflict of interest and faux pas for lawyers. When Chillingworth found out, he reprimanded his subordinate judge and warned him that any further ethical lapses would result in a move to disbar Peel.
Peel kept his nose clean for a couple of years, but in 1955, he committed an act that was likely an open-and-shut case to be stricken from the lawyerly rolls. He represented a woman in a divorce case, but never followed through on the matter. Eventually, he told her the divorce was final and the woman remarried. When she had a child, she learned that she was still considered married to her previous husband and that her second marriage was invalid.
“Chillingworth is going to ruin me,” Peel told Floyd (Lucky) Holzapfel, a local racketeer who helped Peel collect campaign funds through extortion.
A year before Peel was censured by Chillingworth, he approached Holzapfel with a scam to alert local bootleggers and gambling house operators when a bust was coming. Peel often signed search warrants for vice police, and then tipped the gangsters to the impending raid.
“When Peel issued a search warrant, (Bobby) Lincoln could say ‘Here they come,’” Holzapfel later testified. “(Lincoln) had the judge in his hand.”
Holzapfel and Lincoln made an interesting pair. Holzapfel, 30, was a college debator and decorated World War II veteran who as a teenager was injured in the Battle of the Bulge. He later worked for the Oklahoma City police before turning to crime. After he moved to Florida, he was convicted of armed robbery and bookmaking and was a suspect in a rape case.
Bobby Lincoln was a local moonshiner who operated a pool hall and had many underworld contacts. He would eventually become the third conspirator in the Chillingworth killings.
Peel talked Holzapfel and Lincoln into getting rid of the Chillingworths.
“The judge was giving him a lot of trouble and was standing in his way, so he wanted him taken care of,” Holzapfel told an undercover agent who was wearing a wire. “Joe said he was going to be governor of Florida and if I would do this job for him, we would be partners for life.”
At first, the plan was simply to shoot the judge and his wife in their home, but on June 12, 1955, Holzapfel got cold feet.
“I walked up the beach to the Chillingworth home and there were lights on in the windows,” he testified. “I got scared and walked back to Joe…Joe got desperate and he screamed that it had to be done now and for me to quit stalling.”
The plan came to fruition a few days later when Holzapfel showed up at the Chillingworth beach house in Manalapan around 1 a.m. on June 15. While Lincoln hid in the bushes, Holzapfel woke up the judge with the claim he was a stranded boater.
When Chillingworth opened the door, Holzapfel and Lincoln overpowered him and his wife.
At that time, Holzapfel explained to the Chillingworths that it was Peel who had hired him.
“Kill me?” the astonished judge replied.
“That’s right. He said you were standing in his way,” Holzapfel replied.
After a struggle that left bloody evidence behind proving the couple was the victim of violence, they were bound with tape and chained to weights and taken to Holzapfel’s skiff. From there, the two hired killers headed out into the Atlantic.
“I said ‘Ladies first,’ and pushed her in. She went down with just a few bubbles,” Holzapfel told authorities. “The judge went next, but he had to be smashed in the head with a hammer to make him sink.”
The next morning, a handyman discovered the signs of the struggle and police began a massive search for the Chillingworths.
“We had a premonition that something wasn’t right—when you had an appointment with the judge you had to be there on time because he would usually be there to meet you He was a very punctual man,” the handyman testified.
However, no trace was ever found and no leads surfaced for at least four years.
Peel resigned from the bench after he was suspended for 90 days because of the bigamy fiasco. In 1959 he surrendered his law license. By that time, however, he was pulling in $3,000 a week working with Holzapfel in a gambling racket.
Holzapfel was becoming a liability, talking that he had information about the Chillingworth case. In return, Peel tried to enlist another man to kill Holzapfel. The plot backfired when Lincoln decided that the $10,000 reward for information about the murder was too good to resist.
He negotiated an immunity deal and spilled his guts.
But with no bodies and only the word of an accessory, prosecutors still did not have a case. That’s when police hit on the idea of catching Holzapfel using a wire.
Holzapfel was hiding out in a local motel, trying to avoid Peel’s hitman, when he met a couple of men he thought were his friends. They were undercover officers. For two days, they drank with Holzapfel until the liquor loosened his tongue. He spilled the whole story, which the officers caught on tape.
Peel, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. He left the state and was hiding out in Tennessee, because he feared Holzapfel was going to kill him to take over their racket.
Holzapfel saw the writing on the wall when he was arrested for the Chillingworth killings. He pleaded guilty to the crime and despite his agreement to cooperate and testify against Peel, he received the death penalty.
After Holzapfel was charged and the news came out, Peel planned to kill himself by planting a bomb on an airliner so his wife could collect the insurance. Police located him before he could take action.
On March 30, 1961, Peel was convicted of ordering the murders. Ironically, Peel escaped the death penalty.
Peel eventually spent 18 years in the Florida prison system before he was turned over to the feds to begin serving time on a mail fraud rap. He was relased in 1982 on a humanitarian parole when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died nine days later.
Holzapfel’s death sentence was reduced to life and he died behind bars in 1996.
Lincoln moved to Chicago in 1962, where he converted to Islam and died in 2004.
The Chillingworth legacy lives on. A few years ago, the surviving children created the Judge Curtis E. and Mrs. Marjorie M. Chillingworth Memorial Scholarship Fund at Florida State University “to help bright and talented students become teachers.”