By Tim Pallesen
The abduction and drowning of Circuit Judge Curtis Chillingworth and his wife, Marjorie, from their Manalapan oceanfront home still ranks as the county’s most terrifying crime 60 years later.
It was 1 a.m. on June 15, 1955, when the county’s senior judge answered a knock at his back door. The judge and his wife were abducted in their bedclothes by two thugs, forced into a boat, weighted down and thrown in the ocean to drown.
The case was a twisted tale of judicial betrayal. The thugs later testified that a corrupt West Palm Beach municipal judge had ordered the higher judge’s killing.
Chillingworth was one of only two circuit judges in Palm Beach County at the time.
The county had only 150,000 residents back then, compared to more than 1.3 million today. Manalapan had only 27 registered voters.
Police arrived at the couple’s two-story cottage near 1550 S. Ocean Blvd. after the judge didn’t appear for a 10 a.m. hearing and his courthouse colleagues became concerned.
Police found a shattered porch light, blood on the walkway to the beach and two used spools of adhesive tape, one in the living room and one in the sand.
The keys were still in the ignition of the couple’s Plymouth. Money was still in the judge’s wallet and his wife’s pocketbook, ruling out robbery as the motive.
Their swimsuits were dry, indicating that they hadn’t gone swimming in the ocean that morning. But a pair of men’s pajamas, a nightgown and two pairs of slippers were missing.
An air and sea search was unsuccessful. The bodies never were found and the Chillingworths were declared legally dead two years later.
The mystery began to unravel in 1959 when one of the hired thugs, Floyd “Lucky” Holzapfel, began talking. The other thug, Bobby Lincoln, agreed to testify, too.
The porch light was on when the two arrived by boat at the Chillingworth home at 1 a.m., the killers told authorities. Lincoln crouched in the bushes as Holzapfel knocked on the door.
“Aren’t you Judge Chillingworth?” Holzapfel asked the man in his pajamas who answered.
“Yes, I am,” the judge replied. Lincoln rushed from the bushes to smash the porch light with his gun.
Holzapfel pulled a pistol and asked if anyone else was in the house. The judge called for Marjorie, who came pulling a robe over her nightgown. The couple’s hands were taped. Mrs. Chillingworth screamed on the way to the boat. Holzapfel hit her with his gun, drawing blood. Once aboard the boat, Chillingworth offered to give Lincoln $200,000 to save their lives.
“Boy, if you take care of us, you will never have to work again,” Lincoln later quoted him as saying. But the killers instead strapped lead weights to the judge and his wife.
“Ladies first,” Holzapfel said, pushing Mrs. Chillingworth overboard.
“Honey, remember, I love you,” the judge told his wife. “I love you, too,” she replied. Mrs. Chillingworth went down “with a few bubbles,” Holzapfel recalled.
But the judge, a Navy veteran from both world wars, fought to stay afloat. The killers tied a 25-pound anchor around his neck and pounded him down with a shotgun before he sank. Holzapfel, who had served time for bookmaking and armed robbery, and Lincoln, a moonshiner, both testified that they “did it for Joe.”
Joe Peel was a flashy young lawyer in West Palm Beach who wore white linen suits. He drove a Cadillac and his beautiful wife, Imogene, drove a Lincoln Continental.
As a part-time municipal judge, Peel would sign warrants for police to raid gambling dens. Gambling operators paid Peel to tip them off before the raids.
Chillingworth, who had served three decades as Palm Beach County’s chief judge, wasn’t aware of the bribes. But he had disciplined Peel for a divorce case and was blocking his dream to become state attorney and governor someday. Peel went to trial on the charge of being an accessory to the Chillingworth murders.
“The ghost of Judge Chillingworth will not rest until his killers are shoveling coal in the fires of hell and damnation,” State Attorney Phil O’Connell said in requesting the death penalty. The jury convicted Peel but recommended life in prison. Peel denied everything during his trial and remaining life in prison. But he granted an interview with a newspaper reporter one week before he died in 1982.
“There’s no one to blame but myself,” Peel finally confessed on his deathbed. He admitted to taking payoffs from gambling figures and moonshiners. A Miami Beach nightclub owner was hoping to use Peel to bring open gambling to Palm Beach County nightclubs.
“I was one of his fair-haired boys — the one who would go up in the judiciary,” Peel said. “But I was greedy and too anxious.”
Before Judge Chillingworth got in his way, the plan was for Peel to permit gambling houses when he became Palm Beach County’s state attorney.
“Then I was to go from state attorney to attorney general to governor,” he said of his dream. But the corruption that shook Palm Beach County’s criminal justice system ended when Peel was convicted in 1961. Holzapfel was sent to Death Row despite his cooperation. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, where he died in 1996.
Lincoln, who got immunity to testify against Peel, moved to Chicago where he worked at the Tender Touch Laundry before his death in 2004.
“People who have done what Joe, Bobby and I have done should be stamped out like cockroaches,” Holzapfel summed up the Chillingworth killers. “We’re not fit to be with decent people.”
Tim Pallesen was the Miami Herald reporter who took Peel’s deathbed confession in 1982. His story here was compiled from Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald archives and The Murder Trial of Judge Peel by Jim Bishop.