Sun-Sentinel

Skull exonerates brother, but mystery still unsolved

by Michael Mayo
February 19, 2004

The skull was a mystery. Someone found it in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, across from Fort Lauderdale beach, in March 2002. Police didn't know whose it was or how it got there.

Now we know part of the story.

It arrived between March and August 2001. It belonged to a Boston murder victim named John "Jackie" Leyden. A possible serial killer named Eugene McCollom is likely responsible, although authorities say they still aren't sure how or why he would travel more than 1,000 miles with a dead man's head before ditching it.

And now that the details of McCollom's surprise confession and Leyden's DNA have matched, the victim's falsely accused younger brother will soon be exonerated.

"They just made a big mistake," Billy Leyden said Wednesday from his mother's home in Revere, Mass. "They put me and my family through hell for three years. Until the charges are officially dropped (on March 9) I'm not supposed to say anything. But I'm relieved."

Said Roger Witkin, Billy Leyden's attorney: "What kind of person drags a head around the country like that? It sounds like a Joe Pesci movie. It's crazy."

Jackie Leyden was 41 when he was killed. He lived in a small East Boston apartment, afflicted by mental illness, drug and alcohol problems. After being discharged from the Navy, he was unable to work and lived on government disability checks.

"He was a sad case the last two years of his life," said Billy Leyden, 42. "He was a lonely guy."

Billy would have dinner with his brother once or twice a week. He went into the apartment on March 12, 2001, but Jackie wasn't around so he left. The following week, on March 19, Billy went in, smelled a horrid stench and found Jackie's decapitated body under the bed.

The police started asking Billy questions right away. They fixated on inconsistencies. A few months later, after the medical examiner said the body had been decomposing a week or more and after the police found a piece of "fatty tissue" with Jackie's DNA in Billy's car trunk, Billy was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Billy maintained his innocence all along. The DNA could be explained because his brother rode in his car often, sometimes putting bags and dirty clothes in the trunk. But the police didn't buy it. They harped on the fights he had with his brother.

Billy Leyden said he couldn't believe police and prosecutors thought he could do something as vicious as decapitate his own brother. And he was as baffled as the authorities over what happened to his brother's head.

"It's hard to think about," Billy said.

After the arrest, he was released on $100,000 bail. David Procopio, spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney, said Wednesday it's unusual for first-degree murder suspects to be granted bail, but his family convinced the judge he wasn't a danger and wouldn't flee.

Although free until trial, Leyden lived in limbo the last three years. He lost his job with a printing company. "Neighbors would lock their doors when he walked down the street," Witkin said.

But everything changed last month. McCollom, held since August 2001 for the November 2000 murder of a prostitute near Boston, told authorities he also killed Leyden. Witkin said McCollom confessed to get a plea deal, the possibility of parole in 30 years. McCollom's information led to a DNA match of the skull in Fort Lauderdale, and enabled police to recover the prostitute's severed head and hands from a Massachusetts beach.

Witkin said McCollom knew Jackie Leyden from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, although the motive behind the slaying is unclear.

McCollom, 39, is also suspected in two other decapitation murders, including the 1995 murder of a Miami-Dade prostitute named Darlene Toler. Like the unidentified Boston prostitute, Toler had her heart cut out. Procopio said it's unclear how often or why McCollom visited South Florida.

"That's a piece of the puzzle we're still trying to put in place," Procopio said.

Michael Mayo can be reached at mmayo@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4508.


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