The murder of Harold Baird
“Eccentric” was the word used to describe him by an acquaintance. “He was smart but eccentric.” He was interesting, that’s for sure.
Harold Baird came from money. His father was a high-priced Manhattan lawyer in the early 1900s and generated a lot of money for his wife and kids. Harold learned something from that type of childhood…how to make money and how to flaunt money.
As an adult, Harold worked in real estate and investments, and he was a member of the New York Stock Exchange. He apparently made even more money than his father had.
Harold moved to the panhandle of Florida around 1940. Interestingly, though – his wife made the decision to remain in New York. He finally settled in south Walton County, which was desolate at that time. The forward-thinking businessman purchased property along the shores of Oyster Lake, 63 miles east of Pensacola.
What Harold built there – called the Coral Inn – can only be described as a resort. Cabins, a beach, a restaurant, a store…the works! He built a true moneymaker in the middle of a barren stretch of sand and sea oats along an abandoned two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere. People came from miles around – especially from the northern states – to vacation at the Inn. He even let churches in the area hold youth retreats at no charge! Harold was said to be a perfect gentleman and a charitable host.
He was also involved with local politics, especially those that helped further the development of South Walton County. Most of his friends and neighbors described him as sort of quiet, but friendly. He kept to himself most of the time. People really didn’t know him – kind of a recluse. He was a quiet, kind businessman.
Then there was the other Harold Baird – the Pensacola Harold Baird. When he visited in town, he usually stayed a few days. He wore his admiral’s hat, just like Thurston Howell III, if you are old enough to remember him on Gilligan’s Island. He always carried a huge wad of cash on him and didn’t mind showing it off. In the past two years, he had been arrested four times by the Pensacola Police, mostly for charges resulting from him having too much to drink. In 1960, he was arrested for his second DUI but failed to show up for court.
On Tuesday morning, January 31, 1961, a passer-by discovered a body beside the road in front of 1125 N. Baylen Street, in the North Hill District of Pensacola. The body was soon identified as that of Harold Baird. He had been shot point-blank in the back and bludgeoned in the head and face so badly that identification was not easily arrived at. Later on the day, Baird’s car was discovered about five miles away, in the newly constructed family-friendly neighborhood of Montclair. It was covered in blood and contained a suitcase in the trunk. The suitcase had several hundred dollars in it.
Police investigators, including Clyde Wells, Aldo Rasponi, Walter Steinsiek, and even Sheriff Bill Davis, began digging deep into the actions of the victim. They interviewed scores of people who were known to have been at the bars in downtown Pensacola that Sunday night. Their trails took them to Fort Walton, Crestview, South Florida, New York, and even to Mexico. When the sheriff and two investigators drove across the border and into Mexico with their car, firearms, and an attitude, but no jurisdiction, they were taken into custody, their car and guns taken away, and flown back to the United States.
The investigators’ inquiries told the story of Baird’s actions that fateful weekend. He arrived on Saturday, telling friends that he had business in Pensacola. He checked into a hotel in Gulf Breeze. Then, with his Thurston Howell III hat, he drove his white 1958 Ford into Pensacola to party – with pockets full of money. From bar to bar he went, becoming more intoxicated and freer with his money with every stop. But there was still no answer to how he died, or at whose hand.
The Baird family, determined to find the killer, offered a reward and they hired Private Investigator Hamp Gandy. Gandy was the former Escambia County sheriff, which gave him two distinct advantages. First, he knew the investigators and they knew him, making it easier to work with each other. Second, he knew the people and they knew him. He was the perfect man to hire.
On August 15, 1961, Detective Walter Steinsiek and Hamp Gandy left for Atlanta to follow up on a promising lead. The next day they reported to Pensacola Police Chief Crosby Hall that they probably identified the suspect. Steinsiek had received a letter from one of the subjects he had interviewed early in the Baird murder case. The man felt bad and wanted to let Steinsiek know because the detective had treated him with decency and respect. He had failed the polygraph test when questioned, but detectives could not hold him without further evidence.
On Saturday, August 19, 1961, the murder weapon, a .32 caliber revolver, was found at 13:30 AM by Escambia Search and Rescue divers at the direction of the police department. The weapon was a black Harrington and Richardson model with ivory handles.
Frank DeMotte grew up in foster homes, mostly in central Florida. From the age of about 12, he began stealing and committing other petty crimes. It became a way of life for him. Whether it was stealing cars, or robbing people, he had done it. He had a long arrest record in Pensacola. An intelligent handsome young man, he appeared to have quite a future ahead of him. Inside, though, he knew he had messed up. He was a sensitive person, he felt that he could never overcome the desire to live a life of crime.
On Sunday night, January 29, DeMotte met Baird at the South Sea Bar in downtown Pensacola according to a prearranged sale of marijuana. They left in Baird’s car and drove to the Wayside Park at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge and shared a bottle of vodka. DeMotte, who was driving, stopped by his father’s house on south Devilliers Street and got his dad’s gun. Then he drove the very intoxicated Baird to the newly-developed Crescent Lake, where he shot and bludgeoned the old man to death. Then he drove the body back to the 1100 block of North Baylen and dumped it.
At first, DeMotte said that he was involved, but didn’t commit the murder – it was the other guy. On the drive home with the two detectives, though, he changed his mind and confessed to the murder.
While awaiting trial, DeMotte sent a letter to a friend asking for a knife, flashlight batteries, an extension cord, and an electrical plug. The letter was intercepted and DeMotte was placed in solitary confinement.
As the trial date arrived, DeMotte stopped the proceedings and changed his plea to guilty to first-degree murder. He said that he and Baird had gone to Crescent Lake to have an “unnatural sex act.” It was there that DeMotte began to beat Baird with the pistol. Baird pleaded, “Please, oh my God, please.” DeMotte then shot him, killing him. Demotte said that he had originally planned to rob Baird, but couldn’t go through with it, so he just loaded the body in the car and dumped it in front of the house on Baylen Street.
The Wednesday, March 1, 1962, edition of the Pensacola News Journal reported that Frank DeMotte was sentenced to “Life imprisonment.”
The Coral Inn property was later donated to the YMCA to be used as a camp.