Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King researching second Lake book

Gilbert King

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King lunching at O'Keefe's Irish Pub & Restaurant recently when he was in town conducting research. (Lauren Ritchie, Orlando Sentinel / July 24, 2014)

You might see him in the Leesburg library. Or maybe lunching at O'Keefe's Irish Pub & Restaurant in Tavares. He haunts the courthouse, too.

Historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert King is an unassuming figure in jeans and black boots with his little oval eyeglasses, intently scribbling in a notebook.

But standby for the punch: King, a 52-year-old fashion-photographer-turned-writer, is considering a second book about Lake County court cases.

The first one, "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America," is a distressing nonfiction account of the quest for "justice" by four young black men accused raping a white 17-year-old wife in Lake County in 1949. Gilbert mined FBI and rarely-opened NAACP files to tell the tale of the late Sheriff Willis McCall, who arrested the men, and a young Thurgood Marshall, the civil-rights crusader who defended the four and who later would become the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.

The book won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction in 2012.

"Devil in the Grove" was set against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement that was just starting to pick up momentum across the country in 1949.

The outcome of the case for the "Groveland Four" was disturbing. One was shot by a posse before he could be tried. The youngest took a plea bargain and went to prison. McCall shot the other two — one died — on a remote road in north Lake while bringing them from state prison to the county jail after learning their convictions had been overturned by the Supreme Court.

The cover of the book features an iconic picture of a rumpled McCall standing alone in front of an old car, illuminated by the pop of a bluish flashbulb.

While researching "Devil in the Grove," King heard lots of old Lake County stories. Heaven knows that there are plenty to hear and plenty of Lake County lips to tell them.

Several caught his attention, and one is the case of Jesse Daniels, a 19-year-old developmentally delayed teen who was arrested on a charge of raping a woman who was a leader in Leesburg society. Daniels lives near Daytona Beach.

The rape occurred Dec. 17, 1957, and the victim told police her attacker was a black man. Still, within a few days, deputies arrested Daniels, who is white.

So, how did that happen? Could it have been so shameful in those days for a white society lady to be attacked by a black man that the story got changed along the way? King is digging into the matter to answer that question, among others.

Daniels later told a Sentinel reporter that said he signed a confession at 2 a.m. while McCall held a gun to his head. He said he couldn't read what the confession said and no one read it to him — deputies told him it was none of his business.

Daniels was hustled off to the state hospital for the criminally insane in Chattahoochee, where he spent the next 14 years. The Florida Supreme Court ordered his release in December 1971.

Daniels, who was 33 when he got out, described those years as "pure torture."

"I would sit and think about being outdoors fishing somewhere," he said at the time. "I got so lonesome I thought to myself I would never get out, that I was put there for the rest of my life.

"I'm bitter. It's hard to forgive for what's happened."

The Legislature in 1974 awarded Daniels $75,000 to make up for the years he lost in the state's mental hospital. A lawyer who investigated the case for three years after Daniels' release recommended he receive $175,000 in compensation.

But state Rep. Dick Langley, a Republican from south Lake who still lives there, convinced fellow legislators to reduce the amount.

"He was hardly capable of earning a living," Langley told the Sentinel at the time. And a grand jury investigating McCall didn't take action based on his account, Langley argued.

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