ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The far-fetched idea seemed to be the last chance: Magnify the handwriting of an unknown murder suspect and plaster it on billboards.
But the novel roadside attraction led to a suspect in the torture murders of a mother and her two daughters -- and, police say, may have uncovered a serial rapist and killer who led a double life reminiscent of Ted Bundy's.
A day after the billboards went up, a tipster led police to their suspect.
He is Oba Chandler, 46, a balding, blue-eyed, blue-collar charmer, married at least six times, father of at least nine children, who was indicted by a grand jury last week in the 1989 deaths of Joan Rogers, 36, and her daughters, Michelle, 17, and Christie, 14.
Police call the killings the most heinous in the area's history. The bodies of the three victims were found in Tampa Bay, bound, gagged with duct tape and weighted with concrete blocks. Police later concluded that they were raped and thrown overboard while still alive.
Investigators are busy closing that case and opening new ones.
The idea to use a billboard for the world's larg- est handwriting sample came from two sources: St. Petersburg Detective Jim Culberson and Barbara Sheen Todd, a Pinellas County commissioner.
St. Petersburg Sgt. Glen H. Moore expressed reservations. This had never been done before. And who would pay for it? Ms. Todd came up with the money from a company that puts up billboards.
"I thought if his handwriting is so unique, like they said it was, why not blow it up and let everyone look at it?" she asked.
On the billboard, above the handwriting, police asked drivers: "Who Wrote These Directions?"
Sergeant Moore said the billboards were "a last hurrah" for the 14-member task force, which had collected 3,300 leads and written 60,000 pages in reports. Now, though, the investigation has new life.
Since Mr. Chandler was arrested in September in connection with an unrelated rape in a boat off Madeira Beach, about 10 miles north of St. Petersburg, a half-dozen women have called police to say Mr. Chandler raped them, authorities say. Police would not give details.
"This guy traveled," said Sergeant Moore. "He was on the prowl all the time. He is just like any of these other type of killers, Ted Bundy or anyone else. They go out on the prowl to find the victim."
Sergeant Moore, the cautious head of the major-crimes division, said, "We have several rape cases confirmed, and we feel confident that we're going to have some other homicides [confirmed]."
Police have at least three pieces of evidence against Mr. Chandler in the Rogers homicides: a match of his handwriting on a pamphlet that was enlarged on the billboards, his fingerprints on the pamphlet, and alleged confessions about the killings to "several relatives," Sergeant Moore said.
Mr. Chandler, held in Pinellas County Jail, says he had nothing to do with the triple homicide or the Madeira Beach rape or a third charge against him in a $750,000 jewelry stickup.
His lawyer, public defender David Parry, wouldn't comment on the broadening investigation.
"I have no direct knowledge of it," Mr. Parry said. "For other people out there to step forward, that's not uncommon in a case where there's a lot of publicity."
The case has been front-page news in the Tampa Bay area since Sunday, June 5, 1989, when over an 80-minute period the sailboats Amber Wave and Suzi and the pleasure boat Charlie Girl separately radioed the Coast Guard with stunning distress calls.
Half-naked floating bodies, the skippers said. The Coast Guard pulled up the bodies in separate areas of Tampa Bay south of St. Petersburg.
A few days after the bodies were found, police tracked down the Rogerses' 1986 blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais at a public boat ramp two miles west of the motel where the family had checked in. Inside the car, they found two notes.
One, in Joan Rogers' hand, had directions to the boat ramp. The other was a pamphlet for "Clearwater Beach, Your Destination Island," with directions to a Days Inn on Rocky Point, in handwriting later determined to be Mr. Chandler's.
His former wives say that Mr. Chandler never abused them but that he would suddenly disappear for long periods, sometimes more than a month. Scores of neighbors say Mr. Chandler was friendly and outgoing. A neighbor in the Woods subdivision in Port Orange described him as "always smiling and playing with his little girl."
Sergeant Moore called Mr. Chandler "a classic double personality. When he was arrested for counterfeiting, we pulled some of the newspaper accounts from Orlando, and one of the headlines was 'Suspect leads double life.' That paper and editor didn't know how true that was.
"We don't know yet the extent of his other activities, just like with Ted Bundy -- they knew only about a few things until before he was executed."
Police did discover an embarrassing detail about Mr. Chandler: He was an undercover informant for U.S. Customs, Tampa police and -- while he was a fugitive in the early 1980s -- the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigations.
Mr. Chandler's not talking now. "We won't know the final chapters on him for a while," Sergeant Moore said.