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John purvis

John Purvis

Real Name: John Gordon Purvis Jr.
Case: Appeal
Location: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Date: November 8, 1983


Details: On November 8, 1983, police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, converged on the home of Susan Hamwi. They were responding to a frantic call from one of her friends who said she had not answered her phone for days. Susan was thirty-eight-years-old, divorced, and the mother of an eighteen-month-old daughter, Shane. Susan was found dead on her kitchen floor. She had been sexually molested, strangled with a telephone cord, and finally stabbed through the heart with a carving knife. Part of the knife was still in her chest. She had been dead for several days, during which time a second, nearly unspeakable tragedy had occurred: Shane died of dehydration.
Police recovered two crucial pieces of evidence at the scene: a bloody carving knife with no fingerprints on it, and red human hair. The next day, detectives canvassed Susan’s neighborhood. Two doors away, they questioned sixty-six-year-old Emma Jo Bartlett and her forty-two-year-old red-haired son, John Purvis. He told them that he knew her. They asked if he could come down to the station with them. He said he would, but only if Emma could come with them.
Emma went with John to the station, but was not allowed in the interrogation room. The detectives who questioned him were unaware that he suffered from schizophrenia, a physical disease of the brain over which the patient has no control. Schizophrenics often cannot tell the difference between the real world and the delusions that plague them. John had previously spent time in mental hospitals; he was on anti-psychotic medication and was unable to hold down a job. During the interrogation, they asked John if he knew Susan, and he said that he barely knew her at all. Emma then came in and said that they had no right to interrogate him like that and that he did not kill Susan. They then stormed out of the room. But the police were determined to question him alone.
Four weeks later, they got their chance; they picked up John while he was at a store to buy a magazine. A psychiatrist, Dr. Joel Klass, was brought to the station to administer a personality test using TAT cards. These cards feature ambiguous drawings which require interpretation. One of the cards elicited a most unusual reaction. John said, “Will I have to go to jail or can I go to a hospital?” Dr. Klass said that he felt intimidated by John’s strong reaction to the card. John then said “Do you think I did it?” several times. Dr. Klass said that he did not know, because he did not want to make any leading comments. John then said, “I killed her, I liked her,” and implied that she did not respond to him in a favorable way.
Subsequently, John also confessed to the police. However, according to him, the detectives told him that if he confessed to killing Susan, they would let him go home. He said he admitted to the murder only because he wanted to leave and because he thought that was what they wanted to hear. After his confession, he was arrested and charged with the murders. Prosecutors claimed that he forced his way into Susan's home and attacked her after she rejected his advances. They also claimed Emma helped him clean up the scene and made it look like a robbery.
A neighbor, whose memory was strengthened through hypnosis, testified that she heard John and Emma's voices inside the Hamwi home on the day of the murder; they were apparently talking about what to do with the "baby". However, another witness reported seeing Susan and Shane outside their home the day after the neighbor heard the voices. Susan had reportedly told friends and relatives that John had been "bothering" her. Other women came forward, claiming that he pestered them or asked them to do sexual favors. He also allegedly tried to pick up young girls to give them rides.
At the trial, which was held in March 1985, only John's confession to Dr. Klass was allowed into evidence. He maintained his innocence at the trial. Even though the confession did not match the details of the crime, and even though John’s hair did not match the hair found at the scene, he was convicted of murdering Susan and Shane. He was sentenced to life in prison.
For eight-and-a-half years, John languished in prison. His appeals were exhausted, and his case seemed hopeless. In 1987, a new defense attorney, Steven Wisotsky, was assigned to the case. In Spring 1992, he contacted Unsolved Mysteries and its spinoff show Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries, asking them to profile the case.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired as an update on the March 10, 1993 episode. It is not known if the full segment ever aired.
  • It was also featured on On the Case with Paula Zahn.
  • There are similarities between this one and Johnny Lee Wilson.

Results: Solved. After Unsolved Mysteries filmed John’s story, interest in the case was renewed. The Fort Lauderdale police reopened their investigation, with stunning results. The new investigation focused on Susan’s forty-seven-year-old abusive ex-husband, Paul, a wealthy real estate developer in Aspen, Colorado. At the time of the murder, he was in Aspen suffering from a broken leg. In Summer 1992, following up on a tip they had received in May 1985, the Fort Lauderdale police came to believe John had not killed Susan.
The tipster claimed that her boyfriend told her that his father, fifty-four-year-old Robert W. Beckett Sr., had been hired to kill a woman in Florida. Beckett was a former employee and associate of Paul. In December 1992, detectives visited Beckett, who claimed that he was terminally ill with a heart condition and wanted to talk. In return for immunity from prosecution, he confessed that he and his friend/accomplice, forty-six-year-old Paul Michael Serio, had been paid $14,000 to murder Susan.
Beckett said that Susan let them in because she knew him from Aspen. Once inside, he strangled her while Serio held her down. They also removed some of her clothing to make it look like a sex crime. The confession matched details of the crime scene. The man who hired them was Paul Hamwi. His motive: to avoid paying nearly $180,000 in alimony. Another man also came forward, claiming that Hamwi had asked him if he knew someone that would kill his ex-wife. Investigators recorded phone conversations between Beckett and Serio in which they discussed the crime in detail. They also recorded conversations between Beckett and Hamwi.
In January 1993, Hamwi and Serio were arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. When Serio was told that Shane had died, he broke down, cried, and said that he wanted to kill himself. That same week, on January 14, after nine years spent in prison for a crime he did not commit, John was released and reunited with his family. On February 24, he was officially exonerated in a formal hearing.
In March 1994, Hamwi and Serio were convicted of Susan's murder; however, they were acquitted of Shane's murder. They were sentenced to life in prison. On February 20, 2004, Serio died in prison. Beckett, who was given immunity for his testimony, was later convicted of an unrelated murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died there in 1997.
John later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Fort Lauderdale. In February 1995, the city settled the case for $1 million. On August 5, 2006, Emma passed away at the age of eighty-nine.