VERO BEACH, Fla. — Detective Tom White knew David Alan Gore was a killer well before he murdered his fourth, fifth and sixth victims. He just had a hard time proving it.
But he came close – frustratingly close.
White was with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office when Judy Kay Daley disappeared in July 1981. Gore, who is set to be executed Thursday for murdering his final victim, soon became his prime suspect. He later suspected Gore was tied to the disappearance of a Taiwanese woman and her daughter, and his gut told him their bodies were buried in the orange grove where Gore worked. He spent a week digging before giving up.
More than two years later, after Gore was arrested for killing 17-year-old Lynn Elliott, Gore took authorities to the same spot. White watched while two drums containing chopped-up body parts were unearthed just feet from where he stopped digging. Now, almost 29 years later, White's voice is still tinged with frustration as he thinks about how close he came to solving three slayings before Gore went on to kill three other girls.
"They were like five or six feet away inside the drums," White said about the remains of 17-year-old Ying Hua Ling and her mother, 48-year-old Hsiang Huang Ling, who disappeared in February 1981. "I couldn't believe it."
White, now 67 and a former Vero Beach mayor, grimaced and shook his head, searching for the words to describe how he felt when his instincts proved right.
"I just... I totally... I, I was just so... If I just went...," White stopped and started. "If I just did this. If I just went over a little bit more."
He let out a big sigh.
White kept his eye on Gore, or at least tried to, after he began investigating the disappearance of Daley, a 35-year-old woman visiting from California. She disappeared from Round Island Beach, where someone had disabled the car she was using. Someone called Daley's relatives and said she was having car trouble and wouldn't be able to pick up her teenage daughters from another beach about 15 miles away.
White received a tip that Gore was seen at Round Island Beach that afternoon.
"So I checked with David and said, `What were you doing around Round Island?' He said, `I was going to check the tides. I wanted to see what the tide was doing.' I said, `You work in a grove,'" White recalled.
Then he received another tip that Gore was at a pay phone with blood on his shirt right around the same time Daley's relatives received the call about her car trouble.
"David became my prime suspect. Because now this became too much of a coincidence," White said.
The shirt had been washed, so the blood evidence was gone, but investigators found two hairs in a bracket holding a two-way radio in Gore's truck. White called Daley's husband in California, and he shipped White his wife's hairbrush. Daley's hair matched the two strands found in Gore's vehicle.
"I took that to the assistant state attorney and they said, `Without a body and without more evidence, we're not issuing a warrant for David," White said.
White remained convinced Gore was responsible, but the man got an attorney and stopped talking to investigators.
Bob Stone, who was the state attorney at the time, remembered Gore being a suspect.
"Everybody that I talked to in law enforcement, they thought he did it," Stone said. "No way to prove it."
Gore was arrested days later after he was found in the back seat of a Vero Beach police officer's wife's car. He was shirtless and had a cocktail in one hand and a gun in the other. He also had handcuffs, rope and a police scanner. Gore was sentenced to five years in prison, though he was paroled and served only about a year-and-a-half. White tried talking to him about the Daley case while he was in prison, but he refused.
So White interviewed Gore's wife. She told him they got in a fight earlier that year when the family dog pulled two bras that weren't hers out of the back of his truck. Gore drove her to the orange grove, started up a backhoe, put the shovel onto the ground and stopped. He sat there for a while, then shut the machine off and drove her home.
"It gave me the impression that because his wife saw the bras, he was thinking in the back of his mind, that he was going to kill his wife. And she's convinced of that, too, that he was going to kill her that day and put her in the ground. And for some reason he changed his mind," White said, adding that the bras she described sounded like the size the Lings would have worn.
He thought there were bodies in the grove, so he and another officer, along with inmates from the county jail, dug a trench six feet deep and about 100 feet long. They found nothing. But even after Gore was released from prison, he remained under White's surveillance.
"I just had a feeling that he was going to do it again," White said.
However, Gore's mother complained to then-Gov. Bob Graham's office, and a supervisor told White to leave Gore alone.
White said he argued: "You know he's guilty. We've got to find out ... he's going to slip up."
"No. You're ordered to stay away," White was told.
A message left on Graham's cell phone asking to talk about the case wasn't returned.
Again, White's instincts proved correct. Shortly after being released from prison, Gore kidnapped, raped and murdered 14-year-old Orlando girls Barbara Ann Byer and Angelica LaVallee in May 1983. Then in July, he kidnapped and raped Elliott and her 14-year-old friend.
Elliott tried to escape, running naked from Gore's parents' house with her hands tied behind her back. Gore ran naked after her and shot her dead in the driveway. A boy riding his bike witnessed the killing and went home and told his mother, who called 911. Gore was captured and the 14-year-old rescued. Gore ultimately admitted to and was convicted of all six murders.
"Sometimes you sit there and think I could have done more, I should have done this, I coulda, shoulda, would've and maybe one of those girls would be alive," White said.