Death of an Art Dealer

By staff November 1, 2005

On a Saturday morning in May of this year, I sat down in my living room with a glass of juice to read the newspaper. On the front page a headline proclaimed, "Documents detail scene of horror inside gallery."

I knew at once what scene of horror that was, as would almost anyone who had lived in Sarasota for the past year and a half. The gallery was the Provenance on Palm Avenue, where the body of Joyce Wishart, the owner, had been discovered in January 2004, a few days after she had been brutally murdered. That discovery sparked a lengthy investigation resulting in the arrest of a man named Elton Brutus Murphy, a sometime hair stylist with an artistic bent and a criminal record. I knew, too, the climate of fear and suspicion engendered by the murder, which happened along one of Sarasota's toniest streets and involved a woman well-known in the community.

But I didn't know what I soon learned in the third paragraph of the newspaper story: Wishart's body had been posed with her left hand resting atop a SARASOTA Magazine article that looked back at the days, in the 1950s and '60s, when the town was known as an artists' colony. The article, which described many of those artists as leading impassioned and unconventional lives, was titled "A Fine Madness."

I put down my glass abruptly. Suddenly a case that had already haunted me felt even more disturbingly close to home.

I didn't know Joyce Wishart well, although I knew several people who did. My only dealings with her had come during her stint as the marketing director of the Asolo Theatre and were mostly by telephone. Later, after she had left the Asolo and opened her gallery on Palm Avenue, I sometimes looked in when passing, but I never made time to visit the space, which she had filled with paintings, etchings and sculpture, often of very good quality.

Wishart's murder was a shock not only to those who knew her, but to everyone in Sarasota who pictured the city-especially its downtown arts, shopping and theater district-as a safe, cultured little community. As details of the brutal crime emerged (and as the 61-year-old Wishart's murder was followed in less than two weeks by the high-profile abduction and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia), that sense of safety evaporated.

Those of us who worked or visited downtown, especially after dark, and especially women, began to look over our shoulders more often. To ask friends to accompany us to our cars in the parking lot. To look twice at potential customers, or the cleaners working in the building when we left the office late or came in by ourselves on the weekends. To ask ourselves how it could have happened here. To wonder if we might ever have come face to face with the killer. And to realize with fresh horror what those in the aftermath of such a crime must always feel: It could have been me.

As the investigation into the murder progressed, those tentacles of fear and suspicion reached out to many people we at the magazine knew. Longtime Sarasota arts writer Marcia Corbino, author of the story in the SARASOTA issue found at the gallery, was questioned by police (who never mentioned that piece to her, but did ask her about another magazine also found at the scene, one she'd never heard of). Magazine columnist Bob Ardren, who often covers downtown news but says he'd only met Wishart once, was interrogated and even asked for a DNA sample, as was Mark Ormond, an art consultant who also writes a column for us. In fact, the police records reveal that a veritable Who's Who of Sarasota's arts scene-gallery owners, artists and critics-were questioned.

Still, at first police attention focused on Wishart's ex-husband, whom she had not seen in years but who, family members told police, had been abusive during their marriage. Sad as that explanation would have been, it seemed comforting compared to the alternative: that Wishart's murder was a random crime, committed by someone who wandered into the gallery off the street and killed her for no apparent reason at all.

But once Elton Brutus Murphy was arrested-police say he turned up when a DNA sample taken in the investigation of another crime matched the Wishart case records-the chief questions, out of so many unanswered, were: How did the paths of Joyce Wishart and Elton Murphy cross? And why was she killed, and killed with such violence? I had always devoured mystery stories, and here was one that was real and right before me-one that affected people I knew and worked with and a community of which I had long been a part. Horrific as it might be, I had to know more-especially what role that copy of our magazine had played on that dreadful day.

Like so many Sarasota residents, Joyce Wishart had vacationed here before she put down more permanent roots. Living in Ohio, where she had earned an M.B.A. in executive management, the divorced mother of four dreamed of someday opening an art gallery in a "warm, sunny climate," as she once told an Ohio newspaper.

Wishart bought a home in Manatee County in the late 1990s and worked at the Asolo while saving money to fulfill that dream. Finally, in 2001 she opened Provenance at a stylish Palm Avenue location bounded by other galleries, salons, florists and the nearby Bay Plaza condominiums, part of an upscale street scene that welcomed lovers of fine art, fine books and fine dining.

Provenance (the name refers to the origin of an art object) was a consignment gallery, which means Wishart accepted works from artists or collectors who called or dropped in to make a first connection, establishing prices with Internet research and keeping half the proceeds after the sale. According to friends, Wishart worked long hours at her fledgling business, while continuing to make time for socializing, golf, gardening and serving on community boards. Her life, says one acquaintance, was compartmentalized; one group of friends might not know of the existence of another, and Wishart seemed to prefer it that way. That may explain why no one reported her missing or called the police while her body lay undiscovered in the gallery for what may have been as long as five days after the murder.

"The gallery was the joy of her life," says Marsha Fottler, a friend who frequently shopped and dined with Wishart. (Fottler is also dining and style editor for SARASOTA Magazine.) It remained so even when Wishart was threatened with breast cancer shortly after she opened Provenance, a battle for her life she fought and won. (Chemotherapy caused her dark brown hair to grow back red, an attractive byproduct of the treatment.) Once she regained her health, Wishart threw herself back into the gallery, determined to make up for the time she had lost in building the business.

During the week of Jan. 15, 2004, she was preparing for Arts Day, the city's annual celebration of its visual and performing arts tradition. The downtown event, presenting dance, music and theater on a variety of stages, always draws crowds in the thousands, and galleries throw their doors open in hopes of attracting new browsers and buyers.

Wishart worked at the gallery the Friday preceding the Sunday event, logging off her computer shortly before the 5 p.m. closing time. According to one report, she was supposed to meet friends on the following night for a ballet performance, but she did not show up.

And on Sunday, Jan. 18, Provenance Gallery did not open for Arts Day. No one who knew her saw Wishart that day, nor the next, nor the next. Newspapers piled up near her home in the quiet Mote Ranch subdivision; calls went unanswered. By the following Wednesday, nearby business owners were complaining about a foul odor coming from the gallery. Finally a maintenance worker was alerted and came to unlock the gallery's front door. And the discovery inside-a scene about which rumors were to swirl for weeks before police detectives revealed more than sketchy details-was as horrifying as any that crime fiction has ever conceived.

Joyce Wishart had been stabbed numerous times and her genitalia had been mutilated. Her throat had been slashed; so had her forehead, shoulders and back. Much of her clothing had been cut away; a scarf was wrapped around her neck. A pair of shoes filled with blood were placed near the body. Wishart's face was turned to the left and her right arm was extended from her side-exactly the same way a nude woman was posed in a painting that had been propped nearby against a stand. A white sheet of paper that appeared to have been used to wipe the murder weapon clean lay nearby.

The first investigators on the scene surmised that Wishart's attacker must have spent a long time in the gallery, both staging and cleaning up parts of the crime scene. But some blood (perhaps left intentionally, perhaps too much to remove) remained, encrusted on the frames and glass on several paintings and in the bathroom, where the murderer appeared to have washed up.

It was the blood that finally led investigators to a suspect. Inside the shoes next to the body, they found blood with DNA that did not match Wishart's. That DNA, after months of fruitless leads, interviews with dozens of people, and a frustrating glitch in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's database that delayed matching it with known criminals, led Sarasota police in the summer of 2004 to a jail in Houston, Texas, and to Elton Brutus Murphy, who was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Joyce Wishart.

Early in the days of the murder investigation, Sarasota police asked the FDLE to put together a profile of the likely culprit, based on the crime scene and patterns from similar murders. While the profile may have helped the police, it was so broad as to seem useless to most of the public. It described the probable killer as a white male with a maturity level in the early 30s, well groomed, likely to have held multiple jobs, with a lack of "sincere" relationships in his life and a contempt for society hidden beneath an amiable fa├žade.

In some respects, that description did suit the man eventually charged with the crime. Elton Brutus Murphy, born Feb. 3, 1957, in Wauchula, Fla., was nearly 47 at the time of Wishart's death, a tall man with brown hair and a habit of wearing Dockers pants and neatly pressed shirts. He had held a number of different jobs, including working in photo labs, but he had most frequently been employed as a barber-and he was a good one, according to former employers and co-workers.

Murphy attended Hardee High in Wauchula in the 1970s and joined the Navy after school-a chance, perhaps, to see more of the world than he could in rural Hardee County, where the population was only about 15,000 and both median incomes and the number of residents with college degrees are well below the state average, and where most people end up working in the citrus, cattle or phosphate-mining industries.

Growing up, Murphy (family and friends always called him "Brutus") had no serious brushes with the law. His parents eventually divorced, and his brother, Dean, told police their father had some history of alcohol abuse. But nothing in those early years raised any warning signs.

"He was quiet and never got into any trouble at school," recalls Hardee High classmate Debbie Gulliver, who also remembers that he did well academically.

Eventually Murphy married, and he and his wife, Paula, had two children. They lived in the Tallahassee area, and for a number of years whatever mental problems Murphy faced-paranoia and talk of aliens, his wife would later say-seemed to stay within the family.

But in 1996, Murphy and his wife divorced, and he drifted from town to town, including several in the Tampa Bay region. And he began to draw attention from the police, who arrested him for a number of crimes. For the most part they were misdemeanors related to trespassing and burglary-entering private property to "clean up," he told them, and take away items he found outdoors, sometimes collecting what he called "junk" for the artworks he had begun constructing. "He kind of thought of himself as a kind of sculpture artist," said one temporary roommate when interviewed by police.

He sold a few of his sculptures to Howard Solomon, whose daughter, Alane, is married to Murphy's brother. Solomon is a man who could appreciate the temperament and trials of an artist, since he's one himself. In the rural lands near the Hardee County town of Ona, he's constructed a shiny metallic fantasy of a tourist attraction known as Solomon's Castle. The enormous structure contains galleries of his "found object" sculptures, more than 80 stained glass windows and a restaurant built to resemble a 16th-century Spanish galleon. Alane and Dean ran the restaurant, and when Murphy was down on his luck, or owed the couple money, he would work there for a time to get back on his feet.

So it was natural that in the winter of 2003, when things seemed to be sliding downhill for Murphy-after his divorce, after a conviction for theft and criminal mischief in Leon County that left him on mental health probation with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder-he showed up at the castle, desperate to raise some cash by selling his car, which he did with the help of his brother and sister-in-law. Natural, too, that even though they disliked his occasional grandiose ramblings before their children on the subject of how "the gods had chosen him" or "big things were going to happen" they would still lend him a hand-to the point of giving him a ride, sometime after the winter holidays of 2003, to Sarasota, his new home.

Perhaps Murphy was drawn to Sarasota because of its reputation as an arts city. Perhaps he hoped he'd find a market here for his most recent creations: dinner plates smeared with markers or paint containing images that only he could see, so haphazard and even, in a way, scary, that Alane and Dean had refused to put them in the restaurant's gift shop.

Records pertaining to any admissions made by Murphy, or any psychological evaluations of him, have not been made public; nor will they be until a pre-trial hearing or the trial itself, which at press time had not yet been scheduled. So it is admittedly supposition that Murphy, whom several downtown shop and gallery owners later believed they recognized, might have entered Provenance Gallery at one time, or more than once, in hopes of having his work accepted there, or of entering into some sort of artistic venture.

But one can imagine what might have taken place if he had, especially if Wishart had rejected his work or questioned his status as an artist and a confrontation had ensued. In addition to the rage that might have aroused in him, Murphy, according to the conversations his family recalls and letters he has since written from the Sarasota County Jail, seems to have been haunted by the conviction that he was on some kind of sacred mission, that he was outside the limits and judgment of ordinary mortals, and that his actions, no matter how outrageous they might seem to society, would be crowned with glory by the gods he believed were directing him.

Only days after the discovery of Joyce Wishart's body, Murphy found a job doing what he did best-cutting hair-at a Manatee County salon. But within a week he left, suspected (according to police reports) both of pocketing money from the till and of fondling a young girl while cutting her hair there. The girl's parents did not want to press charges, so no arrest ensued. A couple weeks later, Murphy left the Sarasota-Bradenton area, ending up in Texas.

There he was soon in trouble again, arrested Feb. 25 on charges of burglarizing a dentist's office; in his possession at the time were a hatchet, a folding knife and several prescription drugs. Sentenced to a year in jail, he wrote letters to his brother and sister-in-law that echoed his earlier conversations with them:

"I told you don't be surprised I meant it. It's not over either, it has only begun. I have a calling..

"I know, I know I sound nuts.If I come on too strong forgive me. I am strong and I am getting stronger by the minute. I crave life and the missions I have been given..Everything I do will be justified.

"I send the kids a picture each week I draw and color for them. The inmates love my artwork they are amazed and respect me."

He wrote as well to his ex-wife and children:

"I have a game plan.

The plan is real.

I have it in my grasp.

It will not elude me..

I have followers, they have rank.

I have purpose, I was shown the real meaning.

"I and we have an extremely close relationship with God's family. We are god's blood relatives. We have a DNA connection to god.

We will all be in heaven. Count on it."

It may be six months or more before the Wishart/Murphy case (set for its next hearing next month) comes to trial. Both public defender Adam Tebrugge and prosecutor Debra Johnes Riva (neither of whom returned my calls about this case) have been concerned more immediately with the murder trial of Joseph Smith, the suspect in the Carlie Brucia case, which at press time was scheduled to occur this month. Even after Murphy goes to trial, it's likely the families and friends of the victim-and her killer-will be left with unanswered questions about what happened in that gallery, and why.

And although it's a small matter among all those painful questions, I still wonder how the article in that issue of SARASOTA Magazine was connected to the crime. Was the magazine simply conveniently there at the gallery and impulsively snatched up by the killer as the perfect finishing touch to add to the crime scene? And if so, how did he come across that specific article-was he leafing through the magazine after that explosive orgy of violence and blood? Or did he arrive with it in his hands, planning to use it to make some point about artists, or madness, or even how the crime he was about to commit fit into Sarasota's cultural history?

Marcia Corbino, who wrote the "Fine Madness" piece and for many years owned a downtown art gallery, wonders, too. Gallery owners are often alone, and it's not unusual for people who seem strange or even frightening to come in, she says. Corbino had met Wishart and offered her some business advice before Provenance opened; she says she felt keenly both the shock of the crime and that "it-could-have-been-me" shudder.

The Palm Avenue space where Joyce Wishart lost her life is now (in what seems another bizarre twist) a hair salon. During the neighborhood's monthly First Friday walks, scores of visitors stroll by, soaking up the atmosphere of Sarasota's artsiest avenue, most of them completely unaware of what happened just a few feet away nearly two years ago. In a city that continues to derive much of its identity and income from its cultural offerings, life, and business, must go on; but I still can't walk down that street without a pang of remembrance and the resurgence of questions I suspect will never find an answer.

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