Looking for a Killer in Solving the West Palm Beach Murder of Jeffrey Heagerty

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
At the age of only 19, young Jeffrey Heagerty’s life was cut short when his body was discovered in West Palm Beach, Florida. The victim of a murder case that eventually went cold, it took several years before Heagerty’s killer was brought to justice. Solving the West Palm Beach Murder of Jeffrey Heagerty details this unique case, from its beginnings in a West Palm canal, through the gay clubs of Florida, to its ultimate justice. Read on to get a special sneak peek into the book, out now!
Sunday mornings were usually the perfect time for Patrick Foster and his father, Stephen, to bring out their custom go-kart that they often worked on together. It was a great father/son bonding ritual, and they would often make modifications to it and then bring it out to a rural area to test it out at its full capacity.
 
On Sunday mornings, Patrick and his father would take their Ford pickup with the go-kart in tow out to a rural area twelve miles away from their West Palm Beach home to test out what they had done. They often would go to the southeast corner of Royal Palm Beach Boulevard and Canal M, a rural area of Palm Beach County, Florida, known as the Acreage. Much of this area is different than the rest of the county since it is far less developed and more appealing for those seeking life outside South Florida’s busy hustle and bustle.
 
This particular area was secluded enough and was used by a lot of other locals for doing similar activities, so much so that a makeshift pathway had developed over time around much of the large pine trees and palmetto scrub. This area remained much this way until 2016, when it was finally paved into double lanes with sidewalks and streetlights, converting this remote area of the 1980s into suburbia of the new millennium.
 
Patrick and his father arrived at this spot around 10:30 a.m. Patrick’s mother, April, came along for the trip this time too. It was to be another balmy South Florida summer day with not a cloud in the sky. After unloading the go-kart from the trailer, Patrick drove it around the pathway at high and low speeds.

Jeff ’s body was found floating near the bank of Canal M near Royal Palm Beach Boulevard.Every time he rounded the path closest to the canal, Patrick thought something seemed a bit unusual at its bank. In Florida, it is not uncommon to see all sorts of wildlife blossoming from and flitting around the canal such as ducks, fish or even alligators, but this seemed rather different. Patrick stopped the go-kart and yelled for this father to run over.
 
Patrick was stunned to see the body of a young man right at the bank of the canal. The white male body was clad in white Spalding sneakers, blue jeans with the fly open and his penis exposed, a long-sleeved gray shirt with the right sleeve pulled up and a gold chain around his neck. He was positioned in such a way that his right arm was reaching forward, and his eyes were closed. He was simply floating at the surface of the canal bank as small fish swam by. With no movement, it was clear to Patrick that he was looking at a lifeless body.
 
After a quick look, Stephen and April immediately got their son into their truck and drove to the nearest residence about a block away. Owners of the property allowed Stephen to use their phone, and the Sheriff’s Office informed him that it would send a team of investigators out to check out the incident.
 
Veteran Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office detectives John Dibattista and Russell Butler were among the first investigators to arrive on the scene and were followed by local newspapers and television stations that had heard of the body’s discovery on police scanners. Within a short time, the entire area was yellow taped, and onlookers gathered on the other side of the canal to catch a glimpse of what was happening.
 
Dibattista and Butler removed the body from the water and placed it on a yellow blanket. Upon closer inspection, they could see that the body was in the beginning stages of rigor mortis and had small abrasions on the forehead and chin but no obvious signs of any trauma. There were also bits of blood around the man’s face, but both detectives, having recovered bodies from canals before, knew that this was likely from interaction with local marine life. As rigor mortis progressed, Dibattista could see intense bruising on the left side of the neck. They were waiting for the arrival of the medical examiner, but Dibattista already had a good idea of how the victim died.

The area near Canal M.Butler and Dibattista knew that the area was a popular dirt bike hangout, but near the canal bank, among the beer cans and potato chip bags littered around, they both noticed drag marks near what looked like standard car tire marks in the dirt. Photographs were taken of the scene—everything from the tire marks to the footprints in the dirt.
 
There were no signs of identification on the body. Both investigators canvassed the scene to see if any other evidence existed, perhaps a wallet or any indication of who this man was. Detective Butler knew that this could slow things up a bit since they would have to wait for someone to file a missing person report, and if it were from out of the Palm Beach area, it could take some time for that information to get across. Despite that, it was routine procedure for investigators to fingerprint the victim and check it across local databases in the event there was a match. That would only be possible, however, if the victim had been arrested before.
 
A fingerprint sample was taken just as Dr. James Benz arrived from the medical examiner’s office. After a brief postmortem exam, the body was transported back to the medical examiner’s office. Dibattista and Butler followed Dr. Benz to the office, located on Gun Club Road, to hopefully get an official preliminary idea of the cause of death.
 
Soon after their arrival around 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, Dr. Benz informed them that he felt the victim had died due to trauma to his neck but was still awaiting a toxicology report to see if any drugs had been in the victim’s body.
 
About an hour later, Detective Butler was informed that by a stroke of luck the fingerprints from the body had a positive hit when cross-referenced with others in the Sheriff’s Office database. He was identified from a September 13, 1983 fingerprint card for being charged with fraudulent use of a credit card by the Jupiter police in the northern part of Palm Beach County. With a description of five-foot-seven and 130 pounds, brown hair and brown eyes, along with a matching mug shot featuring a pencil-style mustache that was popular at the time, they had a name for their victim. He was Jeffrey Heagerty, a nineteen-year-old resident of Jupiter, Florida.
 
Now the questions came. Why did this happen to him? How did he end up in the canal? And most of all, who wanted him dead?