Every year, tourists flock to Orlando in Florida which is one of the most visited destinations in the world. Disney World is dubbed “The Happiest Place on Earth” and is the main drawing point for tourists worldwide, boasting millions of visitors per year. Despite the façade of bliss, Florida has a darker side. With serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos hailing from the “sunshine state,” Florida has had over 845 serial killings since 1900. This statistic, provided by the FBI, indicates that Florida ranks number 3 in “The States with the Most Serial Murder.”
Born on the 16th of March, 1979, 5-year-old Regina Mae Armstrong called Orlando home. Regina’s mother, Donna, was in charge of the cafeteria of Mid-Florida Tech while her father, Bob, worked for Culligan Water Conditioning of Orlando. She had a 9-year-old sister, Christina, who had been dealt an unfortunate hand in life when she was diagnosed Alport’s Syndrome, a hereditary nephritis that cost her most of her hearing. In fact, in 1990 Christina would receive a kidney transplant, part paid for by Sheelah Ryan, a $55 million lottery winner. The young family lived in a neat apartment in an east Orlando commercial district and Regina had just finished kindergarten. Regina loved climbing trees and collecting bugs, “but you put her in a dress and a pair of shoes and she would try to be a lady,” Bob joked. For such a little girl, she was a big foodie (her favourite was cherries) and would easily chow down on a three-course meal fit for any adult.
It was a pleasant summer’s morning on the 18th of June, 1985. Bob was dropping Regina and Christina at their babysitter’s apartment on Semoran Boulevard in southeast Orlando. As Regina hugged and kissed her father goodbye, she told him “Daddy, I love you. I’ll see you tonight,” and jumped out of the truck.1
It was the last time Bob would ever see his youngest daughter alive.
Shortly after finishing their lunch, Regina, Christina and their babysitter’s young son decided they would go outside and play. As they were cavorting around the courtyard at the Semoran Terrace apartments, a man approached them at around 12PM. He disappeared before returning to speak to the children once again. This time, he offered Christina and the young boy $2 each to stand watch at a nearby apartment which he claimed belonged to him and his wife. He told them he was taking Regina with him to pick up his grandchildren and promised to be back within half an hour.
When Regina and the anonymous man didn’t return, Christina started to worry. Just the week before her abduction, Regina had participated in an Orlando police program which was designed to teach children to avoid dangerous situations with strangers. It soon dawned on Christina that something awful could have potentially happened to her little sister. She and the babysitter’s son ran back to the apartment where Christina tried to explain what had transpired to the babysitter. Instead of taking heed to what Christina was saying, the babysitter instead locked the door and ignored her, assuming she was messing around and being dramatic. It wouldn’t be until two hours later, when the babysitter’s boyfriend turned up, that Christina finally got to detail what had transpired.
Police searched southeast Orlando neighbourhoods door to door. They rode horseback combing through wooded areas assisted by sniffer dogs trying to find clues or pick up a scent. “We have ever available officer out there looking,” said police spokeswoman Betty Bowers. “We have a helicopter searching, the whole bit.”2
On Tuesday the 26th of June, over 100 Navy cadets joined in on the exhaustive search. Undergrowth was combed and winding canals were scanned. In fact, the initial search was said to be the largest manhunt in Orlando history. “The whole city really came together on every level to help search for Regina Mae. It had an incredible effect on the community,” said Barbara Tashlein, executive director of Adam Wash Child Resource Center in Winter Park.
Posters and flyers featuring Regina’s face were plastered all across the state.
Regina was described as standing at about three feet and six inches tall and weighed 45 pounds. She had blonde-brown hair down the middle of her back and had brown eyes. On the day of her abduction, she departed her house wearing a blue and green flower print sun dress and was wearing no shoes. She had a slight sore on the tip of her nose. The family also announced that they were offering a reward of $5,000 for the safe return of their daughter while Crimeline was offering an additional $1,000.
In addition to the missing person posters, a composite sketch of the abductor was generated. He was described as a white male of approximately six feet tall with a medium build and dark hair. He was estimated to be between 37 and 40-years-old and was wearing a plaid shirt, faded jeans, and a gold watch with Roman numerals. His upper lip had been split as if he had recently been in a fight and he was missing two teeth on one side of his mouth. On his left forearm, he had a tattoo. “He smelled oily, like he worked for a mechanic or on cars. He didn’t seem like a normal guy,” recalled Christina.3
She also recollected that he smelt of alcohol. Shortly after the composite sketches flashed across television screens state-wide, a 7-year-old girl from Cocoa Beach told her father she had some important news to share. She was adamant that this was the same man who had attempted to abduct her from their home just days before Regina was abducted. As the young girl, Erin, had been sleeping, a man crept into her bedroom after pryig loose a screen and unlocking the bedroom. The man attempted to lift Erin out of the window. Her 9-year-old sister, Elisa, awoke and started screaming to alert their parents. When he heard the child screaming, the kidnapper dropped Erin on the grass outside and sprinted away. Police also started to investigate whether it was the same man who abducted a 9-year-old girl on her way home from school on the 7th of June and raped and abandoned her in St. Augustine.
In the first few days of the search, thousands of calls to the tip line were logged. Due to the sheer amount of phone calls, police announced they needed volunteers to man the phone lines. The Adam Wash Resource Center in Orlando was quick to assemble the much-needed volunteers. Investigators met to examine what evidence they had on the case and determine which tips appeared to be valid and useful. Several of the tips had come from so-called psychics who detailed where Regina could be found. Each and every one of these locations was checked thoroughly by investigators but no evidence of Regina or the kidnapper could be found. However, one search that commenced on the 26th of June, uncovered human remains. They had been hidden under thick palmettos along Chicksaw Trail. The remains would later be identified as 32-year-old William Legg, who had been missing since July of 1983.
The Armstrong family immersed themselves into doing every single thing they could to find Regina. Both Bob and Donna took leaves of absence from their jobs and assisted police in the door to door searches. They joined the search party and plodded through the many swamps of Orlando and sauntered through the woodland. They met with community groups to discuss the abduction and brainstorm ways to garner more national attention. They printed and distributed missing person posters across the state. Before, they rarely watched the news or read newspapers. Now, they collected every piece of information they could. They were completely devoted and active in the search for Regina.
John Walsh, the father of Adam Walsh, took to the Today program where he showed a picture of Regina and a sketch of her abductor. Since the murder of his own son, he had been prominently involved in national child protection efforts. “We believe she is alive and until someone shows us differently, we’ll never believe otherwise,” said Bob.4
By now, 18 full time detectives were working on the abduction assisted by 130 officers and Navy cadets. Most of the tips that had been logged were coming from concerned citizens who thought the abductor sketch looked like somebody they knew. One caller said he saw a man in Disney World with a little girl who looked like Regina. An Orange County deputy sheriff went to the theme park and found nothing. In the first couple of weeks, over 200 men who resembled the suspect were questioned and investigated by police.
Many tips of reported sightings of Regina and her abductor were also logged. Towards the end of June a call came in from Jeff Smith, an assistant manager at Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken at 45 N. Orange Blossom Trail. He told police that a man who looked exactly like the composite sketch of the abductor had come into the restaurant with a can of ravioli and asked the cashier to open it. Smith glanced at the man and then glanced towards the poster of the composite that was hanging in the restaurant. “It was the exact same man,” he contended. As he called the police, the man swiftly made an exit and was followed by two teenage boys who had witnessed the entire event unfold. The suspicious patron got into a brown car and sped off.
Ravioli was Regina’s favourite food and this gave her family a boost of morale that she could potentially still be alive and being held against her will. A terrifying thought but better than the other glaring alternative: that she was dead. “I know Regina is out there,” said Donna. “She hasn’t left this area.”
Shortly afterwards, police received a phone call from a maid who worked in a small hotel on U.S. Highway 192. She said two men had checked into the hotel with a small girl. She told police she believed that one of the men looked like the suspect in the abduction of Regina. When police checked the room, nobody was there. However, they found Regina’s missing person poster torn to pieces. While these sightings had given some hope, feelings around the police department were mixed. Some officers believed that the resemblance is more than coincidental while others said that publicity on the case was leading people to believe they’ve spotted Regina’s abductor when they hadn’t. The joy Bob and Donna had felt from the recent sightings was short-lived, however, when Regina wasn’t found.
By early July, Orlando police reduced the number of investigators working on the search. The number of calls the tip line was receiving had dropped significantly. During the first few days of the disappearance, police were receiving hundreds of calls per day. Now, they barely received ten a day. Some investigators assigned to the case had worked 16 to 18 hours per day. They had followed every single lead and had other cases they needed to focus on.
Meanwhile, Floridians were shocked once again by another kidnapping attempt when a man took an 8-year-old boy from his home in Cocoa Beach as he was asleep on the sofa. He carried the terrified boy to a vacant lot approximately 50 yards from his house, put him down and ordered him not to tell anybody and left. The boy ran home and told his parents who called local police. When a composite sketch was drawn up of the suspected kidnapper, he looked eerily similar to the man involved in Regina’s kidnapping. Could the two cases have been linked? Police decided that not, they weren’t related. They did conclude, however, that this kidnapping was related to the earlier kidnapping of Erin from Cocoa Beach. In both instances, the man left the children unharmed within a close proximity of their homes. Investigators said the two incidents could be interpreted as a plea for help by a man who is struggling with his impulses.
As the investigation into Regina’s disappearance started to die down, Bob and Donna continued to make public appeal after public appeal. “You try to keep busy during the day and it hits you at night,” said Bob. Police were still receiving a few reported sightings of Regina and her abductor. In August, several reported sightings led them to Los Angeles in California. One of the callers said he saw a girl that looked like Regina getting off a Gardena Transit bus at Pacific Coast Highway and Western Avenue with a man who was acting somewhat suspicious and holding the girl very tightly as if he thought she would blow away in the wind. He called the police when he saw a photograph of Regina on a broadcast by CBS on her abduction. Another call came from Sue Evans, an assistant manager at Burger King in the Harbour City area. Sue told police that she had seen a young girl that looked very similar to Regina in the fast food chain at least four or five times. She added that the little girl was “acting strange and funny.”5
As if two reported sightings in the same vicinity seemed to be a much-needed glimmer of hope for Regina’s family, even more reported sightings came in. Workers at a donut shop and liquor store both within half a mile of the Burger King also reported seeing Regina. The little girl ordered a frosted donut with candied sprinkles: Regina’s favourite. According to most of the witnesses, the girl seems afraid and the man accompanying her prohibits her from speaking. “We are going on the assumption that it (the girl seen) is Regina Mae Armstrong,” said Division Lt. Mike Markulius.
Hoping to spot the abductor and Regina, police massed undercover officers to stake out the area where the reported sightings occurred. They asked marked patrol units to keep their presence to a minimum so not to spook the man if he was in fact the abductor. This was the best break so far in a case that seemed to be picking up little to no momentum. Regina had been missing for months and each and every other reported sighting never panned out. In just a few days, however, hopes would be crashed when the witnesses positively identified a man and his 6-year-old daughter as the duo they had seen and not Regina and her abductor.
The man and his daughter were picked up by police as they stood at a bus shelter. The man looked extremely similar to the composite sketch but the little girl was taller than Regina and had shorter hair. He told police that he was a single father who had custody of his daughter. He was struggling to get by, he told them, explaining that he looked scruffy because he couldn’t afford haircuts. It was them who had been spotted on the bus, in Burger King, and at the donut shop. “It was remarkable how much the child looked like Regina,” said Jeff Peck, Orlando Police Department spokesman.
The Armstrong family had their hopes raised only to be dashed. It was a devastating blow for Bob and Donna, who cried the whole plane journey back home.
Regina’s disappearance sparked a quickly expanding search – a search that Orlando hadn’t quite seen before. The abduction of Regina was the first of its kind in the city wherein an abduction had taken place and had been witnessed. In August of 1985, 40 million postcards baring Regina’s face were distributed by Advo-System, a missing child campaign. These postcards featured a new missing child each week and were mailed directly to houses countrywide. A missing child is displayed on the face of the postcard with information surrounding the disappearance as well as the phone number of the National Missing and Exploited Children’s Center in Washington D.C. It was theorised that if Regina was still alive, that somebody would recognise her on the postcard. Billboards would be erected around Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina. The billboards were created, and paid for, by Peterson Outdoor Advertising Co. and The Southland Corp. They showed Regina’s face on the left hand side with information about her on the right hand side.
As the number of investigators assigned to the case continued to periodically drop, two still working on the case went to Bartow in Florida to speak with a Tampa man who had been charged with raping and murdering 4-year-old Karen M. Radford. 39-year-old Homer Manns didn’t match the description of the kidnapper in Regina’s case but investigators wanted to investigate nevertheless. “He doesn’t even match the general description. We can’t place him in Orange County during his lifetime. But it’s the hottest lead we have going,” said Orlando Capt. George McNamara. By the following day, investigators announced that he wasn’t a suspect.
Regina’s birthday passed. What should have been her first day in first grade passed. Bob and Donna moved from their two bedroom apartment because it held too many memories of their lost daughter. In their new home, they set a room aside for Regina if she were ever to return home. They decorated it with posters and added “other things that a little girl would like.” They became very strict with Christina, not even allowing her to venture to the mailbox on her own. The pain of the waiting never diminishes; in some cases, it intensifies with time. The constant “what ifs” played on Bob and Donna’s minds invariably. Eventually (as the many parents of missing children before them) the stress of the abduction of their youngest daughter proved too much for the couple who decided to separate. “You find yourself snapping at each other for no reason,” said Bob.
In September of 1987, a child’s skull and dress were discovered in a construction site in Oviedo. Despite the extensive coverage the abduction of Regina received, Oviedo police did not connect the finding with the abduction and wouldn’t do so for another year when a new police chief, Dennis Peterson, took over and noticed that the dress found matched the description of Regina’s dress. “I don’t see how the skull of a small child can be found and a dress can be put in a locker and no one say anything about it,” he said in disgust. In fact, Bob and Donna didn’t even find out about the discovery and possible connection to Regina until they saw it on television. City officials were horrified to discover that their own police lockers contained the human remains of one of the most highly publicized disappearances in Central Florida history. Former Oviedo Chief R. Wade Hancock had placed the skull and dress into an evidence locker and didn’t think to notify a statewide hotline for missing persons about the remains. He didn’t think to alert Orlando investigators. He didn’t think to try and figure out who the skull belonged to. Hancock had been fired last October after he botched two murder investigations, arrived two and a half hours late to a drug raid and falsified time sheets.
City officials were horrified to discover that their own police lockers contained the human remains of the victim of one of the most highly publicized disappearances in Central Florida history.
Due to the length of time the skull had sat baking under the Floridian sun and got saturated in the torrential rain that Floridians have become accustomed to, identification was impossible. However, forensic experts could determine that the skull belonged to a child of 5 to 7-years-old. They also determined that she could have been deceased anywhere from one year up to three years. Bob drove down to the Oviedo police station to look at the dress that was found with the skull. “It took me about 10 seconds to see it was Regina’s. I was hurt. It flashed back to the day I dropped her off at the babysitter’s and she stepped out of my truck,” he said.6
Donna also went to the police station and identified the now-weathered dress as the one her daughter had worn that fateful day. Regina’s death certificate was then signed. As if the news wasn’t appalling enough, the mishandling of the case just added to the grief. By now, the trail was completely cold. “There’s no way of saying what might have been if they had handled it properly,” said Orange-Osceola State Attorney Robert Eagan. The site where the skull was found was once desolate and dotted with thick brushland. Now it was known as Twin Rivers, a housing development with paved roads and blissfully unaware homeowners inside their $65,000 – $100,000 modern dwellings. The wasteland that once surrounded Regina’s skull had been obliterated by machinery from the construction site. There was no chance in finding any clues now. Time was now on Regina’s killer’s side.
Police announced that they believed the killer to be somebody living in Central Florida due to the location the body was found. “Based on where we found the skull and clothing, I personally feel it was someone in that area,” said Oviedo Police Chief Dennis Peterson. The fact that Regina was disposed of in the same state where she was abducted also suggested such.
After three long years in limbo, the family now finally had some closure and Regina could be laid to rest. A memorial service for the young girl was held at The Chapel in the Grove of the Woodlawn Funeral Home in Orlando. The skies were clear and bright as Regina’s family members and friends gathered to bid her farewell. Inside the dainty pink and white casket embellished with carnations and baby’s breath was the weathered skull of Regina. At the altar was a portrait of Regina with a big smile on her face and a bright dress. This is how her family wanted her to be remembered. The family had asked that mourners made a donation to the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in lieu of flowers. The funeral and burial plot were donated by Woodland Funeral Home manager, Cliff Wilson and the gravestone was paid for by the donations made to the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center.
Another potential (and the last documented) suspect in the abduction didn’t come to light until 2005 when police announced they would be going to Citrus County to question John Couey. On the 24th of February, 2005, Couey abducted 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford from her bedroom in the dead of the night. He kept Jessica in his bedroom for three days where he raped her over and over again. On the third day, Couey buried Jessica alive. Orlando police noticed some similarities in the two cases – both Jessica and Regina were young girls and they both had dark hair. When Orlando police questioned him, he confessed that he had killed Jessica but denied any involvement in the murder of Regina: “I didn’t have anything to do with that. I wish I could help you. I don’t know why I did this, but I did. This is the first time I ever done anything like this,” he said.7 Couey was soon ruled out as a suspect. For the rape and murder of Jessica, he was sentenced to death but died from cancer before that sentence could be carried out.
With such a vivid description of the kidnapper and a handful of reported sightings, there was a time when it was widely speculated that this case could and would be solved. As the tips ran cold and the reported sightings turned out to be false, faith that Regina would be found alive and then faith that her killer would be identified soon faltered. Another drastic blow was the sheer negligence of the Oviedo police force when they found a child’s skull. Regina’s family will forever question whether the killer could have been captured had the police acted accordingly. Regina’s family will never question how she met her fate. By the time the skull was linked with Regina, it was much too late. “I have not forgotten about Regina, and I do not want Central Florida to forget about Regina,” said Bob, and forget they have not.
If you have any information about the murder of Regina Mae Armstrong, please call: 1-800-423-8477.
- The Orlando Sentinel, 16 June, 1986 – “Year of Torment Can’t Tarnish Hopes of Regina’s Parents”
- The Miami Herald, 20 June, 1985 – “Police Hunt Abducted Girl”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 18 June, 2010 – “Regina Mae Armstrong: 25 Years after her Death”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 25 June, 1985 – “Police Renew Search for Regina”
- The Orlando Sentintel, 6 August, 1985 – “L.A. Woman: No Doubt it was Regina”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 2 August, 1988 – “A Flashback of Pain Hits Armstrong”
- Ocala Star-Banner, 28 December, 2006 – “Motion Filed in Couey Case”