Jimmy Ates, who stands accused of killing his wife and setting their home on fire more than 25 years ago, could finally be a free man — again.
Okaloosa County Circuit Judge Michael Flowers last week overturned Ates’ conviction for the second time on grounds that the State of Florida withheld evidence during Ates' second trial in 2014 that implicated other people in Norma Jean Ates’ murder.
The State Attorney’s Office in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, headquartered in Jacksonville, is prosecuting the case in Okaloosa County and has filed an appeal. If the state’s appeal is denied, Ates will be on his way to a third trial — something extremely rare in Florida criminal law.
Today, the Daily News looks back at the case that captivated Northwest Florida not once, but twice, and how new revelations could implicate another notorious Panhandle murderer in Norma Jean Ates' death .
A fire and a murder
Just before 8 p.m. on June 2, 1991, Baker firefighters rushed to the scene of a house fire on State Road 189. There, they found the burning home in shambles; cupboards were gutted, objects were strewn about and the walls were slashed and wallpaper torn.
One of the firefighters found Norma’s body in the master bedroom underneath a mattress with a “bleeding wound around the heart area” and no vital signs, according to court records and trial testimony.
She had been shot seven times. An autopsy report later revealed she was alive for at least 30 minutes after she was shot.
After the fire was extinguished, the State Fire Marshal's Office arrived and found a burnt up newspaper, wax and a piece of string resembling a wick embedded in the carpet, and determined the fire was started with a candle. The investigator concluded the fire was deliberately set and the newspaper was used as a delaying device.
Norma was buried in a modest grave at Cotton Cemetery in Baker.
Years go by before an arrest
The case shook the small, tight-knit town where the Ates family was well-known and well-liked. The Ateses ran a vegetable stand out of their front yard and were heavily involved in the community.
But days went by without any significant leads. Those days turned into weeks, then months, then years.
Jimmy Ates apparently had moved on, and began dating a Baker School graduate, Glenda Nash, who was a student of his at the time of his wife’s death. He supposedly was seen with her as soon as six months after Norma’s murder, something they both denied. He married her in December 1993.
They both denied having been involved romantically before Norma’s death.
Prosecutors began building a case against Ates, but two State Attorney's Offices declined to levy any charges, citing lack of evidence. The governor's office eventually appointed the State Attorney’s Office in Gainesville to take the case.
On June 25, 1997, six years and 23 days after Norma was killed, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office arrested Ates for the murder of his wife, based apparently on circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony gathered by prosecutors. There was no physical evidence linking him to the killing.
The state’s evidence against the school teacher was “not overwhelming,” a judge ruled at his hearing before granting Ates $250,000 bond. Despite Ates saying he was attending a graduation service at the time of the killing, some eyewitnesses said they saw his truck at his home.
Ates has maintained his innocence ever since.
Two trials, two overturned convictions
On Sept. 10, 1998, Ates’ first highly-anticipated, two-week-long trial began.
Prosecutors had no physical evidence tying Ates to the murder, and relied most heavily on witness testimony that placed him at the home at the supposed time Norma was killed. But Ates’ lawyer, Drew Pinkerton, called several witnesses who also placed Ates at the school at the time of the murder and challenged the state’s timeline of events.
Despite no physical evidence, a jury convicted Ates of first-degree murder on Sept. 24, 1998. He was sentenced to life in prison on Feb. 2, 1999. Prosecutors were able to convince the jury that Ates killed his wife before he went to the school.
For nearly 10 years, Ates sat in prsion and vigorously maintained his innocence. He even compiled his own petition to have his conviction overturned.
Okaloosa County Circuit Judge William Stone granted his wish in December 2008 after the same State Attorney’s Office that successfully prosecuted him in 1998 asked the judge to grant the new trial and after the Innocence Project of Florida took up Ates’ case. Ballistic evidence used to convict Ates had been discredited by the FBI, and his conviction was overturned.
Ates was tried for the second time in March 2011. This time, the prosecution and the defense centered their arguments on the state of the home after Norma was found dead; it appeared to have been ransacked.
Prosecutors said Ates shot his wife seven times with a .22-caliber revolver. They contended he then ransacked their home and started a delayed-action fire so he could be at a baccalaureate service at Baker School when the body was discovered.
But his defense attorneys claimed that Norma died at the hands of one or more burglars intent on stealing money the Ateses made selling vegetables from the stand in front of their home.
In the end, the jury again convicted Ates for murdering his wife nearly 20 years earlier, and he was again given a life sentence.
The Innocence Project of Florida, led by attorney and Executive Director Seth Miller, again took up Ates’ case again in 2014. The organization learned the state had a CD containing a recorded conversation between two people who purportedly discussed details of Norma’s murder. That CD was discovered in 2009 but was never turned over to the defense as evidence before Ates’ second trial.
According to court documents, the CD contained a recorded conversation between Sheriff’s Office confidential informant Sheila Hahn and her friend Jackie Long, a man who now is serving four life sentences after he was convicted of murders in Okaloosa County and Alabama.
In that conversation in December 2009, Long alluded to the Norma Ates killing and said she might have been killed in a “robbery gone bad,” according to transcripts of the recording.
The State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville, which is prosecuting the case this time around, argued Long wasn’t confessing to the killing.
But Judge Michael Flowers sided with Ates’ legal team and overturned his conviction a second time Aug. 14 of this year. Flowers said the recorded conversation clearly indicated that there could be “alternate or additional suspects in the case.”
Ates’ conviction was overturned and his sentence was vacated. He was transferred from the state prison in Century to the Okaloosa County Jail, where he awaits a bond hearing Sept. 6. If he is granted bond, as he was the two previous times, he likely will be released from jail the following day.
Did someone else confess?
If the case moves to trial for a third time, it is unclear what direction Ates’ lawyers will go or what posture the state will take. Both the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville and Ates’ attorney Seth Miller declined to comment. (Miller is not a trial lawyer and won’t represent Ates at trial. It is unclear whether Ates has retained legal counsel.)
But it is almost certain both legal teams will focus on the recorded conversation between Jackie Long and Sheila Hahn, the central reason for Ates’ most recent overturned conviction.
In the conversation, which was recorded using a wiretap attached to Hahn, the pair discuss “that lady in Baker” who was killed and how Ates had been convicted and then released.
Hahn referenced Long, Ates’ cousin Robert Money and a man named Donald Courtney who were part of a “robbery (that) went bad” and how “y’all went in there on her.”
“Isn’t that some (expletive)?” Long replied.
According to court documents, Hahn previously had told an investigator that Long admitted to her that he killed Norma Ates, Buddy Phelps and Lloyd Poole, which prompted the investigator to ask her to wear a wire and talk to Long about the killngs.
Long is serving four life sentences in an Alabama state prison for the murders of Buddy Phelps in Niceville and Henry Jordan in Alabama. Lloyd Poole died in what was initially ruled a traffic accident in 1997. However, authorities suspect he might have been killed by Long, who then dumped his body onto an interstate highway to be run over.
Ates, in his own words
In two handwritten letters sent to the Daily News in November 2017 and January 2018, Ates maintained his innocence and implicated Long, Money and Courtney in the crime. He expressed distrust with the state of Florida, prosecutors and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and said he had spent years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
“The State of Florida withheld a massive amount of physical evidence from the defense at my first trial, which proves my innocence,” he wrote in a letter to the Daily News in January.
“Judgment is coming upon the State of Florida and Okaloosa County and all these corrupt and evil people,” he continued. “They have destroyed my life and my family’s life and few people care!”
In his January letter, Ates referred to himself as the “Blessed One” and cited pages of Bible verses he said were answers to his prayers: that “God would send a flea and tick infestation on the lewd and licentious beaches in Florida,” that “God would send a strong Arctic blast to the state of Florida,” and that “God would close 50 percent of Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County.”
Ates’ third trial is scheduled for Sept. 11, but it will almost certainly be postponed as Ates retains counsel and the state prepares to mount its new case. If he’s released Friday, his attorney said Ates will stay with his nephew in Milton.
Miller is expected to be with Ates at the Okaloosa County Courthouse Annex Extension for his bond hearing Thursday. He indicated he hopes Ates' last conviction will be the final one.
“We are thrilled that we were again able to demonstrate that Mr. Ates’ case was tainted by the unconstitutional withholding of evidence favorable to the defense,” he said in an emailed statement. “We will fight vigorously to vindicate Mr. Ates. It is our hope that the state will drop the charges and allow all interested parties to close the book on this case.”