I Learned The Truth Behind My Hometown's Legend "The Devil’s Tree,” And The True Crime Is Horrifying

·6 min read

🚨 Warning: This post contains mentions of murder, rape, and other sensitive topics. 🚨

I have always been a fan of the spooky and abnormal. I mean, who doesn't enjoy reading up on a scary story? Especially urban legends!

Ellie Skrzat / GIPHY / Via giphy.com

Every town has an urban legend. The abandoned house at the end of the street that's haunted. The ghost girl seen on the side of a certain backroad. Unexplained lights over your town's lake. For me, my urban legend starts where I grew up, right here, in my hometown of Port St. Lucie, Florida:

Outdoor sign, Welcome to the City of Port St Lucie
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The sign above says, "Keep Port St. Lucie Beautiful," but this town had a very ugly and tragic event befall it. One that has spawned into fictitious urban legends that always changed as I grew up. Let me start by taking you to the infamous Oak Hammock Park:

Oak Hammock Neighborhood Park sign
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Now, as a "Florida Man," I grew up hearing all kinds of wild stories about this park. I'm a Floridian, though. We've seen it all, right?

A "beware of alligator" sign
Jeremy Hayes / BuzzFeed

Well, not exactly. You see, all these stories revolve around a single oak tree found in the belly of this park. This seemingly fabled tree adopted a name that fit its dark past: "The Devil's Tree."

Moonlight through spooky tree branches
Photos By R A Kearton / Getty Images

When I was a kid, the legend — and completely untrue story — went something like: Long ago, a girl went into the woods at night. Two men, described in some versions as gang members or satanists, raped her, killed her, and hung her body from one of the tree's large branches to be found by police.

An oak tree
Roberto Fernandez Ruiz / Getty Images/iStockphoto

More rumors circulated about how after the murder, satanic rituals were done at the tree. Including: burning the tree, devil worshiping, and animal sacrifices.

tea-lights burning in the dark
Liudmila Chernetska / Getty Images/iStockphoto

This, however, is not the case. So, I dove into the reported facts of the real case, and the true crime behind it is so shocking. ... I had to visit the park myself. Here's how the infamous Oak Hammock Park (now "Oak Hammock Neighborhood Park") looked when I got there: unassuming and like any other park.

A playground by a dense woods
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After passing the playground, I made my way through the park's trails to find the supposedly haunted tree I had visited about a decade ago. Some of the trails were something out of a horror film because the surrounding trees really closed in on the trails to make them virtually a darkened tunnel, as you can see below at the end of this trail:

A shadowed trail path with dense trees all around it like a tunnel
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I arrived at the rumored "Devil's Tree," exactly where I remembered it, and was in awe of the sheer size of the massive oak that towered over everything.

Gigantic oak tree by a trail
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I can't undersell the overall width of this oak tree versus others found in Florida. It felt so out of place and haunting that I found myself just staring at it.

A massive oak tree stretching out in every direction

Keep in mind, this is a 100-degree, sunny morning in Florida, but where the tree is located, it is almost fully covered in its own shadow via its branches and surrounding trees.

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Some rumors about the tree are true. Like, the bark truly appears burned and covered in marks that make it look not only crispy, but like something out of The Conjuring movies.

Burnt bark on the side of a tree
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There was even a big knot on the trunk's side that had little pentagrams filed into it. Being honest, though, I marked this down as goofy teens carving into a tree.

A large knot on the side of an oak tree
Jeremy Hayes / BuzzFeed

A closer look:

An arrow points toward a carved star
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There was even a knocked down structure about 20 yards off-trail (probably just an old bathroom) and trash showing signs of potential people that might be staying there. That was a red flag for me to head out.

A knocked over structure in the middle of a woods
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So, I went back home and did some more research. Here's the truth behind the urban legend:

There were very real victims in this true crime. Susan Place and Georgia Jessup were killed in 1972, and their remains were buried in Oak Hammock Park by their killer.

Looking up through the oak tree branches at the sun

The bodies of both victims were found about eight months after the murder. A father and son looking for aluminum cans came across the decomposed and dismembered bodies poking through the burial site.

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Police linked the murders to one man:

The killer was Gerard John Schaefer, the former sheriff's deputy of Martin County, Florida.

A mugshot of Gerard John Schaefer

Schaefer is believed to be linked to the deaths of at least 26 girls and women. It's believed he would lure women with his badge, then proceed to tie them to a tree, kill them, violate them, and dispose of their bodies.

PD-FLGOV / Via commons.wikimedia.org

Just two months before the discovered murders of Place and Jessup, Schaefer abducted Nancy Trotter and Paula Sue Wells in his squad car to "teach them a lesson about hitchhiking" (which there were no laws against at the time), and he tied them to trees. Thankfully, they both managed to escape, and then they reenacted the incident for his sentencing as shown below:

A girl re-enacts her tied and gagged to a tree

Knowing they had escaped, Schaefer went back to his sheriff and reportedly told him: “I’ve done something foolish…you’re going to be mad at me.” Which led to his arrest, removal from the force, and eventual discovery of Place's and Jessup's bodies.

Martin County Police / Via commons.wikimedia.org

Author Keith Rommel, an expert on the subject, spoke to CBS12, and described a detective who compared Schaefer to infamous serial killer Ted Bundy and said, "he [Schaefer] made Bundy look like a Boy Scout."

Gerard John Schaefer smiles while being escorted by police

Schaefer was killed in prison by a fellow inmate. There are conflicting reports behind the motivation, but one thing is confirmed: He was stabbed to death multiple times in the face.

Gerard John Schaefer interviewed in prison
Pasadena Production / Via youtube.com

Another weird curveball to the story: There might be two trees? The one I saw that people mix up, and the real oak tree where they had found the bodies of Susan Place and Georgia Jessup. Meaning I could have walked by the real tree at some point.

A large oak tree with palmetto leaves around it
Jeremy Hayes / BuzzFeed

After all this, I found it interesting that growing up with this urban legend, especially as a kid without internet access at will to research, this story of a killer cop was perceived by many as the works of "cult" or "gang" members.

A police badge
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Sometimes, the truth behind urban legends is a lot scarier than ghosts and goblins.

A yellow-eyed figure in the woods at night
David Wall / Getty Images

Did your town have an urban legend? In the comments below, share your hometown's legend and if there was any truth behind it!