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Murder on the Midway: Sordid Life and Death of Lobster Boy : Crime: Family supports wife's claims of familial abuse, citing incident in which carnival attraction killed daughter's beau.

November 06, 1994|JAMES MARTINEZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GIBSONTON, Fla. — His destiny was clear from the moment he emerged from the womb with pincerlike hands and flipper legs.

As the fourth generation of his family born with the deformities, and the son of the 1930s sideshow performer Lobster Man, it was only natural when a smiling Grady Stiles Jr. took the stage as Lobster Boy at age 7.

For nearly half a century, he traveled from town to town on the carnival circuit, hoisting himself atop a cushioned platform in a sweltering tent.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I am the Lobster Boy," he would say. "This condition is not caused by drugs or diseases. It runs in the family."

As the boy grew into a bald, barrel-chested man, he remained seemingly unfazed by the stares and the jeers and the taunts. It was the only life Stiles ever knew.

And this was all the public would know of him until a cold November night two years ago when his wife arranged to have him killed.

It was a case of kill or be killed, she said, the only way to put an end to his drunken beatings and threats, to protect herself and her daughter and stepson, both born with the same deformities.

So one night while Lobster Boy watched television in their trailer in Gibsonton, a ragged community south of Tampa for an aging collection of carnival folk, his wife slipped out for a quick visit with relatives nearby.

"Hurry back," Stiles called to her, sitting there in his underwear, drinking a glass of iced tea.

With that, a hit man who had been paid $1,500 crept out of a back room where he had been hiding and fired two .32-caliber bullets into the 55-year-old carnival attraction's brain.

He was buried in a showman's cemetery. A bouquet of flowers adorned his coffin with a banner: "From your loving wife."

Mary Teresa Stiles, 56, was sentenced on Aug. 29 to 12 years in prison for manslaughter. She was later freed on bond while she appeals her case.

She is still puzzled that jurors didn't fully buy her argument that she was battered by a powerfully built, bottle-a-day drunk who vented his rage on the whole family. She said she had no alternative but to have him killed.

"My husband was going to kill my family--I believe that from the bottom of my heart," she told the judge through tears at her sentencing.

But in this close-knit community of present and former carnival workers, which clings to the moniker "Showtown U.S.A.," there is little sympathy for Stiles' widow.

Many knew and respected Lobster Boy. They remember him as a smart businessman who went from working in multi-freak caravans to owning his own shows. When people were down on their luck, he would lend them money.

Though he was often disagreeable and drank to excess--Seagrams 7 doubles with a splash of Coke--most carnies agreed with prosecutors, who called the slaying a murder of convenience.

"All she had to do was walk away," said Jeanie Tomaini, 77, a white-haired woman with wire-rimmed glasses who was once billed as "The World's Oldest Living Half-Lady."

"I don't have any legs or much of anything going for me," Tomaini said, "but if anybody gives me a hard time, you better know I'll be out of there."

Tomaini, who is 2-foot-6, was born without legs and performed with her late husband Al, 8-foot-4, before she retired in 1949. Now she sells bait at her Giants Fish Camp on the nearby Alafia River.

Wayne Murray, a former sideshow barker, said Mary Stiles went about it the wrong way.

"She would have stood a better chance had she turned around and killed him herself," Murray said. "People can at least relate to that."

To find anyone who supports Mary Stiles, you have to go to the trailer where the slaying took place.

Two of Lobster Boy's children, Cathy Stiles, 25, and Grady Stiles III, 18, can't say enough bad things about the father who sometimes pulled them on stage to show how they inherited the lobster claw syndrome that's been in the family since the 1840s.

The syndrome is known medically as ectrodactyly. The middle digits on the foot and hand are missing and the remaining ones fuse into two parts.

Cathy describes her father as "Satan himself." She said he refused to allow them to venture out on the carnival midways unless they wore large leather gloves so that carnival-goers--"marks"--wouldn't get a free peek at their condition.

Cathy said that a few years ago, when she was seven months pregnant, her drunken father knocked her out of her wheelchair when she tried to stop him from swatting her mother.

The next morning she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency Cesarean section. Her daughter, Misty, now 4, was born prematurely. She has the same lobster-claw deformities. The sixth generation.

Mary Teresa Stiles claims that at age 19 she ran away from an abusive home to join the carnival. She and Stiles were married in 1958 and had two children. One, Donna, had no deformities. The other was Cathy, the fifth generation.

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