Retail clerk Janet Scott lived a quiet life with her boyfriend, elderly car salesman Henry Caneva, and her dachshund, Kissy, in a small Sarasota, Florida, home. In the middle of the night in June 1997, she awoke to someone on top of her, choking her. Someone else was attacking her boyfriend beside her.
After passing out, she staggered to a neighbor’s home for help, then passed out again, later awakening in an area hospital to hear that Caneva was dead. And she couldn’t remember anything other than a voice saying, “That should do it,” according to “In Ice Cold Blood,” airing Thursdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Scott, 50, survived the brutal attack with a crushed trachea and a broken memory. Caneva, 76, had been strangled to death with a belt. And it would take investigators more than a year to bring the attackers to justice.
The attackers had even tried to kill Kissy, hitting the dog over the head and knocking her unconscious, the Herald-Tribune reported.
“I know I have a whole flock of angels looking out for me,” Scott told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at the time.
Authorities had few clues: just the torn-off finger of a latex glove and a cigarette butt outside. They took DNA samples from both, but 1997 technology did not provide for quick results. The attack didn’t have any of the telltale signs of a burglary, although some rings were missing. The phone lines had been cut and the attackers seemed to have been familiar with the house’s layout and the couple’s sleeping arrangements. It looked more like a “hit,” authorities told “In Ice Cold Blood.”
They worked through a laundry list of suspects, including a former co-worker of Caneva’s who may have borne a grudge, and his adult son Dan Wiley, who lived nearby. All turned out to be dead ends.
In the meantime, Scott struggled to remember much of anything from the attack. Authorities even brought in a hypnotist, who only managed to elicit a memory of that one sentence one of the attackers spoke.
"It's got to be in there and I wish I could get it out,” Scott told the Herald-Tribune during the investigation. “I go over things and I wish I could remember more. Nothing jogs it: no voice, no sound, no face ... I try to think about it and I end up with a headache."
It wasn’t until six months after the murder that investigators got a solid lead, when the local sheriff’s office responded to a domestic incident. Lela Whiteley, 41, accused her husband, John, 39, of attacking her, according to the Herald-Tribune.
When authorities arrived, John started yelling at Lela, telling her that if she kept it up, he would “tell them about the rings,” Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kevin Pingel told “In Ice Cold Blood.”
This raised flags in responding law enforcement, all of whom were aware of the open Caneva case. Scott was missing at least one ring; John had a criminal past and Lela went by several different names. It wasn’t enough to charge either of them, but authorities put the couple under surveillance.
Lela and John were smokers. Investigators snagged a butt John discarded outside a restaurant and rushed to analyze the DNA: It was a match for the butt found outside Caneva and Scott’s home after the attack.
It wasn’t enough to charge them yet, but it was enough for law enforcement to pry a confession out of John. They put every bit of evidence they had together into a pile of boxes and binders suggesting they knew everything and brought John in for an interview. The suspect’s face went pale when he saw the evidence on display, investigators told “In Ice Cold Blood.”
John asked to speak with a prosecutor and began to spill his guts: Lela was actually Scott’s stepdaughter from a prior marriage. Apparently, she was under the mistaken impression that she would inherit the home, if she took out Scott and Caneva, according to “In Ice Cold Blood.” She was also the killer, John insisted.
He claimed that Lela went on her own that night and he later followed, just to see whether she would go through with the murders. Investigators then moved from John to Lela, and she quickly realized that her husband was talking. She claimed that John had cut the phone lines and was first to strike, strangling Caneva with his own belt.
Although they had conflicting stories, authorities charged both Whiteleys with first-degree murder and attempted murder.
Scott was “shocked and appalled” when she learned who the suspects were, she told “In Ice Cold Blood.” She hadn’t seen Lela since the death of her former husband.
“I was in touch with her for a while, but one day her number was discontinued and I never heard from her again,” Scott said. “It was devastating.”
As the couple’s trial dates approached in April 2000, prosecutors were warned that they were gambling by going to trial without asserting and proving who did what during the attack.
“We know what happened and why it happened,” Sarasota County Sheriff’s Lt. Keith Muncy told producers. “The problem was that both people who were there were accusing the other of murder.”
Scott and Caneva’s family grudgingly agreed to let prosecutors take a plea from the Whiteleys, under which they’d each spend 20 years in prison. No one was “happy with it,” according to Muncy, but it was the best authorities could offer in the way of justice, given the circumstances.
Scott gave pointed victim impact statements at both John and Lela’s sentencing hearings.
“I called John an evil monster,” Scott told producers. “I told Lela I didn’t hate her — but her father would be appalled at what she turned out to be.”
For more on the deadly Sarasota attack, watch “In Ice Cold Blood” at Oxygen.com and airing Thursdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
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