Authorities describe him as a drifter, but on the streets of South Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, Joseph Roberts could have been mistaken for a charming student from one of the universities in nearby Jacksonville.
Perhaps it was this charm, along with his neatly trimmed blonde locks and striking green eyes, that led a series of women to let the homeless Roberts into their houses and their lives. But it was Roberts' behavior once he was living there that also prompted them to kick him out. Brittany Tavar, the last woman he would live with, ended up dead before she got the chance to do so.
Tavar's friends describe her as extraordinarily caring, so most of them didn’t think much of it when the 45-year-old woman living alone on the beach invited the 26-year-old Roberts to live with her after knowing him for a mere two weeks.
“That’s just what she does,” Brenda Henry, Tavar’s best friend of ten years, told The Daily Beast. “She gives you her house, her food, everything. She just felt sorry for him.”
It all began when the two met in the early months of summer at a St. Augustine Barnes & Noble bookstore. Roberts, a fit young man of medium build with a delicate baby face, opened up to Tavar about the fact that he had become homeless after losing his job at a Kangaroo gas station on St. Augustine Beach. Tavar offered him a place to stay after they spoke only a few times at the bookstore.
The two lived together at Tavar's home into mid-summer. Brenda Henry stopped by frequently, and met Roberts a handful of times. “He was just a normal, average young guy,” she said. “He told us how his parents died and he left town for a while and when he came back, the people he was living with sold his stuff and kicked him out.” Henry would later learn that this wasn't true. In fact, Roberts was in a downward spiral after spending several months living in the woods near the bookstore, according to two other women who befriended and lived with him before he met Tavar. Both women asked that their last names not be published.
“He was just a nice guy,” said Renee, a manager at the Kangaroo gas station. “He was always very personable and even up front about his anger and mental health issues.”
"When I told him to leave, he told me he had fallen in love with me," one of his hosts said.
Two years ago, Renee, 48 at the time, offered to rent a room in her house to Roberts because he was living in his car when he couldn’t afford a motel. He told her that he regularly dealt with depression and angry outbursts, and that he came from a family with a history of mental illness. Still, Renee let him to live with her from August 2008 to January 2009.
“At first, he was friendly and everything,” she said. But after a few weeks, Roberts began acting strangely. “He stopped bathing and would just sit in his room on his computer,” said Renee. “His room smelled horrible.”
The last straw came when Renee arrived home to find Roberts doing drugs in the house. “We got in a fight about it and he moved out that day,” she said. “He’s not the type of guy I would ever want to mess with.”
The month after Renee kicked him out, another employee at the gas station, Cheryl, had a similar experience with Roberts. They had become friends while working the late shift together.
“After a little while he opened up to me,” said Cheryl. He bragged about his computer skills and said that he didn’t get along with his family because they “wanted to put him in a psych ward.”
She, too, opened her home to Roberts in April 2009 after he was fired from the gas station for stealing. Cheryl would continue to work the late shifts, and in return for a couch to sleep on, Roberts would watch her three young children. “I can’t believe I left my children with him,” she said.
It wasn't long before a familiar scenario began to unfold. The two lived together peacefully for a while, but then Cheryl said Roberts stopped bathing. He would wander the house in dirty clothes, and leave for days at a time to go on drug binges. “When I told him to leave, he told me he had fallen in love with me,” she said. After nearly four months, Cheryl kicked him out of her house as well.
Was the handsome young Roberts earning his keep as a sexual plaything for these women? Cheryl claims they never had that kind of relationship. Renee was living with her female partner at the time, and her girlfriend got along with Roberts. And Brenda Henry said that Tavar was never intimate with Roberts either. “Brittany just liked having people around her all the time,” said Henry. “She didn’t like to live alone.” But even if he wasn’t trading sexual favors, what's undeniable is Roberts' uncanny ability to convince women he hardly knew to let him move into their homes.
Cut to early summer of this year, when Tavar met Roberts at the Barnes & Noble. The two lived together for several weeks in the beach house Tavar’s parents bought for her in 1999 through a trust fund. Although Tavar, a tall and shapely blonde, held a string of acting, modeling, and waitressing jobs during her lifetime, she was always partially supported by the trust fund set up by her parents.
“She was always trying to get involved in new ventures,” said her brother Andrew Bellamah, who lives in their hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland. “After two weeks, she bought (Roberts) a computer. They wanted to start a web design business together.”
But by Roberts' account, his relationship with Tavar took a sour turn when she became obsessed with filing a permanent restraining order against her neighbor, Anne Richardson. Tavar and Richardson had had issues with each other ever since Richardson's boyfriend from Ireland moved in with her and, to make space for him, Tavar agreed to take in Richardson's roommate. But she soon changed her mind, and “it just went south from there,” according to Brenda Henry. Tavar was even charged with battery for striking Richardson, 52, in January 2009.
Then, last May, Tavar claimed that Richardson threw her video camera in the pool at the Serenata Beach Club, a local fitness facility that both women frequented. “She carried around the camera to document interactions with Anne because she was afraid of her,” Tavar's brother Bellamah said. “She planned to use the video of what happened at the pool that day” in a civil case against Richardson.
“Roberts told us that he agreed to help create DVDs for [Tavar] to use as evidence in her civil case,” said St. Johns County Sheriff’s detective, George Harrigan. “The argument started over the DVDs he made.” Roberts told investigators that he made the DVDs for Tavar the night before her court case. The next morning, he said Tavar woke him and “was going off about something.” That day, Richardson would show up in court, but Tavar would not. Unbeknownst to everyone present, she was already dead, brutally murdered in her own home.
It took three months for investigators to track down Roberts, the last person to be seen with Tavar. When they finally caught up with him 3,000 miles away in Seattle, he told them what had happened that horrific morning.
“(I was) standing over her and she’s dead, and there’s blood everywhere,” Roberts told investigators. He said he had bashed her head in with a hammer. “She was still alive for a little while,” he told police, so he took a kitchen knife and cut her throat. Then he filled six trash bags with the bloody towels he used to meticulously clean up the house before wrapping her body in sheets and garbage bags.
Later that night, he loaded Tavar's corpse into a car along with her two prized bichon frise pups, Ku Bear and Huey. On the way out of town, he left her body in the woods off a state road not far from Interstate 95. Her body lay in the open brush, decomposing for months just a few feet away from the dusty road used mainly by those living in nearby homeless camps and kids on all-terrain vehicles.
Friends and family, for their part, knew something was wrong when a locksmith finally opened the door to Tavar’s abandoned beach house. The place was immaculate and smelled of cleaning products.
“It was strange,” said Henry. “She was never that clean.”
On the weekend of July 8, Ku Bear and Huey were found abandoned outside of Columbia, South Carolina. By this point, Roberts was headed toward the Pacific Northwest in Tavar’s dark blue Toyota RAV4. Investigators followed her credit card transactions across the country, a virtual map of Roberts' getaway: North Carolina, Idaho, Oregon.
On July 11, Roberts was stopped by police for speeding in Evanston, Wyoming, but was let go with a warning. He was seen later that day buying a tent and clothes from a Wal-Mart in Ontario, Oregon.
Then the trail went cold.
He wasn't seen again until he was arrested by Seattle Police for shoplifting on October 12. St. Johns County Sheriff’s detectives flew to Seattle the next day to personally interview Roberts.
“He withheld the details and downplayed his story in the beginning,” Harrigan said. “But it didn't take long for him to be cooperative and forthcoming.”
Detectives interviewed him for less than three hours before learning where Tavar's remains were located. On October 14, investigators back in St. Augustine found her right where Roberts had left her three months earlier. Her badly decomposed body was identified through dental records. Investigators were able to determine her death was caused by blunt force trauma.
Today, Roberts has found a new benefactor willing to put a roof over his head: the St. Johns County Jail in Northeast Florida, where he waits for the sentence that could put him on death row or condemn him to a lifetime behind bars.
“This is closure,” said Andrew Bellamah. “We've come to learn with missing person cases that there are a great number of people who, even something like 10 years after the fact, have nothing to grasp at.”
Brenda Henry, who now takes care of Tavar’s two pups, wishes her friend would have listened to her warnings.
“She was so spontaneous sometimes,” Henry said. “She trusted him and look where it got her.”
Justine Griffin is a reporter from St. Augustine, Florida. She is a staff writer for the St. Augustine Record and a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida.