September 4, 1981, was the day these men say their childhood ended. Jeff Slaten and his younger brother, Tim, had been awakened by Lakeland police officers and told their mother had been murdered. Police hustled the boys outside, but Tim, still in his pajamas, caught a glimpse of his mother. She had been raped and strangled.
“I saw the whole crime scene right then and there as a 12-year-old kid,” Tim Slaten tells CBS News chief investigative and senior national correspondent Jim Axelrod. “You can’t unsee that,” says Axelrod. Tim, with tears in his eyes, says he “still sees” the image of his dead mother, and knows he always will.
To this day, the Slaten brothers feel grief and guilt, for not hearing anything that night, for not coming to their mom’s rescue. “I (would have) died that night tryin’ to save my mom,” Jeff Slaten says. “But I didn’t hear nothing. And it’s so hard to live with that.”
“48 Hours” and Axelrod report the story of the brothers’ search for justice in “The Betrayal of Linda Slaten” airing Saturday, Dec. 3 at 10:01/9:01c on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.
Immediately after the murder, Jeff and Tim moved in with their grandparents. For those first frightening days, the entire family slept in the same room. It was their grandfather who rarely slept. He was standing guard all night with a shotgun.
A few weeks later, the boys were back in school, and Tim again played football, his favorite sport. “Just trying to live life again,” he says. His teammates and coach, “Coach Joe,” were always supportive, always rooting for him. Coach Joe, 20 at the time, was a young man Tim had looked up to. He often drove Tim to and from football practice — a routine that had started well before the murder.
For years, Tim Slaten proudly hung his team football photo in his bedroom, taken just one month after the murder. The photo was also a reminder, he says, of something his mom had taught him: to keep moving forward and never give up.
After the murder, Lakeland investigators had collected a rape kit and lifted a palm print from Linda Slaten’s bedroom window, where the killer had entered. Detectives had questioned a slew of suspects, like Linda’s abusive ex-husband, Frank Slaten. Even her own son, Jeff, became a person of interest, telling Axelrod, “Lakeland Police, they was interrogating me all the time.”
But no one was charged. Before long, the case went cold and stayed that way for nearly four decades. Jeff Slaten says, he thought for sure he’d take his last breath without knowing who murdered his mom.
But remarkable advances in DNA technology renewed hope, and that carefully stored rape kit revealed an unlikely suspect, Joseph Clinton Mills — Coach Joe.
Now those car rides to practice took on new meaning. So did Tim’s team football photo, which sickens him today. Because standing directly behind Tim is the man he once trusted and admired, Coach Joe. He would often ask Tim how the case was going. Was there any news? Were there any new leads? Coach Joe was talking to a 12-year-old boy, trying to keep tabs on a murder investigation through the son of the murdered woman when he knew exactly who did it.
“I’ve been carrying the killer’s picture in my house this whole time and never had a clue,” Jeff says. “He’s a cold-hearted monster, that’s for sure.”