It was a bizarre case of multiple “Murder for Hire.” Two Florida sisters were found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill BOTH of their husbands!
The sisters, whose maiden names were Debra and Marlene Sims, were convicted of the double murder in the 1980s. The Sims family was incredibly close. The sisters were best friends and their parents, Frank and Iris, helped their girls out in any way they could — apparently even when it came to murder!
It started with the death of Debra Banister’s husband, Joe Banister, in an apparent car accident.
Both the Sims girls dropped out of high school and married young. Debra Ann Sims was just 19 when she started seeing Joe Banister, who was 12 years her senior. Joe Banister had already been married twice when he met Debra. She became his third wife in 1978. On the surface, it appeared the Banisters were living an idyllic middle-class life. Debra was a loan officer at Sun Bank, and Joe, an air force veteran, was making a good living at Western Electric. Between their two salaries, they were able to afford a nice home where they raised two children.
But things took a stunning turn for the worse, around midnight on Feb. 2, 1985, when a 911 call came into the Bradford County Sheriff’s Office, reporting a car crashed in a drainage ditch on a remote stretch of highway.
Authorities converged on the scene and found Banister, 41, dead behind the wheel of his car and covered in blood. His vehicle, however, exhibited minimal damage, leading investigators to believe the crash itself was not the cause of death.
When Debra was notified of her husband’s passing, she broke down in tears. She said the couple had spent the night out with friends before driving home separately. However, when told Banister’s body had been taken to the county morgue to perform an autopsy, Debra tried to put a stop to it.
“She said, ‘Well, I’m not going to agree to an autopsy,'” former Florida Highway Patrol Commander Winston Barber told the producers of an Oxygen documentary about the murders. “I informed her that was not a decision that she could make, that it was a matter of procedure.”
The autopsy revealed something shocking — Banister had not died from injuries sustained during a car crash but from two gunshot wounds! “One of them was a grazing type wound to the back of the head. The second shot was a shot through the brain that caused his immediate death,” former Bradford County Investigator David Aderholt explained to the producers.
Then, another twist occurred. On Feb. 5, the Bradford County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by investigators from the neighboring Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. They were looking into the death of Cecil Batie — Marlene Sims’ ex-husband.
Batie, 33, had been murdered on Jan. 6. He was shot through the front window of his Gainesville home while asleep on his couch.
Marlene was 15 when she married Batie, then 21. The couple had two boys but divorced after five years. At the time of his murder, Batie was involved in a custody battle with his ex-wife.
“Here we had two sisters who within a period of weeks had their husbands murdered, and that’s enough of a coincidence that we immediately started to look at it as a single person being involved,” former Alachua County Sheriff’s Detective Farnell Cole told Oxygen producers.
An Affair and a Murder for Hire
Investigators received a tip that at Banister’s funeral, Debra had been accompanied by a man named John Wayne Hearn. She told people Hearn was her long-lost cousin, which came as a surprise to everybody.
Hearn was a 38-year-old Vietnam War veteran and truck driver from Atlanta. He had come to the attention of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation after placing “gun-for-hire” ads in Soldier Of Fortune magazine, which caters to military fetishists. “Ex-marine, ’67 – ’69 Nam vet. Ex-DI weapons specialist-jungle warfare. High-risk assignments U.S. or overseas,” read one of Hearn’s ads, according to a 1992 Chicago Tribune article.
During the conspiracy trial, Hearn said he was looking for bodyguard work when he placed his Soldier Of Fortune ads. Instead, he was inundated with 10 to 20 phone calls a day asking him to participate in various crimes, including murder for hire.
Debra had called Hearn in Oct. 1984. She was looking for someone to strong-arm Cecil Batie to resolve his custody dispute with her sister, Marlene. At their first meeting, Debra leaned across the table and kissed Hearn on the tip of his nose, PEOPLE Magazine reported in 1987. She and Hearn began having an affair, and he made plans to relocate to Gainesville.
Debra’s request went from just intimidating Batie to killing him. Hearn said he’d do it for $30,000, but Debra talked him down to $10,000.
In order to raise funds to pay for the dastardly deed, Debra and Marlene burned down their grandmother’s home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, and collected the insurance money. Frank and Iris Sims – the sister’s parents — were in on the scheme, according to PEOPLE.
After killing Batie, Debra then asked Hearn to murder her husband. Debra was the beneficiary of Banister’s insurance policy and said they could use the money to build their dream house. Debra and Hearn even opened a joint checking account together.
With her husband out of the way, Debra pushed Hearn to take on more contract killings. Bob Black was having an affair with his first cousin and offered Hearn $10,000 to murder his wife, Sandra. Hearn met Black at his Texas home in Feb. 1985, and the two men staged the crime scene to make it look like a robbery. While Bob performed errands to create an alibi, Hearn waited for Sandra to come home from work. When she arrived, he snuck up behind her and shot her twice in the head, PEOPLE reported.
Convictions and Confessions
Hearn pleaded guilty to the murders of Cecil Batie, Joe Banister, and Sandra Black and was sentenced to life in prison. In order to avoid the death penalty, he agreed to testify in all related trials. With his testimony, in August 1985, Debra was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years in prison. She was also charged in connection with the Batie murder, along with her sister, Marlene Sims, and their parents, Frank and Iris Sims.
Marlene pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and arson and was sentenced to five and a half years in prison. Debra pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and was sentenced to an additional 30 years in prison, to be served concurrently with her previous sentence. Frank and Iris Sims pleaded no contest to being accessories after the fact and received five years’ probation, according to PEOPLE.
Bob Black was found guilty of capital murder in the death of his wife, Sandra, and sentenced to death. He was executed by lethal injection on May 23, 1992.
After serving only nine years in prison, Debra Banister was released in 2004. Now 75, John Wayne Hearn is currently incarcerated at South Carolina’s Perry Correctional Institution.