When John Churchill came to town in early 2016 looking for answers about his son's death, he brought a close friend — recently retired Hillsborough County Sheriff's Maj. Ron Hartley.
They wanted to see the West Palm Beach house where Steven N. Churchill, 54, had died six months earlier of an accidental heroin overdose.
"Every place has their dope holes," said Hartley, alluding to drug cases he investigated during his 40-year law enforcement career. "That is kind of what I was expecting."
But driving along North Flagler Drive, they passed a marina, a sailing club, a waterfront park and gated homes on lush lots overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.
“I start thinking to myself, ‘Maybe we’re lost,”’ Hartley recalled.
After double-checking the address, they found themselves in front of a Mediterranean-style estate with a main house, open-air loggia and two guest cottages on 1.2 acres draped in palm trees and backing up to a dock.
The black metal entrance gate was closed. So, they walked along the property's walled borders, sneaking peeks of ornate stonework, a red barrel-tile roof and a swimming pool — all the while wondering how a troubled alcoholic with a long record of arrests could ever wind up at such a home, let alone die there.
Their next stop was the police station, where the investigating detective explained how Churchill's body had been found — slumped across the back seat of a dust-covered Jaguar parked in the garage. The detective said police found no foul play and chalked up the death as another tragic statistic in the surging overdose epidemic.
Assuming they had gotten all their answers, they left town.
In May 2016, about 10 months after Steven N. Churchill's death, someone else died of an overdose in the same house — Joshua Gray Hodgson, an addict with a rap sheet of drug-related offenses.
When Churchill's parents learned about it, they recalled Hodgson's name: He had found their son's body at the house in July 2015 but waited nearly two hours to call rescue crews.
“Something’s not right,” Hartley said. “If you get a couple of overdoses at the same place, it is usually a flophouse or some place where they go to shoot up. You don’t expect that in a mansion on the Intracoastal Waterway.”
But this is no ordinary waterfront estate.
And its owner is no ordinary man.
He’s the widower of a Standard Oil heiress, whose family fortune reaches back to Florida pioneer Henry Flagler. He married the heiress on her deathbed and inherited the bulk of her estate, $43 million, along with lingering bitterness from her suspicious relatives.
Tall and elegant with blue eyes, a trimmed mustache and a rakish debonair look, he’s confident and dignified. In video depositions taken in 2010, he smiles warmly and speaks with a slight German accent, at times stroking his mustache or twirling a pair of reading glasses — images at odds with the man mentioned in police reports about petty crimes, odd disturbances and the two overdose deaths at his homes.
His name evokes the aristocracy of his native Germany: Wolfgang Von Falkenburg.
Friends call him Wolfie.
He seems like a man who has it all. But he can’t resist the lure of the street.
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