Lakeland woman accused of 'cold-blooded' murder left victim in orange grove, sheriff says

Suspect's flip-flops connected her to Joseph Witherington's slaying

BARTOW, Fla. – A 28-year-old woman was arrested Saturday after Polk County Sheriff’s Office homicide detectives connected her to the murder of a 21-year-old man because she left her flip-flops behind.

According to officials, Joseph Witherington’s body was found Thursday morning in the driver's seat of a friend's blue Kia by caretakers in an orange grove on Mud Lake Road. A pair of flip-flops was found not far from the scene, investigators said.

An autopsy report concluded Witherington's death was caused by two gunshot wounds to the head.

Detectives looked over the scene and received tips and leads that led officials to Heather Tyler, who admitted to detectives that the flip-flops were hers and that she was with Witherington during that time.

Tyler told detectives that Witherington came to her house driving a friend's blue Kia. Then after hanging out, they drove to a convenience store and eventually drove out to 80 Foot Road in Alturas, according to the arrest report.

Tyler told detectives different versions of events about what happened inside the Kia, but according to authorities, the evidence and witness statements confirm that she shot him in the head while he was driving.

Tyler told deputies that Witherington knew where they could get some Xanax so they started driving toward 80 Foot Road. At some point, according to the suspect, Witherington started driving erratically on dirt roads.

Tyler told deputies she asked Witherington several times to slow down and let her out, but he continued to drive.

While the car was driving at a high rate of speed, Tyler said she climbed into the back seat and asked him to slow down again. Tyler said Witherington "was acting out of control" so she shot him from the back seat with a 9 mm handgun. After Witherington lost control of the vehicle and crashed into some orange trees she shot him again, according to the arrest report.

"She shot him again after the vehicle came to a stop. She then took his wallet and fled the scene, leaving her shoes behind, and burned her clothes that had his blood on them. She did not give detectives a clear motive for the killing,” according to a news release from the Polk County Sheriffs Office.

Asked why she didn't call 911, Tyler told investigators she didn't want anyone to know she was there, according to the arrest report.

"Regardless of Heather's many reasons and excuses, we know that she executed Joseph Witherington by shooting him in the back of the head while he was driving down a dirt road between orange groves - and that is first-degree murder and we have charged her accordingly. Clearly the evidence, witnesses and her admissions confirm that she committed cold-blooded first degree murder. Joseph's family and friends are in our prayers. If not for the vicious act by Heather Tyler, he would be alive and well today,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

Tyler is charged with first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and grand theft of a firearm. She was booked into the Polk County Jail on Friday and is being held without bond.