The final hours of socialite Jean Ann Cone — (Tampa Bay Times)

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Tampa Bay Times

By Sue Carlton, Times staff

Published Jun. 7, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

On the last evening Jean Ann Cone was seen alive, she paused inside her South Tampa home in a dress dappled in color, about to head to her latest charity function.

“Norma,” the petite 75-year-old socialite called to the housekeeper, “I’m leaving.”

Norma Gotay had been working for Mrs. Cone only a few weeks, though her husband, Gus, worked there for years. She already knew her to be a charming and generous boss.

“Oh, Mrs. Cone, you look so elegant,” Mrs. Gotay would later recall telling her.

“Oh, thank you,” Mrs. Cone said. “Give my love to Gus, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then she climbed into her green 1979 Rolls Royce Shadow, with its vanity tag that read JeanAnn.

It was the car she would die in, later that night in March.

Unusual, but obvious death

Tampa police, after interviewing only a few people, were quickly satisfied it was an accident, albeit an unusual one.

Police did not probe deeply into Mrs. Cone’s state of mind. They did not extensively interview her husband.

Conclusion: She fell asleep behind the wheel in her garage when she got home that night and inhaled deadly exhaust fumes.

If the death was unusual, its strangeness was eclipsed by revelations that soon emerged about Douglas Cone Sr., the road construction magnate she had been married to for more than 50 years. Even as he lived as Jean Ann Cone’s husband and father to their three children, he maintained a second family 20 miles north in Lutz, using the alias Donald Carlson.

This week, as details of Mr. Cone’s double life emerged publicly, police began examining the final hours of Mrs. Cone’s life more closely. The Cones’ son, Douglas Jr., pushed for a deeper inquiry into his mother’s death.

There still is no evidence, detectives say, of foul play. There is no evidence of suicide. An account of Mrs. Cone’s final hours _ pieced together from interviews and police and autopsy reports _ shows she spent them as she had much of her life: surrounded by friends, involved in charities, spirited and active.

An active Tuesday

On March 18, a Tuesday and the last night of Mrs. Cone’s life, she drove to the South Tampa home of Tom and Harrison Giddens.

She was involved in many causes; that night it was a brainstorming session to help plan Pavilion XVIII, a lavish annual gala to benefit the Tampa Museum of Art.

Mrs. Cone held the title of “honorary patron chair.”

There was wine, and cheese and crackers.

Mrs. Cone was one of the last to leave, and Pavilion manager Bobbie Williams decided to see her home, following in her own car.

Mrs. Cone pulled into her garage on Golf View Street.

“Jean Ann was a special person to me, and I followed her home to make sure she arrived safely, since it was on my way,” Williams later said. “I saw that she did, so I drove on home.”

Williams, it appears, was the last person to see Mrs. Cone alive.

A different house

Housekeeper Norma Gotay arrived at the Cone home at 5 p.m. the next day, Wednesday. She put in two hours of work on week days. She opened the door and turned off the security alarm, which she had set when she left the night before.

Her boss had always been kind. When Mrs. Gotay’s husband worked there, taking care of the lawn and running errands, Mrs. Cone often sent him home with baskets of fruit or cookies, or books and candy for their grandchildren.

The housekeeper knew Mrs. Cone’s husband was often gone at the beginning of the week, returning at the end of the week. The couple went out together.

“I never noticed anything wrong between them,” Mrs. Gotay said.

That day, she noticed Mrs. Cone’s bed was still made – odd, because Mrs. Gotay usually made the bed in the afternoon. Maybe Mrs. Cone had slept elsewhere, she thought.

When she went into the garage for garbage bags, she noticed the Rolls parked there. She saw green liquid pooled around the car and wondered if it had a broken water pump. She did not look inside.

Later, a friend of Mrs. Cone’s came by, expecting to go with her to see the Yankees play the Indians in a spring training game at Legends Field. Mrs. Cone was an ardent Yankees fan _ she counted George Steinbrenner among her friends _ but the housekeeper said she wasn’t home.

Questions begin to arise

The newspapers that Thursday morning, March 20, were full of the launching of the U.S. attack on Iraq. Mrs. Cone’s photo was on the society page of the Tampa Tribune, smiling at a charity event for the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay.


Just before 10 a.m., a friend stopped by to pick up Mrs. Cone for a luncheon, but there was no answer at the door. Another friend, concerned, called Mrs. Cone’s daughter, Julianne McKeel.

Mrs. McKeel searched the house for her mother. She checked Mrs. Cone’s day planner for appointments. The bed was made, which seemed strange. In the garage, she saw the Rolls. The windows were rolled up and the doors were locked. Her mother was inside.

Mrs. McKeel called her father, Douglas Cone Sr. Cone, who said he was on his way home from business in Ocala, told her to call 911. Mrs. McKeel found a spare key and opened the car and found her mother’s body.

It had been 36 hours since she had been seen alive.

Tampa Police Detective Julia Massucci arrived at the house. The body was slumped across the front seat of the car. The ignition was turned on, but the car appeared to have overheated and stalled. The garage door was closed.

Police had questions, but Mrs. McKeel put them at ease.

“Every time we had a question, she had a very plausible answer,” Massucci later said.

Her mother often drove into the garage and shut the garage door before leaving her car, for safety’s sake, she said. Her mother had had episodes of getting lightheaded from medications. No, she had not been alcoholic or suicidal, she said.

Douglas Cone Sr. arrived on the scene. He was crying.

“He was visibly upset,” Massucci said. “He seemed like the grief-stricken husband that had just lost his wife.”

Closed casket

The news stunned South Tampa. No one seemed to know what had happened. The Tampa Tribune reported, erroneously, that she died of a heart attack.

The funeral was standing room only. The casket was closed.

“It was like ripping a hole in me,” Bobbie Williams, who had followed Mrs. Cone home that night, said of the death.

The medical examiner determined Mrs. Cone had a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the level at which the state presumes impairment, and she likely fell asleep with the car running. She also had an antidepressant in her system.

Official cause of death: accidental car exhaust inhalation.

Two weeks after Mrs. Cone’s death, while grief was still keen among her friends and family, there came more disquieting news: Douglas Cone Sr. had remarried, to a woman with whom he had been raising a secret second family, including two kids.

As the Times revealed this week, the elder Cone had been using the alias Donald Carlson and passing himself off as the husband of Hillary Carlson for decades.

Mrs. Cone’s friends and family have closed ranks.

“My mother died, my father made a mess,” Julianne McKeel told the Times. “And we all just want to be left alone about it.”

Sue Carlton – Urban Affairs Reporter