Former pastor used his parental rights to leverage guardianship for his Arizona family after arrest
2011 Florida missing person case ruled murder in 2015 after TV show led to new evidence
CCR EDITOR’S NOTE: This article published July 10, 2017 was edited Nov. 4, 2017 to remove reference to a 2013 court order granting James Flanders custody of his daughter. No such order was made.
SUNSITES, AZ – When James Ty Flanders sought an order in 2013 from the Cochise County Superior to terminate the parental rights of the mother of his daughter, he signed documents attesting that Marie Jane Carlson’s whereabouts were “unknown.” Flanders, a former Florida pastor, also noted there had been no contact from Carlson “for nearly two years.”
But Flanders failed to tell the family court judge one vital fact: he murdered Carlson on October 17, 2011 and buried her body near their home. He then took steps to make it look like Carlson left town and abandoned their three month old daughter. At the time of the murder, Flanders was pastor of Calvary Emerald Coast Church in the Fort Walton Beach, FL area and his wife Tanya ran the women’s ministry.
Carlson, age 37, was reported missing a week later 1 by her ex-husband in Kentucky. Authorities determined she was last seen at the Fort Walton Beach home she shared with James and Tanya Flanders and the baby. Some friends described Carlson as a surrogate mother, while others were told she was a “sister wife” who planned to raise the girl with the couple.
A few months later James and Tanya Flanders moved with the infant to Arizona, eventually settling near his family in the Sunsites – Cochise area. In 2013, Flanders petitioned the court to terminate the missing mother’s parental rights, a move denied by Cochise County Superior Court Judge Donna Beumler.
However, Flanders still had his parental rights and custody of the little girl, which would come into play when Florida authorities arrested Flanders at his Cochise County home on May 5, 2015. By then, the daughter was nearly four years old.
Cold Justice TV show features Carlson disappearance
Court records reveal the Flanders left Florida “in the middle of the night” January 28, 2012, a few hours after a detective with the Okaloosa (Florida) Sheriff’s Office tried to speak with Tanya Flanders about the missing person case.
By mid-2013 the investigation was stagnant due to a lack of reported sightings of Carlson and no direct evidence that she was dead. Even a national missing persons alert by the FBI and a $10,000 reward by the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement failed to develop serious leads.
Then in early 2015, producers for the Cold Justice television show decided to feature Carlson’s disappearance. The show, produced by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, centers on two experienced female investigators who look at cold cases with the cooperation of law enforcement.
Detectives with Okaloosa County met with the show’s stars and explained that Carlson’s ex-husband reported her missing October 24, 2011 after she stopped communicating with him and their 8 year old daughter. Carlson’s movements were confirmed up to the afternoon of October 17, 2011 but then her trail went cold.
Okaloosa authorities suspected Carlson did not leave town voluntarily, as there was nearly $1000 in her bank accounts and she left clothes and personal items in the home. She also had shown no signs of abandoning the baby or severing contact with her older daughter who lived with the ex-husband.
Detectives recounted that James Flanders said that he left Carlson alone in their house on October 17 so he could go for a run while his wife Tanya was out with the baby. He also said Carlson and her vehicle were gone when he returned that evening. It would be the only statement Flanders gave to Okaloosa detectives about Carlson for three and a-half years.
Parishioners talk, new evidence, confirms detectives’ suspicions of murder
Parishioners previously reticent to talk about their pastor now spoke freely, on camera, about friction in the Flanders’ home. Some witnesses told of an admission by Flanders of a physical altercation with Carlson the day she disappeared. There was also a report that a “distraught” Flanders met with a friend to ask for help leaving the country.
Detectives also learned that Flanders’ conduct during that meeting led to him being hospitalized for 10 days under a Florida law which allows for the voluntary and involuntary commitment of a person for mental health treatment.
For the TV show, researchers analyzed old cell phone records including some not previously available to the sheriff’s office. It was discovered that Carlson’s cell phone never pinged outside Fort Walton Beach after October 17, 2011. And at the time she was supposedly parking her truck at the airport to leave town it was the cell phone belonging to James Flanders, not Carlson, that pinged near the airport.
Another piece of cell phone evidence indicated that on October 19, after Carlson allegedly left town, a group text message was sent from her phone when the was actually very near their house. That was also the same location the records placed James Flanders’ cell phone when it received the text message.
The new information led to the issuance of an arrest warrant and on May 5, 2015 officials from the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Arizona Dept. of Public Safety descended on Flanders home in Cochise County. He was charged with second degree murder and extradited to Florida where he remained in custody unable to post the $1 million bail.
Flanders later admitted in court that he put Carlson “in a choke hold” and a “bear hug” until she stopped breathing. He accepted a plea bargain in April 2016 for one count of manslaughter with a sentence of not more than 15 years in prison. The plea deal required him to show detectives where Carlson’s body was buried.
Flanders, now age 49, was sentenced July 19, 2016 to the maximum 15 years. He is scheduled for release in December 2029.
According to William Bishop of the Florida State Attorney’s Office, investigators in 2015 “looked at all the evidence then available” to determine if others should be charged in connection to Carlson’s murder.
Bishop explained in a recent telephone interview that although some people close to James Flanders may have been an accomplice after the fact, “we were unable to find any evidence sufficient to charge anyone.”
Arguing from jail: 2013 custody order influences guardianship decision
Left in the wake of Flanders’ arrest was the little girl, who knew no other parents than James and Tanya Flanders. Carlson’s sister Rose Bridges from Florida petitioned Cochise County for guardianship, but the Flanders family, including James’ mother Geraldine, challenged her effort.
From jail, Flanders argued it was his right to assign care of his daughter to his wife and mother. He referenced the 2013 court proceeding to show he had standing as the girl’s father.
The parties took part in a mediation session after which Bridges dropped her request for guardianship and agreed to Tanya and Geraldine Flanders having guardianship. In February 2016 judge Karl Elledge named the women temporary co-guardians and a month later their appointment was made permanent.
A visitation plan was also worked out and accepted by judge Elledge to allow members of Carlson’s family to visit with the girl and maintain regular weekly communication. According to the judge, “the visitation agreement reached between the parties today is in the minor child’s best interests.”
On March 31, 2017 judge Elledge approved the co-guardians’ annual report which provides the Court with information about the child’s care and welfare. The next mandatory guardianship review will occur in April 2018.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Northwest Florida newspapers reported in late 2015 that Flanders acknowledged the polygamous relationship between himself, Carlson and his wife Tanya, but claimed innocence of the murder charge.
The Cold Justice episode on the Marie Carlson case can be viewed here on YouTube
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 or firstname.lastname@example.org