Murderers are People

Larry Parks arrested for Brannon homicides

Before someone gets crazed, let me explain what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that murderers are nice people and I’m not going to defend the Brannon murderer here or anywhere else. What Larry Parks confessed to doing was unconscionable, sadistic, and evil. He confessed to the crimes (after DNA evidence proved his involvement) because he wanted to avoid the death penalty and never claimed to feel guilty or remorseful.

What can that possibly mean? My interest in true crime–specifically murder without an apparent motive–arises from my failure to understand why any human being would kill a stranger, except possibly in a war situation or in self-defense. I hope to research and write my way toward some insight into what creates and animates this character type, if it is one single type.

I’ve interviewed many, many detectives and investigators who knew Larry Parks as a result of the Brannon murders, and every one has described him as narcissistic, sexually perverse, and a man who hated women. Most of the women with whom he was involved described his growing violence toward them, actions and language that one might reasonably assume led eventually to the killing of Sherry Brannon and her two daughters. His sisters complained of his lack of feeling toward his mother. An ex-girlfriend, (pseudonym Alicia Ruiz) said he despised his stepmother, a woman his father had been married to for more than thirty years at the time of the Brannon crimes. Ruiz was the neighbor whose home Lisa and Mac had rushed to escape Larry’s attack in October, 1999. She had phoned the stepmother, Marty Parks, to warn her as soon as she realized Larry was in the neighborhood and out of control. Another girlfriend, Susan Moore, told detectives he had threatened to kill her and bury her body where she would never be found. His wife, Deborah Sharp Parks, left him because of his cruelty to her and indifference to their toddler daughter and infant son.

The Larry Parks that Alicia Ruiz dated for a year and a half seemed like a different man. He was never violent toward her, she insisted to detectives. Their sex life was ordinary. Their first date was a trip to the Strawberry Festival. He took her to dinner regularly, treated their mothers to an evening out for Mother’s Day one year, and even attended Easter services with Alicia although he was not himself a church-going man. He barbecued with her and her two daughters, worked every day, showered regularly, and always had money in his pockets. His drug use was limited to moderate amounts of marijuana, common among their peers in those days. In short, he was an ordinary single man. Their romance ended when he began to frequently use cocaine and crystal meth. His hygiene habits fell into disuse and he began to make sexual suggestions Alicia found offensive.

I interviewed two of Larry’s cousins over breakfast one morning. They smiled as they described boyhoods they shared with Larry, hunting, fishing, camping, and roaming the hundreds of acres of lush farmland and woods originally acquired by their grandfather, now owned by their fathers, land that some day would be divided among them. “I can’t think of anything bad to tell you,” one of them said.

“I’ve got all the bad stuff anyone could ever want to know,” I told him. “I just want to hear the regular stuff. I want to know what kind of man he is.”

Writing True Crime: The Art of Balancing Accuracy and Kindness

From Shelby and Cassidy Brannon to their Daddy

Their lives were so much larger than their deaths. As an example, here was a picture Shelby and Cassidy Brannon signed, with love, to their father, Dewey Brannon. I found it among the crime investigation files available to the public. And that is the answer to the question Dewey asked me about why I had to use their real names instead of pseudonyms, why I was writing the story at all, 20 years later. “Nobody cares after all this time,” he said.

I told him I had to think about my answer. Until he asked, I had never considered using any names but the real ones. Charlie Wells and I are writing a book of non-fiction, and one of the reasons we are writing it is because we think there needs to be accountability for the crime and for how it was investigated. Charlie is extremely proud of the work his investigators and staff did to solve the crime quickly and he wants the world to know about it. He’s angry that a profiler led them down a wrong path and briefly delayed the progress of the investigation as a result.

He and his colleagues were especially affected by this crime because it involved children. I heard that over and over from the investigation team leader, Major Connie Shingledecker, from Captain Rick Gerken who led the day-to-day investigation, and from Dianna Taylor, the supervisor of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office forensics unit that processed the crime scene. All of those investigators had young children, and I had three teen sons by the time the murders were committed in 1999. We all wanted the murderer to be held accountable in the strongest possible way for what he had done. Having the world know him and his crimes was one way to do that.

My interviewee’s queries brought me to some fundamental questions about what I was doing. I knew I was fascinated by this particular case, but could not tell you why, and using pseudonyms seemed dishonest somehow. We had unearthed tons of unflattering facts about people involved in the case, yet not all of them were relevant…or were they? It was not always possible to know.

After a lot of soul-searching, this is what I have concluded: the story we are writing is a story about a family. In it are births and deaths, joy and anguish, problems and solutions, facts, guesses, and conclusions. Those are the elements of all lives. We think we are unique, and in the details we are, but looking at the whole picture we are not so very different.

While some parts of life are unbearably cruel, it is not necessary to inject gratutitous detail into the story, thus adding pain to survivors who may decide to read the book. The lives of the victims, survivors, and perpetrator are much longer and more involved than what was revealed in the murders and their solution. That fullness, with its richness and beauty, needs to frame the story of the homicide.

Dewey Brannon told me he had spent the last 20 years of his life trying to forget what he had seen that day. We will tell the story as kindly as possible, as completely as we are able. I hope this will help Dewey and the other survivors of these tragic murders remember the girls’ energy and their sweetness.

In Memory Of Sherry-Ann, Shelby, and Cassidy Brannon

L-R Darlene “Dolly” Meyer (grandmother), Sherry-Ann Brannon, Cassidy Brannon and Shelby Brannon

Twenty years ago today, on Thursday, September 16, 1999, Sherry, Shelby, and Cassidy Brannon were found in their east Bradenton, Florida home stabbed and with their throats slit. It was Sherry’s 35th birthday. Cassidy had celebrated her 4th birthday the Monday before, and Shelby was 7, about to turn 8 in a little more than a week.

These were horrific moments for Sherry and Shelby, and hours of terror and confusion for Cassidy who was left alone all night in the house where her mother and sister had been killed. Although Cassidy died in a helicopter on her way to the hospital, she was able to spend most of her last time on earth in the comforting arms of her father, Dewey Brannon.

Sherry, Shelby, and Cassidy’s lives were so much more, though, than their final moments. From what I have been told and read in newspaper accounts of the tragedy, the three Brannon “girls” filled the lives they had with laughter, joy, and goodness. I wish I had met them. I know I would have liked them.

Sherry was a registered nurse, a cardiac rehabilitation specialist who worked at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. She was loved by her patients who told news reporters stories of romances she had kindled between them and times she had rushed them from her ward to the emergency room, saving their lives. She was a valued partner among the staff at the hospital who spoke of her dedication and kindness. She was a devoted mother to her two daughters, a loving daughter to her parents Bob and Dolly Meyer, and a priceless sister to her twin, Mary Ann. She was lovely, a blonde, blue-eyed “Ivory Soap”kind of woman. After her husband left her in June, she often visited her next door neighbors, Van and Angie Balam, to share some of her sadness and worry. “How will I manage,” she asked them. Van later told detectives that he responded “How will you manage? Just answer me these questions. Who mows the property now? Who takes care of the kids? Who cleans the house, shops, fixes the meals? Who pays the bills?” She smiled.

Shelby had been an easy baby to deliver and she was an easy little girl to raise. Her friend next door, Ariel Balam, played with her nearly every day after school. Often they sifted through the Brannon’s shell driveway looking for shark’s teeth. When she found two, she always shared one with her friend. She loved animals and maintained a toy menagerie in her room. The shower floor was scattered with her toy horses, special favorites. Sherry coaxed her gently to participate in sports and games with her peers, and she did. She had a little tape player which her daddy turned on for her after he read her stories and kissed her goodnight on Wednesday, September 15th.

The day after her body was discovered would have been the first sleep-over birthday party she hosted–actually the first birthday party she had ever had with her friends instead of her family members–followed by a swim after breakfast and birthday cake before the moms came to pick up their daughters. When Angie Balam pulled into her church parking lot and told her daughter that Shelby was in heaven now, Ariel said “She was my best friend.” …And she told her mother she wanted to go into the church and talk to God.

Cassidy was a more difficult baby to deliver, and that was a harbinger of things to come. Her daddy called her “my tough little girl.” She was a spitfire, people said. At the ballgame she belted out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” twice on her own after the audience had sung it, and once in church the following Sunday, her own unique hymn. At her grandparents’ house where she played after school until her mother picked her up, she yelled so loudly that her great-grandfather’s hearing aides would ring. “What’s that noise,” he’d ask. “Oh that’s just Cassidy,” Bob Meyer would tell his father. Dewey Brannon tucked his little girl into bed, read her several short books, and sang two songs to her before she fell asleep on September 15th. One was Jesus Loves Me.

Rest in Peace, beautiful girls. You are missed and loved.

Book Review: Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders

Journalist Billy Jensen, the author of Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders (Sourcebooks, 2019), his first book, is a busy guy. Not only has he written a unique “how to” book, but in it, he proves his skill in catching killers by telling the stories of several murders he has solved or helped solve. He and his co-host, cold case investigator Paul Holes, also produce a weekly podcast about true crime, “The Murder Squad.” Finally, when he wasn’t writing his own book, investigating murders, and producing his podcast, he was helping Holes and Michelle McNamara’s husband Patten Oswalt and her research assistant Paul Haynes finish writing McNamara’s unfinished book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, after her untimely death.

Billy Jensen’s prose is crisp and factually accurate, expected characteristics of a journalist’s writing. What makes his book especially tantalizing is the way he weaves together autobiographical information, stories about true crimes both solved and unsolved, and instructions about how “citizen sleuths” can actually assist police in solving crimes without disrupting the latters’ own investigations.

Finally, he is a passionate advocate for citizen involvement in the criminal justice process. He points out, quite properly but a surprising realization for me, that we have been involving ordinary citizens in solving crimes for generations– as members of juries. Jensen does more than propose such involvement, he shows how social media can be used to generate suspect and victim leads, and he shows that the techniques work. To date he has solved or helped to solve 10 cold cases using his methods.

Profiling

The photo above is John Douglas, retired FBI profiler who was the pattern for Jack Crawford, the fictitious profiler in “The Silence of the Lambs.” This article contains sexually explicit material and is not suitable for all readers.

Criminal Minds the television series, the film The Silence of the Lambs, and other series and movies have profited mightily by portraying crime profilers. The latter are expert investigators–usually with psychology backgrounds–who examine crime scene details in order to define the type of person who is likely to have committed the crime. In 2007 author Malcolm Gladwell published an article in The New Yorker (November 12, 2007 issue) questioning the validity of profiling as a legitimate investigatory tool.

In “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy,” Gladwell discussed the FBI’s method of analysis, the basis for profiling techniques used in local police organizations and worldwide. According to Gladwell, profilers often do not record their predictions, but leave it to the requesting police organization to take notes. This, in fact, was the case in the Brannon murders, and certainly makes it possible for profilers to modify their opinions when the case is finally solved.

In addition, in 1972 when the FBI first created its Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, profilers classified murderers as either “organized” or “disorganized.” For example a murderer who brought a weapon to the crime scene as opposed to using an object found there, or a perpetrator who planned the crime or committed it spontaneously, were factors considered evidence of organization or lack of it. Later the classification was broadened to include mixed characteristics.

In the case of the Brannon homicides, the murder weapon was never found, but a neighbor’s missing knife was consistent with the wounds and may have been the weapon. That would have classified the killer as disorganized, which was consistent with the cloth and yellow twine left at the scene, but inconsistent with the planning that would have been required if the killer chose that night because he knew the neighbors would not be at home.

Gladwell further concluded that when profile reports are written, their findings are often ambiguous, as in “the rapist of the elderly woman was likely to be a young man who is insecure about his sexuality or an older man with a deep hatred of older women.” Gladwell also referred to Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist who is highly critical of the FBI methodology. Turvey believes that murders are almost always a mixture of organized and disorganized traits, and he concludes that it is not possible to look at one behavior in isolation. He gives a terrific example: A rapist in a park pulls the victim’s shirt over her face. Was he trying to prevent her from identifying him? Was he fantasizing she was someone else? Was he trying to incapacitate her so she couldn’t defend herself? Was he trying to look at her breasts? One behavior, pulling the shirt over her face, was only one small piece of the puzzle.

Not only did investigators need to consider multiple behaviors and factors, but they needed to take into account that different investigators would see things from different perspectives. In the case of the Brannon investigation, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office initially called in their regular forensic consultant, Dr. John T. Super, a young psychologist who had earned his PhD at Hofstra University on Long Island and was board-certified in Forensic Psychology. Super reviewed the crime scene and Sheriff Wells asked him to prepare a profile of the killer.

“That was especially difficult,” Dr. Super remembers. “because these were not serial murders but a single event, so I had only that one set of circumstances to consider.” From the violence of the crime, he concluded that Dewey Brannon, the husband and father of the victims, was not the perpetrator. Because he was able to overpower Sherry Brannon, he believed it was a male, and because murderers are generally the same race as their victims, he thought it was a white man, acting on his own. Dr. Super concluded the latter because he believed that more than one perpetrator would have had a moderating influence on the more confrontational and violent killer. He began preparing his written report within days of the murders, and recommended that detectives begin immediately canvassing area hotel dumpsters to see whether bloody clothes or a murder weapon might have been discarded there by a drifter.

Wells also invited three outside specialists to visit the crime scene and collaborate on producing a psychological profile of the killer: Dayle Hinman, Coordinator of the Statewide Crime Analysis Profiling Program of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Louis Eliopulous, Chief Forensic Investigator with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and FBI Agent Joe Navarro. Their conclusions were consistent with those of Dr. Super.

One team member, however, had met separately with the Manatee County detective who was in charge of the investigation to offer preliminary observations. The person said the scene was consistent with domestic violence, and crimes of interpersonal violence most often occurred between people who knew each other. The perpetrator’s degree of anger and aggression was demonstrated by multiple stab wounds. The investigator said the remote location spoke of a targeted victim. Sherry was blitzed from the front; The perp knew her and could physically dominate her.

When the bodies were discovered, the front door had been locked. A stranger would have had no proprietary interest in locking the door. According to the expert, it is expected that a liar will change his story and in this case there were multiple and varied accounts of what happened at the house. Finally, the specialist concluded, Albert “Dewey” Brannon provided irrelevant information to the dispatcher during the 911 call. His emotions during the call should have been consistent with the exigency of the situation, however that was not the case. Whatever the majority concluded, at least one outside specialist was pointing a finger at Dewey.

Profilers are all privy to the same facts; each of them processes them through a different lens. Was Dewey the grieving father or his daughters’ killer?

A Piece of Yellow Twine

WARNING: This article contains graphic sexual material. It is not suitable for all readers.

After the half-time break in our first Famous Murders class session, Major Connie Shingledecker continued her description of the Brannon investigation by telling about another crime, one that happened in a trailer ten miles from the Brannon home early the morning of Friday, October 22,1999. Lisa Bennett (not her real name) had awoken by the sound of tapping on the sliding glass door that led from the front porch to the living room where she dozed on the couch .

She recognized the visitor, a muscular man wearing shorts and a tee shirt and a ball cap. He was a casual acquaintance, not someone she considered a friend. Nonetheless she was relieved to see someone she knew rather than a housebreaker, yet annoyed at the same time. It was not yet 4:00 a.m. She had fallen asleep after putting her new puppy outside ; the dog had been “having accidents” on the floor the last two nights. Her boyfriend, Jim McEvoy, known as Mac, (not his real name) was asleep in the back bedroom. She knew he would not be pleased with the late-night company.

Her guest said his truck had broken down and she invited him in. He immediately produced a handgun from the waistband of his shorts and ordered her to sit down so he could tie her up. He had brought duct tape and a length of yellow surveyor’s twine. “This is all about about sex,” he had said. “Just do what I say and nobody’ll get hurt.” He sounded like a television outlaw. He fastened together her ankles and then her wrists.

“Why are you doing this?” Lisa asked him. “We’re friends, aren’t we?

He lit a glass pipe she assumed was filled with cocaine or crystal meth, inhaled, and began to pace. “I was gonna pop that asshole boyfriend of yours right in his sleep,” he said. “If he gives me any trouble, I’ll do just that. I’ll pop both of you and then burn down the trailer. You keep quiet now, and don’t wake him up yet.”

She could tell he was agitated from the drugs and not talking rationally: they barely knew each other and she also was aware that he was married. He went on to tell her that he’d done something “real bad,” and had to get out of town after he collected $3,000 he was owed, but couldn’t pick up until 6:30 that night. Until then, he said, he planned to spend the day carrying out some sex fantasies with her and Mac. He said he wasn’t sure whether he was gay or bisexual, he told her, but he wanted to watch them have sex together and then he wanted to do some stuff with Mac.

Lisa tried to calm him, but he ordered her into a nearby spare bedroom. “How do you expect me to get there with my ankles tied together?” she asked.

“Just point your toes in that direction and get in there a little bit at a time,” he advised. She was slowly able to do as he said. When she reached the bed, he pushed her back onto the mattress and ordered her to spread her legs and arms. He fastened her, spread-eagle, to the four corners of the bed frame using more tape and twine. When she was immobilized, he took off his shorts and attempted to have sex with her. He wasn’t able to maintain an erection, though, but managed to have oral sex with her.

After what seemed like an eternity to Lisa, she heard the sound of Mac moving in the hallway toward the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen.

“Now you be quiet,” he said. “If Mac comes in here all riled up, I guarantee I’ll kill both of you. I’ve done it before and I’m not afraid to do it again.” He hesitated. “Not that I’d want to do it, but I will if I have to.” He told her to tell Mac he was there and convince him to do what their captor wanted.

Lisa followed Mac into the bathroom and whispered to him.

“What the hell. I can’t understand you. Talk louder.”

She moved a step closer to him, continuing to whisper. She tilted her head toward the bedroom. “He says he’s going to kill us,” she said. “He’s crazy and he’s got a gun.”

Mac faced his adversary who was just emerging from the bedroom across the hall. “Get the hell out of my house,” he said.

I’m calling the shots here tonight, Mac,” he replied. “Just shut the fuck up. I’ve got some plans for us. Now go into that bedroom and sit down on the bed. I’m going to tie you up. That way we won’t have any trouble. Maybe I won’t have to kill you.”

Mac moved into the adjacent kitchen and said before he went into the bedroom, he was going to have a cigarette and a beer. He moved toward the fridge, acting much calmer than he felt. While he could tell the other man was anxious and not likely to let him continue acting in control much longer, he remained in the kitchen. Then he saw his chance: the gun was hanging loosely in the crook of his enemy’s arm while the latter lit up his crack pipe again. Mac made his move and grabbed the gun.

The men stumbled into the living room and Mac was tackled. Lisa grabbed a fireplace poker and began hitting their assailant every place she could reach. Mac wasn’t familiar with guns and while he tried to pull the trigger, the gun seemed to jam, and within seconds it was in the other man’s hand.

“One of us isn’t going to get out of here alive,” he told Mac.

Mac grabbed the gun in a final lunge and threw it out the sliding glass doors toward a nearby pond. He picked up the fireplace tool holder and raised it over his head, hitting his opponent in the head repeatedly. The intruder crawled through the glass doorway and begged Lisa and Mac to stop hitting him. He promised he was leaving, but at the last minute threatened that he had a shotgun in his truck.

“Let’s get out of here,” Mac said. He and Lisa quickly pulled the screen from a large window in the rear master bedroom and crawled through it toward the ragged meadow behind their trailer. Hiding in a clump of palmetto trees, they could see either headlights or a huge flashlight searching the ground near their hiding place. They broke free and ran toward the nearby street where their friend, Alicia Ruiz (not her real name) lived.

Alicia had dated their assailant for a year, but the relationship ended when he became seriously involved in drug use. She believed Lisa and Mac’s account and urged them to get into her truck quickly. If he went anywhere for help, Alicia explained, it would be to her house. She called 911 and asked the sheriff’s office to send a car to meet them at a nearby intersection.

When Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives met Alicia, they had no doubt a serious assault had taken place. Lisa and Mac were bleeding, scratched, and partially dressed and shoeless. They accompanied them to Manatee Memorial Hospital emergency room where the two were separated and interviewed. Lisa was examined and photographed and a rape kit was administered. Mac was interviewed by other detectives.

Detectives collected evidence from the hospital, including Lisa and Mac’s clothing, plus duct tape and yellow twine that was still attached to Lisa’s ankles and wrists. Calling sheriff’s dispatcher, Detective William Vitaioli reported the evidence to dispatching Lieutenant Atkinson who immediately recognized the twine.

“What color was the twine?” he said

Vitaioli replied that it was yellow.

“Be sure you secure that,” Atkinson said. “It may be involved in a homicide we’re investigating.”

Where’s the Proof?

The evidence behind the facts that Major Shingledecker had shared with our Famous Murders class was collected by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Crime Lab. Dianna Taylor was its Unit Manager, a Senior Crime Scene Technician. When she answered her cell phone on her way to work on the morning of September 16, 1999, Lieutenant Bill Evers skipped the small talk. “I want to give you a ‘heads up’. We’ve got a triple here, and little kids are involved.” Lieutenant Evers was in charge of crimes involving children. He was at the Brannon scene and needed her there immediately. Taylor made a U-turn and headed for Foxwood, a subdivision of Panther Ridge in east Bradenton.

“We were a family,” Taylor told me recently when we talked about the case. “We stuck together, and the toughest times were always the ones with kids. I pulled up and saw Sheriff Charlie in the middle of the driveway. He looked at me and said ‘You know there were little babies in there.’ We all knew by then, and as far as we were concerned, it was the central fact of the investigation.”

Taylor called for her 5-person forensics team to gather the necessary equipment and meet her at the scene. By the time they arrived, the house had already been unavoidably contaminated by the foot and hand prints of emergency medical technicians and a patrol officer who had been the first to arrive. It was important that they plan their investigative route to minimize further contamination. Preserving the freshness of the crime scene is one of the most important rules all investigators follow.

They decided to enter the premises through the rear sliding doors that led from the screened swimming pool area into the living room. The crimes had been committed largely in the front foyer and an upstairs bedroom, so controlling movement in those areas was crucial. Technicians unrolled yards of brown paper to create walking paths throughout the house.

Every viable surface was dusted for fingerprints. Every smudge and spot of blood and every visible footprint was photographed and measured. Crimes that occur in the victim’s home are especially difficult to process because family members may be potential perpetrators and yet their fingerprints and other trace evidence “belong” in the house. To complicate matters further, Dewey Brannon was not only the victims’ husband and father, but he reported having discovered the bodies and his bloody footprints were, understandably, throughout the crime scene.

Dianna Taylor and one or more of her crime scene technicians remained on the Brannon property for 29

days. In addition to removing sections of flooring, walls, and banisters, they combed the property around the house looking for the murder weapon and other trace evidence that might help to identify the murderer. Divers braved the snake-infested pond. Investigators paired up with community volunteers staked off and walked every accessible inch of the 5-acre lot, shoulder-to-shoulder.

They searched the Balam’s house next door and discovered a clue in what was not found: one knife was missing from a block of sharp culinary tools in the kitchen. Sherry Brannon had been in the Balam house the night before to feed their dogs while they were at the hospital giving birth to daughter Bailey. One scenario detectives considered was that the dogs had signaled someone was lurking near the premises and Sherry had taken the knife home with her as protection. It was not usual in home homicides for a victim to be injured with her own weapon.

Television crime shows portray the coroner or medical examiner as the scientist who solves the mystery. The forensics staff is usually shown in the background dusting for fingerprints. In reality, crime scene forensics is a highly skilled vocation, not a job.

Taylor, for example, began her crime scene technical career after her family moved from Lubbock, Texas, to Mississippi when Dianna was 13 and volunteered as a candystriper in a nearby hospital. After graduation, she trained as a Nursing Assistant and then a Nurse Technician in the emergency room. At work she was often in the company of crime victims and police officers. In addition, she came from a family dedicated to the care of others and law enforcement. Her mother was a nurse and her father a sheriff’s posse. From emergency medicine, she moved on to the police department where she began as a volunteer dispatcher. In 1988 she took the leap and began her formal education in Forensic Science. From there she’s taken courses or been certified in fire and explosion investigation, alternate light sources for scenes and evidence, vehicle fire investigation, arson, sex crimes investigation, suicide bombing and car bombs, blood splatter analysis, and locating hidden evidence, among other specialties! In addition to investigation, she spends much of her time training FBI agents and other law enforcement officers on evidence collection and interpretation.

I wondered why she landed there instead of in more general police work. “I didn’t want to just be present at the crime scene, I wanted to be involved in the nitty-gritty of putting away criminals,” she said. “There’s something about what we do that tells people things that no one else can tell them.” She pauses. “Good forensics investigators are the ones whose eyes tell you they are starving to death for more knowledge.” Those are the people you want working for the victims, she says.

Her craving to know more made her itch to understand the meaning of the length of yellow twine and a scrap of black cloth she found under Sherry Brannon’s body. They didn’t match anything else found in the house. It would have been impossible for Taylor to solve that mystery alone, but with her colleagues, her work “family,” the twine led her 10 miles away, to the middle of another crime scene.

Famous Murders of Manatee County

The first time I learned about the 1999 murders of Sherry Brannon and her daughters, 4-year–old Cassidy and 7-year-old Shelby, was in the class, “Famous Murders of Manatee County,” that just-retired sheriff Charlie Wells was teaching at the Lifelong Learning Academy in Sarasota. It was a sunny, warm, breezy February morning in 2008 and about 40 adult students waited restlessly to hear about their first case.

Charlie stood at the front of the room looking exactly like a sheriff should look: He was attractive and muscular with good posture and a full head of white hair. He drew immediate attention as he spoke in a commanding voice, introducing Major Connie Shingledecker, a trim, pretty brunette who wore her forest-green Manatee County Sheriff’s Office uniform with authority and grace. They looked like movie stars playing the roles of cops.

Major Shingledecker was in charge of the unit responsible for criminal investigations, child protective, narcotics and vice, so she had been in charge of the Brannon investigation and was going to present the case to our class. She could have been a corporate executive, well coiffed with tasteful cosmetics, and she deftly handled the Power Point presentation she had loaded on her laptop and was projecting on an overhead screen. She spoke confidently in well-modulated tones as she laid out the details of the investigation.

Sherry’s estranged husband, Albert “Dewey” Brannon, had called 911 a little before 10 a.m. on the morning of September 16, 1999. It was Sherry’s birthday. According to the 911 records, he said he had been trying to reach Sherry since early morning and she hadn’t answered her landline or her cell. When he called St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersberg where she worked as a cardiac rehabilitation nurse, her supervisor Barbara said Sherry had atypically not come to work or called. Barbara told Dewey that Sherry’s mother had also called the cardiac department. She hadn’t been able to reach Sherry and was further worried when the girls’ school had called to report that her granddaughters were not in school either. Finally, said he had been alarmed because the Brannon house was isolated on a 5-acre lot in a new development, and the only other occupied house, the Balam’s house next door, he knew was empty because the couple was at the hospital having a baby.

Dewey was a road supervisor at Sarasota UPS South Terminal, and he later told Manatee Sheriff’s Office detectives that the UPS managers were preparing to go to breakfast when he told his boss he was going to retrace Sherry’s route from home to work in St. Petersberg. Dewey’s work pal Billy Schmitt offered to ride along but he refused the offer, saying if something had happened to them he wanted to be alone when he found them. Schmitt thought that was an odd comment.

Unbeknownst to Sherry, Dewey had fallen in love with another woman who had divorced from her husband just a week earlier. The couple spoke on the phone frequently, and Dewey called her on his way to Panther Ridge to tell her what was happening. “She wouldn’t have done anything stupid, would she,” she had asked. “I mean the divorce was going fine, right?”

According to Shingledecker’s investigative information, the divorce had not been going fine. Sherry and Dewey disagreed about the support payments he offered, and while he had promised her she and the girls could stay in the house, his initial proposal required them to sell the house and split the proceeds. Sherry had been furious.

Dewey had been at the house the night before, on September 15th, while Sherry prepared for a sleep over birthday party planned for Shelby two days later. He’d arrived an hour later than expected and Sherry was mad when he got there. They argued about the status of her jeep’s oil leak he was unsuccessfully attempting to have repaired while she temporarily drove his Ford 4X4. He finally peeled noisily out of the shell driveway in the jeep about 9:00 p.m. Detectives later discovered that Dewey’s truck had been “keyed” heavily along the driver’s side, possibly by Sherry.

When Dewey arrived at his family’s house between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. the next morning, he found the front door locked and his truck in the garage where it had been parked the previous night. No one answered the front door when he rang the bell, then knocked loudly. Then he peered through a sidelight window beside the door and saw Sherry laying on her back on the foyer hall in a river of blood. He kicked open the door.

At first he had not seen Cassidy who was sitting on the floor near her mother’s head and the door hit her. “Where is your sister,” Dewey asked her and reported that she’d whispered “Upstairs.” Grabbing her, he raced up the stairway to the second floor and there found the body of his oldest daughter, laying in the fetal position on the floor of Cassidy’s bedroom. Like her mother, she too was saturated with blood.

It was only then that Dewey realized Cassidy was also badly injured. He had initially seen the blood that soaked her small tee shirt but thought it was from contact with her mother’s body. He ran with her in his arms downstairs and out to the jeep where he initiated the 911 call. He told the dispatcher to send help and erroneously reported that his wife had committed suicide, killed one of his daughters, and badly injured the other.

Within minutes the property crawled with emergency medical technicians, forensics experts, detectives and patrolmen, a Bayflite helicopter for Cassidy, media vehicles, Sherry Brannon’s parents Bob and Dolly Meyer, and curious onlookers. When she got to that part of the case, Major Shingledecker’s professional armor slipped for a second and she was entirely without defense. “When I got there, knowing that one child was being Bayflited, I had such a strong feeling of hope that she’d live and be a witness to what had happened. …” The investigation into the most brutal murder to ever occur in Manatee County had begun.

Connie Shingledecker looked up from her laptop and faced the audience. She summarized, ticking off facts the sheriff’s office had initially noted: Dewey reported being the last person to see his family alive and the one who found their bodies the next morning. He had refused his friend Billy’s offer to accompany him to the house. He had a girlfriend unknown to his wife. He could not afford to keep his family in the new home they loved. His truck had been maliciously keyed, possibly to taunt him. He falsely reported that his wife had killed herself and harmed their children. He knew the family was isolated with no neighbors to help if there was trouble.

Then she added one caveat before Wells called for a short break. “It’s really hard to come back from a wrong judgement about the perpetrator. You have to ask yourself whether the informant is telling the truth. Do your best to verify that what’s been said is true. Look for collaboration.”

Until that moment I thought I had heard a fascinating but open-and-shut case. A dozen times while she talked I had said to myself. “Dewey did it.” Now I wasn’t so sure.

Why Write About Murder?

Charlie Wells, Sheriff of Manatee County, retired

“We are all sharing stories about what it means to be human. …The true cost of crime and violence cannot be fully understood without knowing about the lives it touches. My answer to how to honor the victims is to tell a responsible story.”

Writers Wear Many Hats

Unknown skeleton

Naively I used to think that the only jobs of a writer were to write and then to edit what has been written. For decades I’ve written technical and public relations material and edited the work of other writers and writing and editing were pretty much all I had to do. Since 2007, though, I’ve been working on a book with another author about a triple homicide and sometimes it feels as if writing the book is the least of it.

With nonfiction the author usually sells the book before it’s completely written. First, we are told, we need to find a literary agent interested in the sort of book we’re writing and send that agent a killer one-page query letter. Then if we’re lucky, the agent will request a book proposal. The latter contains a summary of the book (number of words, target audience, etc.); biographies of the authors capable of convincing potential publishers that we’re the right people to write the book; a marketing plan (new authors do most of the publicity leg work); and two or more sample chapters. If that goes well the agent will ask for more chapters and may eventually offer to represent us to potential publishers.

This summer, instead of obsessively writing and re-writing the same four chapters I first drafted in 2007 (I can’t edit/re-read a page without wanting to change something), I began moving ahead with the narrative. When that’s going badly, I take time out to investigate potential agents and research various styles of writing proposals. It’s hard work but we’ve got to do that too.

So what’s with the creepy critter? And when and why did we all begin starting our sentences with “So”? Regarding the former: I came upon him unexpectedly and dragged my photographer son out to capture the pic because he was so creepy. The critter, not my son. If the photo got your attention, that’s all I wanted. A streak of marketing genius! Happy writing.