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.

Dog Lake Writing

From May until October, I write in a little white cottage near Battersea, Ontario, Canada. It’s silent here until about five in the afternoon when our neighbor the loon calls out his mournful greeting as he floats past us in front of our break wall. At night in the bedroom it’s so dark that I can’t see my hand when I wave it in front of me.

I’m writing a book about a horrendous murder, and yet being so isolated is not scary, at least not this year. My husband is with me, puttering in the yard or doing Dog Lake Association work. It’s peaceful and relaxing and conducive to long hours of uninterrupted writing.

Last year, though, I was here alone for a week and took my laptop to bed with me sometimes. It was muggy and hot those nights, and I opened all the windows. Swish, swish, swish, I heard one night right outside the window. I froze and listened. Finally went back to work. In a few more minutes, swish, swish, swish. My heart leapt a little. “Honey,” I called out to no one, “get the shotgun. Someone is sneaking around outside this window.” There would be a little scrap of silence, then swish, swish, swish.

I crept from the bed to the closet and retrieved the unloaded shotgun leaning against the wall in there. I had no idea where the shotgun shells were and had never loaded or shot a gun. I pointed it at the floor, the only safety measure I remembered from a long-ago girl scout gun safety class, and paced in front of the windows. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave now,” I said as ominously as possible. Swish, swish, swish. I slid the gun under the bed, turned out the light, and finally fell asleep.

The next weekend my husband arrived and I told him my scary story. He walked outside and examined the shrubbery beneath the windows. He kicked at some dirt. “A family of skunks has made a home for themselves here,” he said.

Perhaps writing about homicide put me in a nervous frame of mind last year, but now I am happily ensconced in nature’s beauty. The sun filters into the woods surrounding the cottage on three sides. The lake water laps softly at the stone wall I can see from the little writing cottage. There are skunks and big black water snakes here, but they don’t frighten me.

Twenty years ago when the Brannon family was murdered in Florida, there were wild hogs in the secluded woods behind the house, and oak trees and palmettos and a pretty pond in front of the set-back house. Nothing scared Sherry Brannon. She had chosen that lonely, 5-acre lot to build their home because she wanted to live in a peaceful, country setting. And yet within that space, on her 35th birthday, Sherry was stabbed to death along with her 4- and 7-year old daughters.

My takeaways: Life is full of ambiguity. No place is inherently safe and none is inherently dangerous. Not all murders occur in crowded cities. The most dangerous part of nature is most often human nature. And I can write the most horrible truths in the most serene of places.

Fruits, Instrumentalities and Evidence

After thirty-five years and many false starts, I am (finally) writing full time, for myself and not for my business. In 1983 I joined a writer’s group and pretended to understand writers who claimed that their process was difficult, even unpleasant. I was 34 at the time and loved to write, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t get published. Now I don’t know whether I can, and I’m afraid to reach out and try. I’m afraid to tell people that I’m writing true crime because it sounds cheesy. I’m afraid I’ll sell the book but then get cancer and die before I finish writing it. I’m afraid to interview the victims’ and perpetrator’s families because I don’t want to open old wounds or ask rude questions.

Writing true crime is hard work! I’ve read and re-read the investigative interviews conducted by the Manatee County Sheriff’s detectives, letters I’ve exchanged with the man who confessed to the murders, the articles written by Bradenton journalists. I’ve read the search warrants asking that the murder scene be searched for “fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence,” and learned what that means. I’ve researched the psychological profiles of killers, especially killers of children, and the subject of writing about murderers (See Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer).

I’ve written some chapters, re-written them, and edited my re-writes; I’ve crafted a book proposal and a query letter to send to potential literary agents. I’ve researched agents who might be interested in representing true crime manuscripts. I’ve created lists of follow-up questions to ask everyone I’ve interviewed and lists of new questions to ask all the people I have yet to interview. It’s true that all those tasks need to be done. But first, I need to write as much of the book as I possibly can now.

So Where Shall We Begin?

So Where Shall We Begin?

Martha Ann and Susan Otto, circa 1952

In books the story is often linear—a beginning, a middle, and an end. In real life, stories begin and end in unexpected ways. The middle moves all over the place. My sister, Martha (left above), was about two and a half when the photo was taken. She grew to be an attractive, athletic woman who didn’t smoke cigarettes for most of her life. She was my only sister and she knew all my secrets and loved me unconditionally; she was an outstanding daughter and mother and teacher and coach; and she loved every child she ever met, especially her two daughters, Jamie and Lizzy. She should have lived forever. Instead she was diagnosed with lung cancer just after she turned 58 and died of lung and bone and brain cancer in that same year.

My own life has had many twists and turns, including sharing the lives of my three terrific sons and having the opportunity to do some fascinating work. On the right, above, I was about four years old and you can tell by the expression on my face that I had an old soul!

As we work on the nonfiction true crime book my colleague and I are writing, our research has opened a mountain of facts about the victims, their families, the investigative team, and ourselves, the two authors. Not all of what has been learned is pertinent to the story. Some of it is unflattering. Deciding what belongs in the story and what ought to be left out isn’t easy.

Choosing to include or exclude facts that might disparage or hurt the people being written about is more than a literary decision, it’s a moral one. As writers, it’s important to select the scenes that move the story forward. It’s important than we honor the commitments we have made to people we’ve interviewed. That may mean that we leave out some sensational, juicy tidbits. But in the end, everything that happened isn’t necessarily “the truth” we’re trying to convey in our story. …So where shall we begin?