Murder in a Time of Coronavirus: Researching a Murder Case

Captain Richard Gerken

This is Captain Rick Gerken, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office “boots-on-the-ground” lead detective on the Brannon triple homicide investigation in 1999. He was a deputy in the photo and I haven’t seen him for many years now. He may have aged a tad, but this is the way he looked when I first met him in 2008.

I had been taking a class about famous murders in Manatee County Florida taught by then just-retired Sheriff Charlie Wells. He introduced me to Rick, who is still with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Now I’m remembering back to the morning I rode in Rick’s squad car, and one Sunday afternoon when I sat with him for hours in a sheriff’s office conference room while he patiently answered my questions about the Brannon case. He told me that criminal profiler Dayle Hinman had briefly consulted on the case and initially given the sheriff’s office some bum steers that took the investigation down the wrong path for a bit. He shared the details of what she had said from the notes he took at the time. He spoke of his feelings and the general atmosphere at the crime scene on September 16, 1999, the day the murders were discovered, and during the days and weeks that followed while his office investigated the case and found and prosecuted the killer, landscape heavy equipment operator Larry Parks. He said the case caused him to decide to switch out of the homicide division.

He and his wife invited me to their house for dinner on several occasions. Rick was the father of two young boys at the time, and had an older daughter and son from a previous marriage. He was keenly interested in computer technology and how it could be used to aid law enforcement and target crime prevention. He told me he enjoyed woodworking as a hobby but didn’t have much time to do it anymore. His wife Patty was a nurse who grew up in Wisconsin and I once met her parents while they were visiting their daughter,son-in-law and grandchildren in Florida.

Why am I telling you all this? I’m doing it to give you a glimpse into how one writer researches a story for a book. Retired Sheriff Charlie Wells and I are co-authoring one about the Brannon case, Yellow Twine. Knowing the people involved gives the book texture and context. It “sets the scene” for the reader. I have had dozens of lengthy conversations with Charlie about the case and Rick was only one of many people I interviewed. I’ve met several times with Major Connie Shingledecker whose division oversaw violent crimes and crimes against children. Dianna Taylor, now CEO of Ignis Forensics in Colorado, was the head of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office forensics unit during the Brannon investigation. In many phone calls and face-to-face meetings, she has shared her thoughts and the files she has kept about the case, and taught me more than I ever could otherwise have learned about the science of forensics and the complex process of crime scene investigation. I had coffee with Lieutenant Bill Evers who not only participated in the Brannon case, but also worked a sexual assault case that led to Larry Parks’ arrest. I interviewed Jay Millard, the first Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) on the scene who, with his partner Yvonne Parker, treated 4-year-old Cassidy Brannon. She had been alive when her father discovered the carnage in their rural Panther Ridge house, but died in a helicopter in transit to the hospital. I have spoken with Dewey Brannon, the estranged husband/father of the victims. I have written and received letters from Larry Parks.

Interviews are only one part of my research, and painful memories have prevented many people from agreeing to them. I’ve read numerous newspaper accounts that reported the case. Thanks to Florida’s generous laws about access to public records, the Sheriff’s Office gave me wide access to their “murder books,” the official documentation of the investigation. Staff who pulled records, redacted sections as needed, and provided space for me to work included Sharon Chasteen, Pat Rupprecht, and Sidney Ettigui, who devoted countless hours to getting me online access to several books. I am so grateful for their assistance! I’ve read every page of the dozens of those books, containing crime scene photos; letters written by family members and friends to Larry Parks while he was in jail for an alleged sexual assault; logs of various locations involved with the cases; search warrants; detectives’ reports; lengthy lists of items collected as possible evidence; and dozens of transcribed interviews with family members, neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

Reading and looking at these documents has given me some insight into the personalities and events that led up to the crime and followed it into the present. My hope is that the book will be richer for these perspectives and offer readers evidence of the peerless dedication of those whose job it is to solve crimes and put murderers away where they can do no more public harm.

About Sue Keefe

I am a freelance writer whose particular topics of interest include true crime and the experience of deafness. I am currently co-writing a book about the triple homicide of a wife and her 4- and 7-year-old daughters with Charlie Wells, the now-retired 23-year veteran sheriff of Manatee County, Florida. I have three adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. My husband Bob Volpe and I divide our time between a lake cottage in Battersea, Ontario, Canada and our condominium in Sarasota, Florida.

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