I initially asked Larry Parks to add me to his prison visitors list but he repeatedly put me off, not exactly refusing, but claiming family visits keep his schedule full. Desperate to find out what made him tick, to discover what I could about him generally as a person, I began to read the letters he received while he was in jail but not yet tried. In Florida these are a matter of public record.
Many of his letters were from his sisters Chris, Joyce, and Nancy. Chris wrote to him most often. She told him repeatedly that no one in the family believed that he had committed the murders. In one letter, she claimed that detectives had “really messed up your trailer” looking for evidence. Photos of the trailer interior revealed that the space had been filthy and messy well before investigators arrived.
In mid-November 1999 she discussed their family. “I had three years in prison to think about my life and who should be blamed for all the things I went through. I finally decided the only one I could blame for what happened in my life was me. I know we didn’t have a great childhood. I don’t think anyone denies that at all. Not even Dad. But the decisions I made in my life I made, not Dad, not Mom but me. Who’s to say that my life would have been any different even if Dad and Mom had stayed together? No one knows what lies ahead. I sure would have never thought that I would end up in prison on a murder charge, but I did. I didn’t do it but I went to prison anyway.” She said that the media was covering Larry’s case as a third murder or murder attempt in the Parks family. “It makes the Parks’s sound like the Charley Manson family.”
In another letter she talks about his offer to take whatever she wanted from his trailer. Among the small items she said she took was a punch bowl. She wondered whether it had belonged to his now-deceased wife, Debbie. Chris wanted something that had belonged to her. Interwoven with all the specifics of a dysfunctional family, here was a scrap of family life. It might have been anyone’s family, anyone’s life.
By February, 2000 Chris talked of her concerns about the pile-up of DNA evidence against Larry. She said she knew he had written to Joyce and his stepmother Marty and asked what he might do to make things easier for the family. “There is something you can do. If you done (sic) this, confess! I’m not saying to confess to make it easier on us, I’m saying to confess if you done (sic) it. If you are completely innocent, then say you are. If your (sic) guilty, then say your (sic) guilty. That’s all your family wants from you. Nothing more, nothing less.”
A letter from Joyce also mentions media coverage and she begged him to confess to stop people from digging up “dirt” about their family. “You are my brother and I will love you no matter what. We have the same blood running through our veins and I can’t abandon you.”
Nancy wrote to Larry from Old Town, Florida where she had moved. She told him she loved him and missed him but knew he didn’t want to see family and didn’t like family. Nonetheless, she asked him to write to her.
Beginning in March of 2009 I started to write to Larry in prison in Raiford Florida where he was incarcerated for life without possibility of parole. I told him I was writing a book about the Brannon case and asked if he might talk to me. I told him about my own life and my family and asked general questions about his. My hopes were not high.
I was surprised to get a reply within a matter of weeks. He was polite but firm: He would not talk about the case. He said to do so would risk harm to his family. It was hard to believe: He had confessed to three murders and told detectives and prosecutors that he had acted alone. What more could happen to him or his family? I continued to write and he responded, always refusing to discuss the Brannon case.
I was frankly impressed that his letters were so articulate and neatly written. My son is an attorney who worked one summer in a federal judge’s office. One of his tasks had been to manage the hand-written pleas that prisoners regularly sent to the court requesting new trials or pardons or reductions in sentences. He said what he read was often much like the letters I got from Larry. They were grammatically correct and the handwriting was neat. He hypothesized that every prison had some prisoners who were more literate than others and they may have written the correspondence in return for some favor, or that volunteers who supported inmates’ rights wrote them for the prisoners. I’m not sure. I am perhaps too trusting, but there seems to be some thread of truth in the letters Larry Parks wrote to me.
He answered the questions I asked about prison life. He worked as a welder six days a week, he said, and had a window in his cell from which he often looked out. He wished he could “look me in the eyes” and tell me things no one else knew about his crimes. He would never speak of the murders, he insisted, but if he ever did talk to anyone, he thought it would be me because of how open I had been about my own life. [I knew when I was being played.] He said that before the Brannon murders he thought we might have been friends. As every crime writer knows, you do not alienate the person you want to interview. I didn’t lie but was silent on that subject.
I now suspect that I had visualized him as a more evil man, but one living the life of the Birdman of Alcatraz. He could guess what I wanted to hear and he fed me the “right” answers. Nevertheless, sometimes I thought he spoke the truth. He did not want to be buried on prison grounds, he said. He told me his family members would faint if they knew how much he had written to me because he didn’t write very much.
The last handwritten letter he sent was closely written on narrowly ruled notebook paper and it nearly ran off the end of page two. “I wish that I would have never took the plea they offered me, because I know I’m not a prison person. I know now if it would’t be for my Dad still living I would rather had been executed. But I couldn’t do it to my family. But the Meyers [Sherry Brannon’s parents and twin sister] deserve to see me Dead. My heart really goes out to them for what I’ve done.”
While I continued to write occasionally, I did not hear from him again until November, 2018. Amazingly, an email appeared in my inbox. He said only “hi how” and attached was a color photo of him taken when he was perhaps in his mid-twenties. By this time prisoners had laptops and limited ability to exchange emails, photos, and videograms. I emailed him immediately. He wrote back a mostly incoherent response explaining that his email had been a mistake. I guessed he might have been courting some young woman who had to love a random murderer. I emailed him again in August 2019 about some family matters and he replied briefly.
Larry Parks and I are somehow linked through a great Tragedy. We are not friends, but I still crave an understanding of how he became a man capable of killing a woman he barely knew and her four- and seven-year-old daughters. It is likely that I will never understand that great and tragic mystery. Gaining some comprehension of this central fact, though, is why I write.
The Manatee County District Attorney did not have an easy time deciding whether to prosecute Larry Parks. DNA evidence had linked him to the Brannon murders, and a painstaking investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Dewey Brannon had no part in the homicide and that Parks had acted alone. To the layman, it would seemed a slam-dunk. The Meyers family– parents and grandparents and sister of Sherry Brannon– and Dewey Brannon wanted to see Larry Parks tried and convicted. Most or all of them wanted to see him get the death penalty, the penalty he had inflicted on an innocent woman and her two small daughters. He had been their judge, jury, and executioner, and now it was his turn to be judged, they felt.
Parks was entitled to a jury trial, and great pains were made to find a trial location outside of Manatee County where publicity might not have tainted the jury pool. Nonetheless, Charlie Wells remembered, “I had had a case not too many years earlier where we had an eye witness to the homicide but the jury voted ‘not guilty.’ Juries can be wild cards.”
The Sheriff’s Office reviewed the Brannon case evidence with the local and state District Attorneys’ offices. While they all agreed there was sufficient evidence to try Parks, Bob Meyers–Sherry’s father and Shelby and Cassidy’s grandfather–had spoken frequently to the press and the public about his belief that Larry Parks had not acted alone. He had posted a bulletin board notice in the courthouse offering a $125,000 reward for anyone who could produce proof that someone besides Parks was involved. He could never bring himself to believe that his smart, careful daughter opened the door to a sketchy landscaper she barely knew. Knowing that, jurors might have concluded there was “reasonable doubt” and not convicted him. There might have been a hung jury that couldn’t reach consensus, thus forcing the DA to decide whether or not to re-try him. A trial was a risky move.
A plea agreement could guarantee that Larry Parks went to prison for life while avoiding the time and expense of a trial. The Meyers family felt that they could not rest until they knew the details of what happened on September 16, 1999. Painful though those might be, they seemed preferable to a lifetime not knowing. The DA and Larry Parks, with advice from his attorney, agreed that Larry would make a truthful confession detailing the crimes and agree to life in prison without parole possibility, and in return the DA’s Office would take the death penalty off the table.
Two years and six months after the murders, on March 2, 2002, Larry Parks appeared in Florida’s Twelfth Judicial District Circuit court and testified to the confession he had made on February 26, 2002. Present at the Manatee County Jail in Port Manatee to record his testimony and ask clarifying questions that day had been Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Major Connie Shingledecker and Lieutenant Keith Keough; attorneys for the defense Steven Schaefer and Jim Slater; and Art Brown, Assistant State Attorney. I will not share the details of his confession here because, very honestly, I want you to read our forthcoming book, Yellow Twine: How Outstanding Detective Work Solved the Brannon Triple Homicides!
Members of the Meyers and Brannon families attended the official courtroom proceeding on March 2nd. As Larry Parks testified about the manner in which he had killed Sherry Brannon and her daughters, their father, Dewey Brannon, grew increasingly more flushed. His distress and rage were unmistakable. Without warning, he rushed from his seat and catapulted over the wooden rail separating the judge and perpetrator from the audience. Before he could reach Larry Parks, sheriff’s deputies tackled Brannon and brought him down to the floor. He was removed from the courtroom until it was decided he was calm enough to return. “I let them down,” Brannon said afterward. “And I let them down again by not getting to him. I would have killed him.”
At the hearing Sherry’s identical twin sister, Mary Ann Nevitt, made a witness impact statement on behalf of her family. Larry Parks would not look at her as she spoke. She said that her family would fight through their pain just as Sherry had fought for her life and the lives of her daughters that morning. “We will heal and we will recover,” she said. “Just remember every time that cell door closes behind you, three little girls put you there.”
Parks was remanded to Union Correctional Facility in Raiford, Florida where he remains today and will remain until his death. Robert Meyers passed away in 2018; his wife Dolly and daughter Mary Ann still reside in Florida on the Gulf coast. Dewey Brannon married the woman he was living with when Sherry was murdered and they are still married.
Next Up: I have corresponded with Larry Parks while he is in prison. I’ll talk more about that next time.
Warning: The following contains scenes of graphic violence that may not be suitable for all readers.
In this post we will look at three of the several reasons Dewey Brannon was considered a “person of interest” when his wife of 16 years, Sherry Brannon, and his four-year-old and seven-year-old daughters were brutally murdered in Manatee County Florida in 1999. In essence, he was not the first nor the last family man who might have been capable of committing such a heinous crime.
In 1970, Green Beret surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald, husband of Colette and father of 2-year-old Kimberly and 5-year-old Kristin, murdered his family without any apparent motive. His wife and two small daughters had been stabbed numerous times and beaten with a club in their Fort Bragg North Carolina home. He told detectives at the scene that hippies had entered his house in the early morning hours, attacked him where he slept on the livingroom sofa, then went to the bedrooms and slaughtered his wife and daughters. MacDonald had been stabbed, but not to a life-threatening extent, possibly a feat rendered possible through his experience as a practicing surgeon. The entire country, including the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, was aware of the murders.
By all outward appearances, the MacDonalds had been a happily married couple with two daughter they both adored. Colette was a pretty, vivacious woman and an attentive mother. Jeff and Colette had married when they were young and she became pregnant with Bella. She was five months pregnant with their third child when she died.
A best-selling non-fiction book, Fatal Vision, was written by Joe McGinnis about MacDonald’s murder trial. While McGinnis–whom MacDonald allowed to participate as part of his defense team– initially thought the latter was innocent, he later came to believe that he had actually killed his family. MacDonald was convicted in 2009 after two trials and years out on bail during which he bought a luxury boat and a pricy condo and dated enthusiastically. Much later, in 2012, documentarian Errol Morris published another book, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, in which he argued that MacDonald never got a fair trial and was probably innocent. MacDonald denies committing the crimes. Unless new evidence is produced, he has exhausted his appeals and is now awaiting execution which, in California, may be a very long time in coming.
Three years after the Brannon homicides, on Christmas Eve 2002, Laci Peterson went missing from her Modesto California home. She was pregnant with her first child, a boy she and her husband Scott planned to name Connor. A vigorous investigation turned up no direct evidence that a crime had been committed and while Scott cooperated with the search, he gradually became accustomed to a new life, one that included Amber Frey, the woman who had become his lover before Laci’s disappearance. She did not live in the same town as the Petersons and did not initially know about Laci’s disappearance. Scott had told Amber when they first met that he was a widower.
The morning of the murder, Scott told detectives, he left his wife who was cooking in preparation for Christmas and went fishing alone in his motor boat in San Francisco Bay. Four months later, the decomposed bodies of Laci and Connor washed up on the shore of the bay near the area where Scott claimed to have been fishing. In April 2003 despite his protestations of innocence, Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death. As is automatic in California in death sentence cases, Peterson’s case is being appealed. He awaits the results in San Quentin prison. His affair with Amber Frey did not survive the ordeal.
By November 2018, sixteen years after the Peterson murders, Chris and Shanann Watts were the parents of two girls, 3-year old Celeste, nicknamed CeCe, and 4-year-old Bella, and Shanann was 15 weeks pregnant for their third child, a boy whom Chris anticipated eagerly. Shanann had a lively social media presence, blogging and sending messages to her friends and general readers on a daily basis. She was usually upbeat and believed she had the perfect husband: affectionate, involved with his daughters’ care, considerate of her, generous, and a great lover. She spoke openly of her feelings about Chris to him and to her large circle of friends and family.
To spend time with the girls, she worked from home for Le Vel, the proprietors of a health and lifestyle program called “Thrive,” a multilevel sales enterprise to which Shanann was totally devoted and from which she earned about $80,000 a year. Chris worked for an oil company as a technician near their home in Frederick Colorado.
In the summer of 2018, the Watts’s agreed that Shanann would take the girls to North Carolina for an extended visit with both sets of grandparents and her brother, Frankie, who had not yet met his nieces. She left in June and during the five weeks of her absence, Shanann observed a marked cooling of Chris’s affections. Unusual for him, he frequently did not pick up his cell phone when she called and when he returned her calls he was brief. She emailed and called him repeatedly, asking what was wrong and how she might adjust her behavior to regain their intimacy. She could not understand what could have changed between them so quickly. Chris was evasive or placated her with vague promises that he was just overworked and would “fix things.”
In August, on the sixth week of the trip, Chris flew to North Carolina to join his family; they all flew back together to Colorado at the end of the week. During their North Carolina visit he had agreed to Shanann’s request that they spend a solitary weekend together at an Aspen resort to begin repairing their relationship. She made plans for them to do so two weeks later.
While Chris had repeatedly denied his wife’s accusations that he was seeing another woman, that was not true. For the past two months, most intensely during the period his family visited North Carolina, he had been involved in a passionate affair with Nicol Kessenger, his pretty, dark-haired, sexy co-worker. They took day trips to the desert and race track, shared a romantic dinner at a local restaurant, made love in her apartment, and exchanged nude and semi-nude photos through a hidden program on their cell phones. Nicole later told detectives that she believed Chris and Shanann had an unhappy marriage and were in the final stages of divorce. She searched the internet for wedding gowns and researched the public’s reaction to Amber Frey, Scott Peterson’s one-time mistress. She checked Shanann’s Facebook page where she saw pictures of the Watts family and Shanann’s very obvious pregnancy.
The weekend before Chris and Shanann were scheduled to take their brief trip to Aspen, Shanann attended a weekend business conference in Las Vegas with her fellow Thrive sales and marketing peers. Her returning flight on Sunday arrived late, and she was driven home about 1:45 a.m. on Monday August 13th by her friend and business travel companion, Nickole Atkinson. It was the last time Nickole saw her friend alive.
When Shanann did not respond to Atkinson’s texts and calls the next morning, she phoned Chris Watts to express her concern. She had driven to the Watts house and no one answered her knocks and doorbell rings. Chris drove home to meet Nickole immediately and opened the door to an empty house. Shanann’s trip bag and the flip-flops she had been wearing on the flight were abandoned in the front hall. Chris commented that she had been home in bed when he left for work that morning.
Responding to a 911 call, investigators met Chris and Nickole at the Watts front door. Chris gave them permission to search the premises. From his front porch, he subsequently told reporters that he did not know what had happened to his wife and daughters, but he hoped they were safe somewhere and he wanted them to come home. He looked and sounded composed and he smiled slightly as he spoke to the cameras.
In the course of several investigative interviews, Chris continued to deny knowledge of his family’s whereabouts. Investigators were suspicious from the outset that he was involved in their disappearance. He agreed to take a polygraph exam, which he failed. Detectives told him they knew he was withholding something, and finally suggested that he tell the truth to his father, Ronnie Watts.
On August 15th Watts flew to Colorado from his home in North Carolina. He joined Chris in a police interview room where detectives left them alone together, advising Ronnie that their conversation would be recorded. Ronnie held his white-haired head in both hands as he listened to his son’s account. Shanann, Chris said, had choked her daughters until they turned blue while he was downstairs. He heard a disturbance and when he went upstairs, “They were gone,” he said.”They are my kids. I did the same f***ing thing to her.” Answering his father’s question about what he did next, he said he “got rid of” their bodies. Detectives videotaped and recorded the confession.
Investigators were convinced they still did not know the truth of what happened during the night and early morning hours of August 12th and 13th. They held a second interview with Chris and his father to review the details of the confession. Chris finally admitted that Shanann had not hurt the girls, that he had killed all of them. The details he provided were so chilling that one of the primary detectives subsequently developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and left the department on permanent medical disability.
Chris confessed that Shanann initiated a satisfying sexual encounter when she came to bed the early morning she returned from Las Vegas. They slept and he woke her at 5 a.m., wanting to talk about their relationship before he left for work. He no longer loved her, he told his wife, and he wanted a divorce. He recalled that they both cried and Shanann became very distraught. In a peculiar disconnect, he explained that then he put his hands around her neck and strangled her until she was dead, a process that he estimated took between two and four minutes. He clinically reported that her eyes became bloodshot and she lost control of her sphincter muscles.
The nightmare was far from over. He heard a noise near the doorway as he was wrapping his wife’s body in the top bedsheet. His daughters had been awakened by the disturbance. Bella asked what was wrong with her mommy. “She is sick and we have to take her to the hospital,” Chris said. Then, unable to lift her dead weight, he dragged and pushed her down the stairs and outside into the waiting truck he had backed into the entrance of the attached garage. He laid her body on the floor behind the front seat, then lifted each little girl and placed her in her carseat, feet dangling just above their mother’s corpse. He drove to a remote work site, the location of two huge vertical oil storage tanks. He thought the girls dozed in their carseats during the trip and once complained of a bad smell that emanated from Shanann’s body.
Upon arrival he retrieved Shanann’s body from the floor and placed it on the ground next to the truck. Next, he opened the rear door on Cece’s side and pulled her blanket tightly over her head. Despite her muffled cries, he held it there until she was still. Then he lifted her body from the carseat and carried her up the exterior ladder to the top of one tank, removed the 8″ lid, and dropped her into the tank, waiting until he heard a splash.
Then he returned to the truck where Bella sat, having observed the entire sequence of events. As he picked up her blanket and moved toward her, she said “Please Daddy. Don’t do to me what you just did to Cece.” He continued with his plan, holding the blanket over his oldest daughter’s head until she too was dead. He carried her body to the top of the other oil tank, removed the top, and because Bella was slightly larger than her sister, forced her body through the small opening. He told detectives that this splash sounded different, he assumed because there was more oil in one tank than in the other.
Before he left, he moved Shanann’s body a distance from the tanks, dug a shallow grave with a shovel he had brought, and dumped her body in, face down. Detectives subsequently followed the map Chris had drawn of the site and located the three bodies. His unborn son lay under his mother’s body. The baby had either been forcibly removed or post mortem strain on Shanann’s abdomen had torn her open and the premature infant’s body had been expelled. No one will ever know which.
Because he provided an in-depth confession, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. Scott Peterson is incarcerated for life with no possibility of parole, convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and three accounts of interferring with deceased bodies. He says he has found God and believes his life purpose is to carry that message to others in prison. He seems to think he may have some possibility of eventual reduction in the terms of his sentence.
The MacDonald, Peterson, and Watts murders were clearly horrific. What though, you might wonder, do they have to do with the Brannon homicides? I think they illustrate why skilled detectives always begin their investigations with the people closest to the victims, such as a spouse or lover. No one can responsibly assume that a murderer “looks” or “acts” like one. If that were the case, such murders would be exceedingly rare. Second, detectives cannot assume that men who appear to be loving fathers are not capable of killing their children. Finally, passion can sometimes cause temporary insanity. In at least two of the three cases just described, the perpetrators were involved in passionate extra marital affairs of which their wives were not aware. Divorce seems a safer more civil solution, but some men may value their reputations and their bank accounts more than the lives of their wives and young children.
I am not suggesting that Dewey Brannon played any role in the brutal murder of his wife and two daughters. I am saying, however, that no one can assume that an unlikely candidate is always an innocent one. That’s the position the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office took, and as we retrospectively examine these earlier and later cases, it is entirely understandable why they did.
By late October 1999, the public knew of one suspect and one “person of interest” in the Brannon murder investigation. The sheriff’s office defined a person of interest as someone who could not be excluded as a suspect, but for whom there was not sufficient evidence to make an arrest. Dewey Brannon, the estranged father and husband of the victims, fell into that classification. First, all professional murder investigators begin by looking at the people closest to the victims. Second, Dewey had behaved in ways that were viewed by some people as peculiar when he discovered the victims. He carried his injured 4-year-old daughter Cassidy with him while he checked the master bath linen closet to see whether his gun was still there before he called 911. In his 911 call he reported that his wife Sherry had committed suicide after harming their two children, although she had never threatened suicide and was by all accounts a loving mother. He knew that the only neighbors in the remote location where he built their house would not be home on the days the murders were committed and the bodies reported. Dewey consulted an attorney the day after the crimes were committed and refused to further discuss the case with detectives after that. He did not call the sheriff’s office to inquire about the progress of the investigation.
A few weeks into the investigation, Dewey had had enough of what he felt was undue attention on him. On a weekday when the weather topped 100 degrees, he walked eight miles to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office where he burst into the lobby, shouting and gesturing. “Either arrest me or clear my name.”
Sheriff Charlie Wells’ staff quickly notified him of Brannon’s presence and he went down to the lobby immediately. He told Dewey that he was not going to let him come into the sheriff’s office and raise hell. “If you want to come upstairs and talk to me like a gentleman,” he said, “we can do that.” After a brief pause, Dewey said he wanted to talk and followed Wells to his office.
The sheriff explained that he and his investigative staff wanted to talk to Dewey alone, without the presence of attorneys. He assured him that they were not trying to trap him, but to invite an honest dialogue between the murder victims’ husband and father and the investigative staff. After conversations between Brannon’s attorneys and the sheriff, then Dewey and the attorneys, Dewey decided to talk to investigators without his attorney. A lengthy and difficult dialog ensued in which Brannon detailed his frustrations with the focus on him, and Sheriff Wells explained what facts led to their unwillingness to clear Dewey’s name yet. Wells promised to do all he could to reach that stage expeditiously. Both agreed not to discuss the contents of their meeting with the press.
Larry Parks becomes a suspect.
Note: the names that appear below, Alicia Ruiz, Lisa Bennett, and Mac McEvoy, are pseudonyms which I used to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The information contained here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. It was obtainedfrom the official transcripts of interviews between Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) detectives and those individuals, and interviews I conducted with the investigators and other MCSO officials. Most dialogue is taken verbatim from the transcripts, although I have occasionally filled in details that were consistent with the factswhen no one was present to hear the actual exchange.
Previously, on September 3, 2019, I posted “A Piece of Yellow Twine” which described a sexual assault that occurred on October 22 1999, just weeks after the Brannon murders.
When Manatee County Sheriff’s officers questioned neighbor Alicia Ruiz the morning of the Lisa Bennett assault, Ruiz was able to name the suspect, a heavy equipment operator by the name of Larry Parks, the same man Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy identified for MCSO investigators. Alicia had dated Parks in 1997 and ’98 and knew him well. They were no longer a couple because his extensive drug use had become a major issue between them, but they remained friends. Larry called Alicia once when rainy weather had interrupted his job and borrowed money temporarily. She loaned him $200 which he repaid when he returned to work. He called her again to share his grief when his estranged wife, Deborah Sharp Parks, died in New York State in a weather-related auto accident in March of 1999, just months before the Brannon homicides.
Despite his positive relationship with Ruiz, detectives discovered that years before–between 1983 and 1985–Larry had been married to Deborah Sharp Parks for only two rocky years, and they had been estranged for 14 years at the time of the Brannon murders. When she left him, a pregnant Debbie took her then 2-year-old daughter Calley to New York State where they lived with her mother Virginia Ucci. She told her divorce attorney that Parks had been abusive to her and ignored their daughter.
Deborah Parks and Lisa Bennett had not been the only people to report Larry Parks’ violence toward women. Of the several women whom investigators interviewed about their relationships with Larry, only Alice Ruiz did not report violent incidents. In 1990, Tina L. Rowell filed a police report alleging that Larry had come to her home and started an argument, slapping her in the face and then retrieving a .357 handgun which he pointed at her, threatening to kill her. Ronald Hochstetler and Scott Richards, whom Parks also menaced, witnessed the attack.
Two years later Brenda G. Canaday said Larry physically and verbally abused her in a motel in October 1992; in July 1993 he called and threatened her and her boyfriend, then slit two of his tires; and in September 1993 slapped her face, pushed her and dragged her on the floor. Another time he came to her Carlton Arms apartment, carved “whore” on her front door, cut up her doormat, and pounded on the sliding glass doors of her deck. She got a restraining order which she later cancelled because they got back together.
They were apparently estranged again by December 1993 when Susan L. Moore reported that during an argument Larry had pulled a knife on her and said “If you mess with me, I will be back.” She nonetheless moved into his trailer where she lived until May 1995. When she tried to leave and retrieve her belongings, he made her pay $50 and threatened her with a gun. “He’s like a walking time bomb,” she told detectives. Two years later he began to date Alicia Ruiz and during that time, sounded like a totally different man. The bomb had temporarily stopped ticking.
Immediately following the incident involving Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigators moved quickly to locate Larry Parks, which they did at the address Alicia Ruiz had provided. He unsuccessfully tried to outrun a pursuing Sheriff’s squad car and was arrested on sexual assault charges. Detectives prepared requests for search warrants of the Bennett and Parks residences. Nothing, Sheriff Wells had cautioned, was more important than preserving the freshness of the crime scene. Forensics technicians Beverly Copeland and Diane Williams each spent hours at the residences collecting and processing potential evidence. 117 items and swabs were collected from the Bennett home and an additional 114 items and swabs were collected at Larry Parks’ home. Among the evidence were yellow twine that resembled the twine found under Sherry Brannon’s body and a pair of Reebok shoes that looked like the bloody tread pattern left at the Brannon crime scene. A court order was secured to collect samples of Larry Parks’ blood and hair. A connection was beginning to emerge, and Captain Connie Shingledecker begged the Florida State crime scene laboratory to give the highest priority to processing and comparing DNA from Parks and from flesh found under Sherry Brannon’s fingernail.
Shingledecker says she is not a person easily brought to tears. She recalls that she cried at her wedding. She was conferring with investigators at the suspect’s home when she received a phone call from the lab. Larry Parks’ DNA was a match, and now for a very different reason, she cried again.
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.
We’ll talk about the photos in a little bit, but meanwhile…
My husband Bob and I are stuck at home these days, taking short walks for exercise and distraction. As I was writing yesterday, it occurred to me that my book has been coming so slowly this past fall and winter in part because I lacked more visuals of the places I’m writing about. I had some addresses, but they were 40 miles away. Because we are experiencing Covid19 all around us here where we live in Florida, I now thought it was the perfect distance for a road trip.
We filled the car with gas, packed snacks and a water bottle, and headed east on Fruitville Road toward Myakka City. The sky was blue, the air was balmy, the temperature was in the mid-80s. We drove through pastoral farmland, cattle and dairy farms with many cows placidly munching in the fields. Houses were scattered, and commercial areas were nearly non-existent that far out on Fruitville. We turned onto “Historic Florida 780,” sometimes called Verna Road, other places Singletary Road. From route 70 we drove into the center of Myakka City, a bump in the road more than a city. It was small and poor. Further on, Altman and Clay Gully and Parks Roads were gravel in some places and plain dirt in others.
The area was what I like to call “The Land of No Zoning.” At the beginning of the trip we saw newly constructed, sometimes enormous homes with professional landscaping in the million dollar range, ancient barns next to ’50s-style ranch houses, dozens of manufactured homes and what New Yorkers like me call double-wides; they are house trailers. Some of the latter had little flower gardens or potted plants on their front stoops. Many were surrounded by untended grasses and weeds, set back a distance from the road. The first house we were looking for was set back several hundred feet from the road and had a metal gate– like a cattle gate– at the beginning of a long dirt driveway leading to the house. The gate was posted with two signs. One showed the silhouette of a big dog and said “I can reach this gate in 3 seconds. How long would it take you?” Another more generally noted that this was private property and unexpected visits were discouraged.
This had been the site of a violent sexual assault in October 1999. I had read the detectives’ reports and witness interview transcripts, so I had some idea of the kind of place I’d find. I expected a double-wide, but from what we could see of the place, shrouded as it was in greenery, it looked more like a “manufactured home.” From the crime reports, I’d gleaned that there was a fireplace in the living room, three bedrooms, and two baths. The kitchen was small. Today the yard was crowded with cars, but there were no sounds from the house and the mean dog, if there was one, was silent. We tried to take a couple of hurried photos with our phones, but frankly this place was making us nervous and we didn’t tarry. If I had to guess, I’d say the place housed a meth lab.
Our next stop was Alice Cislo’s house, the place the victims ran through the rough field of palmetto behind their place to get to. Alice was a neighbor they knew and she had also dated Larry Parks, the man who had assaulted them. (I have not used the victims’ names to protect their privacy. The assault case is described in detail in my September 3, 2019 post “A Piece of Yellow Twine,” where I have used the pseudonyms Lisa Bennett and Jim “Mac” McEvoy.) If the house is still there, it’s now behind a chained cattle gate. It looks well-kept today. Here is a photo of it.
Our final stop was at the home of Larry Parks, who was accused and arrested for committing the sexual assault and later, the triple homicide of Sherry Brannon and her two daughters, 4-year-old Cassidy and 7-year-old Shelby. The series of photos under the title of this article were all taken by Manatee Sheriff’s Office detectives and crime scene investigators on October 22, 1999. Looking at them makes me want to hold my breath and I feel a little nauseous. Captain Connie Shingledecker– whose department investigated the assault case as well as the Brannon homicides– was at the scene. She said when they opened the door to the trailer, a rodent–she thought a rat–staggered dizzily out the door and dropped dead. At least that’s what I think she told me.
The residence was filthy and smelly and cluttered. And yet at some time in the past, Larry Parks had lived some semblance of a normal life. He owned many acres of prime farmland that had been passed down from his grandfather, Kelley Parks, who had been a wealthy landowner and early settler of Manatee County. As a heavy equipment operator, he was well known for his industry and for the artistry of the ponds he dug for the wealthy owners of the new houses in Panther Ridge. He served in the army. His three sisters wrote to him faithfully while he was in jail awaiting trial and they seemed mostly convinced that he was innocent of the charges against him. There is a photo taped to the wall of Larry’s house showing him and his wife on their wedding day. They had two children together. (She left him shortly after their son was born citing cruelty and neglect of their children, and moved back to New York State where her mother lived.) He took Alice Cislo and her daughters to the strawberry festival on their first date and took her mother and his own out to dinner one Mother’s Day. He went to church with Alice on Easter Sunday and Alice she told detectives that when she had dated him, he worked every day, always had money, and showered daily and wore clean clothes. His heavy drug use and the accidental death of his estranged wife Deborah caused him to change, she hypothesized. She broke things off with him after about a year, but they remained on friendly terms.
I told my youngest son the story of our road trip that day when we spoke on the phone last night. I included all the details, my guess about the meth lab and my description of the poverty included, and he said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. He said “You know, some people just want to be left alone. They aren’t necessarily drug dealers or criminals.”
I was instantly ashamed of my mean-spirited stereotypical analysis of things I didn’t understand. I thought of people I know and love, some relatives, who are strange or solitary or poor or addicted. Who are any of us to judge? I write to try to understand the intricacies and mysteries of life as we know it. Maybe, I’ve decided, I can do that and still be kind.
Here is an episode from “Body of Evidence” where profiler Dayle Hinman summarizes the triple homicide case of 35-year-old Sherry Brannon, her 4-year-old daughter Cassidy, and her 7-year-old daughter Shelby. I found it on You Tube. While all the facts Hinman presented in the episode were correct, many of the officials and detectives involved directly in the investigation are anxious to “correct the record” about some confusing impressions the episode seems to leave.
Hinman’s use of the editorial “we” throughout the episode may have suggested to viewers that she played an active and ongoing role in the investigation. This was not the case. My colleague, retired sheriff Charlie Wells, says that when first approached, she declined his Office’s request to review the case. Later she changed her mind. Her involvement, however, was peripheral. She reviewed the notes and evidence the Sheriff’s Office had compiled and spoke with investigators, then offered her initial impressions. As is frequently the case with profilers, she did not prepare a written report; a Manatee County detective took detailed notes. Her other involvement was after the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office solved the case and made an arrest. She returned then with a crew to video record the episode you just saw above.
Profiling is a controversial tool for solving major crimes, especially murders. As I noted in another article I posted on this website (See “Profiling,” September 5, 2019), famous nonfiction author Malcolm Gladwell says that profilers do not record their predictions but leave it to the investigating organization to take notes. This was true in the Brannon case. Now-Captain Rick Gerken who is still actively employed at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and was in charge of the day-to-day Brannon investigation at the time, shared notes from that initial conference with Dayle Hinman. Her “profile” of the murderer said that the murder scene was consistent with domestic violence. She said that crimes of interpersonal violence most often occurred between people who knew each other. Next, she hypothesized that the remote location (the home was located in a new development in a rural area where only the Brannon’s house and the house next door owned by the VanvBalam family were occupied at the time. Also, the Balam family was not in their home at the time of the murders or their discovery) suggested that the attack was targeted. 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 Hinman, it is expected that a liar will change his story while a truth-teller will remain consistent. In this case, she felt that Dewey Brannon had provided multiple and varied accounts of what had happened at the house, and provided irrelevant information to the dispatcher during the 911 call. Hinman said that the estranged husband’s emotional demeanor should have reflected the exigency of the situation and felt it had not. While none of us knows how we might react in the same situation, she felt that Brannon’s behavior was, in some ways, inconsistent with the actions of a grieving father.
Profilers do not all interpret the same set of facts in a consistent way. For example in the Brannon case, Dr. John T. Super, the PhD psychologist who the Sheriff’s Office routinely consulted, felt that based on the violence of the crime, the husband and father of the victims was unlikely to be the perpetrator.
Why did the Sheriff’s Office feel so strongly about correcting the record of Hinman’s involvement? They were deeply upset that her initial impressions could have encouraged investigators to develop tunnel vision, possibly causing them to ignore evidence that did not support Dewey Brannon as the murderer. Had the sheriff’s office not been so professional in following the evidence rather than unsubstantiated hunches, they may well have missed the details that led to eventual conviction. Just as important, Sheriff Wells is extraordinarily proud of the outstanding work Major Connie Shingledecker, Captain Rick Gerken, Unit Manager of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Crime Lab Dianna Taylor, Lieutenant Bill Evers, and legions of others on his team did to solve the crime and make an arrest in less than six weeks. He doesn’t want anyone else to seem to claim credit for their excellent work!
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.”
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.
Journalist Billy Jensen, the author of ChaseDarkness 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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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