Murderers are People

Larry Parks arrested for Brannon homicides

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the Proof?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Famous Murders of Manatee County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruits, Instrumentalities and Evidence

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

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

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