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.
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.”
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.
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