Letters from Prison

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.

Larry Parks’s Livingroom

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.

Murder in a Time of Coronavirus: Which One Was the Murderer?

Dewey Brannon at Sheriff’s Office the day he reported finding his wife’s body

Dewey Brannon a “person of interest”

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 2002

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 obtained from 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 facts when 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.