Writing True Crime: The Art of Balancing Accuracy and Kindness

From Shelby and Cassidy Brannon to their Daddy

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.

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.

Why Write About Murder?

Charlie Wells, Sheriff of Manatee County, retired

“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.”