Murder in a Time of Coronavirus

Ariel View of Larry Parks Property
Larry Parks Living Room 1999
Larry Parks with wife Deborah Sharp Parks
Larry Parks Bathroom Sink 1999

We’ll talk about the photos in a little bit, but meanwhile…

My husband Bob and I are stuck at home these days, taking short walks for exercise and distraction. As I was writing yesterday, it occurred to me that my book has been coming so slowly this past fall and winter in part because I lacked more visuals of the places I’m writing about. I had some addresses, but they were 40 miles away. Because we are experiencing Covid19 all around us here where we live in Florida, I now thought it was the perfect distance for a road trip.

We filled the car with gas, packed snacks and a water bottle, and headed east on Fruitville Road toward Myakka City. The sky was blue, the air was balmy, the temperature was in the mid-80s. We drove through pastoral farmland, cattle and dairy farms with many cows placidly munching in the fields. Houses were scattered, and commercial areas were nearly non-existent that far out on Fruitville. We turned onto “Historic Florida 780,” sometimes called Verna Road, other places Singletary Road. From route 70 we drove into the center of Myakka City, a bump in the road more than a city. It was small and poor. Further on, Altman and Clay Gully and Parks Roads were gravel in some places and plain dirt in others.

The area was what I like to call “The Land of No Zoning.” At the beginning of the trip we saw newly constructed, sometimes enormous homes with professional landscaping in the million dollar range, ancient barns next to ’50s-style ranch houses, dozens of manufactured homes and what New Yorkers like me call double-wides; they are house trailers. Some of the latter had little flower gardens or potted plants on their front stoops. Many were surrounded by untended grasses and weeds, set back a distance from the road. The first house we were looking for was set back several hundred feet from the road and had a metal gate– like a cattle gate– at the beginning of a long dirt driveway leading to the house. The gate was posted with two signs. One showed the silhouette of a big dog and said “I can reach this gate in 3 seconds. How long would it take you?” Another more generally noted that this was private property and unexpected visits were discouraged.

This had been the site of a violent sexual assault in October 1999. I had read the detectives’ reports and witness interview transcripts, so I had some idea of the kind of place I’d find. I expected a double-wide, but from what we could see of the place, shrouded as it was in greenery, it looked more like a “manufactured home.” From the crime reports, I’d gleaned that there was a fireplace in the living room, three bedrooms, and two baths. The kitchen was small. Today the yard was crowded with cars, but there were no sounds from the house and the mean dog, if there was one, was silent. We tried to take a couple of hurried photos with our phones, but frankly this place was making us nervous and we didn’t tarry. If I had to guess, I’d say the place housed a meth lab.

Our next stop was Alice Cislo’s house, the place the victims ran through the rough field of palmetto behind their place to get to. Alice was a neighbor they knew and she had also dated Larry Parks, the man who had assaulted them. (I have not used the victims’ names to protect their privacy. The assault case is described in detail in my September 3, 2019 post “A Piece of Yellow Twine,” where I have used the pseudonyms Lisa Bennett and Jim “Mac” McEvoy.) If the house is still there, it’s now behind a chained cattle gate. It looks well-kept today. Here is a photo of it.

Alice Cislo home, center, 1999

Our final stop was at the home of Larry Parks, who was accused and arrested for committing the sexual assault and later, the triple homicide of Sherry Brannon and her two daughters, 4-year-old Cassidy and 7-year-old Shelby. The series of photos under the title of this article were all taken by Manatee Sheriff’s Office detectives and crime scene investigators on October 22, 1999. Looking at them makes me want to hold my breath and I feel a little nauseous. Captain Connie Shingledecker– whose department investigated the assault case as well as the Brannon homicides– was at the scene. She said when they opened the door to the trailer, a rodent–she thought a rat–staggered dizzily out the door and dropped dead. At least that’s what I think she told me.

The residence was filthy and smelly and cluttered. And yet at some time in the past, Larry Parks had lived some semblance of a normal life. He owned many acres of prime farmland that had been passed down from his grandfather, Kelley Parks, who had been a wealthy landowner and early settler of Manatee County. As a heavy equipment operator, he was well known for his industry and for the artistry of the ponds he dug for the wealthy owners of the new houses in Panther Ridge. He served in the army. His three sisters wrote to him faithfully while he was in jail awaiting trial and they seemed mostly convinced that he was innocent of the charges against him. There is a photo taped to the wall of Larry’s house showing him and his wife on their wedding day. They had two children together. (She left him shortly after their son was born citing cruelty and neglect of their children, and moved back to New York State where her mother lived.) He took Alice Cislo and her daughters to the strawberry festival on their first date and took her mother and his own out to dinner one Mother’s Day. He went to church with Alice on Easter Sunday and Alice she told detectives that when she had dated him, he worked every day, always had money, and showered daily and wore clean clothes. His heavy drug use and the accidental death of his estranged wife Deborah caused him to change, she hypothesized. She broke things off with him after about a year, but they remained on friendly terms.

I told my youngest son the story of our road trip that day when we spoke on the phone last night. I included all the details, my guess about the meth lab and my description of the poverty included, and he said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. He said “You know, some people just want to be left alone. They aren’t necessarily drug dealers or criminals.”

I was instantly ashamed of my mean-spirited stereotypical analysis of things I didn’t understand. I thought of people I know and love, some relatives, who are strange or solitary or poor or addicted. Who are any of us to judge? I write to try to understand the intricacies and mysteries of life as we know it. Maybe, I’ve decided, I can do that and still be kind.

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.