Can all these things coexist in one life? The more I learn and the longer I live, the more I think so.
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.”
“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.”
From May until October, I write in a little white cottage near Battersea, Ontario, Canada. It’s silent here until about five in the afternoon when our neighbor the loon calls out his mournful greeting as he floats past us in front of our break wall. At night in the bedroom it’s so dark that I can’t see my hand when I wave it in front of me.
I’m writing a book about a horrendous murder, and yet being so isolated is not scary, at least not this year. My husband is with me, puttering in the yard or doing Dog Lake Association work. It’s peaceful and relaxing and conducive to long hours of uninterrupted writing.
Last year, though, I was here alone for a week and took my laptop to bed with me sometimes. It was muggy and hot those nights, and I opened all the windows. Swish, swish, swish, I heard one night right outside the window. I froze and listened. Finally went back to work. In a few more minutes, swish, swish, swish. My heart leapt a little. “Honey,” I called out to no one, “get the shotgun. Someone is sneaking around outside this window.” There would be a little scrap of silence, then swish, swish, swish.
I crept from the bed to the closet and retrieved the unloaded shotgun leaning against the wall in there. I had no idea where the shotgun shells were and had never loaded or shot a gun. I pointed it at the floor, the only safety measure I remembered from a long-ago girl scout gun safety class, and paced in front of the windows. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave now,” I said as ominously as possible. Swish, swish, swish. I slid the gun under the bed, turned out the light, and finally fell asleep.
The next weekend my husband arrived and I told him my scary story. He walked outside and examined the shrubbery beneath the windows. He kicked at some dirt. “A family of skunks has made a home for themselves here,” he said.
Perhaps writing about homicide put me in a nervous frame of mind last year, but now I am happily ensconced in nature’s beauty. The sun filters into the woods surrounding the cottage on three sides. The lake water laps softly at the stone wall I can see from the little writing cottage. There are skunks and big black water snakes here, but they don’t frighten me.
Twenty years ago when the Brannon family was murdered in Florida, there were wild hogs in the secluded woods behind the house, and oak trees and palmettos and a pretty pond in front of the set-back house. Nothing scared Sherry Brannon. She had chosen that lonely, 5-acre lot to build their home because she wanted to live in a peaceful, country setting. And yet within that space, on her 35th birthday, Sherry was stabbed to death along with her 4- and 7-year old daughters.
My takeaways: Life is full of ambiguity. No place is inherently safe and none is inherently dangerous. Not all murders occur in crowded cities. The most dangerous part of nature is most often human nature. And I can write the most horrible truths in the most serene of places.