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

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.

Murderers are People

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.

Larry Parks arrested for Brannon homicides

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.”