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.