Murder in a Time of Coronavirus: Which One Was the Murderer?

Dewey Brannon at Sheriff’s Office the day he reported finding his wife’s body

Dewey Brannon a “person of interest”

By late October 1999, the public knew of one suspect and one “person of interest” in the Brannon murder investigation. The sheriff’s office defined a person of interest as someone who could not be excluded as a suspect, but for whom there was not sufficient evidence to make an arrest. Dewey Brannon, the estranged father and husband of the victims, fell into that classification. First, all professional murder investigators begin by looking at the people closest to the victims. Second, Dewey had behaved in ways that were viewed by some people as peculiar when he discovered the victims. He carried his injured 4-year-old daughter Cassidy with him while he checked the master bath linen closet to see whether his gun was still there before he called 911. In his 911 call he reported that his wife Sherry had committed suicide after harming their two children, although she had never threatened suicide and was by all accounts a loving mother. He knew that the only neighbors in the remote location where he built their house would not be home on the days the murders were committed and the bodies reported. Dewey consulted an attorney the day after the crimes were committed and refused to further discuss the case with detectives after that. He did not call the sheriff’s office to inquire about the progress of the investigation.

A few weeks into the investigation, Dewey had had enough of what he felt was undue attention on him. On a weekday when the weather topped 100 degrees, he walked eight miles to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office where he burst into the lobby, shouting and gesturing. “Either arrest me or clear my name.”

Sheriff Charlie Wells’ staff quickly notified him of Brannon’s presence and he went down to the lobby immediately. He told Dewey that he was not going to let him come into the sheriff’s office and raise hell. “If you want to come upstairs and talk to me like a gentleman,” he said, “we can do that.” After a brief pause, Dewey said he wanted to talk and followed Wells to his office.

The sheriff explained that he and his investigative staff wanted to talk to Dewey alone, without the presence of attorneys. He assured him that they were not trying to trap him, but to invite an honest dialogue between the murder victims’ husband and father and the investigative staff. After conversations between Brannon’s attorneys and the sheriff, then Dewey and the attorneys, Dewey decided to talk to investigators without his attorney. A lengthy and difficult dialog ensued in which Brannon detailed his frustrations with the focus on him, and Sheriff Wells explained what facts led to their unwillingness to clear Dewey’s name yet. Wells promised to do all he could to reach that stage expeditiously. Both agreed not to discuss the contents of their meeting with the press.

Larry Parks 2002

Larry Parks becomes a suspect.

Note: the names that appear below, Alicia Ruiz, Lisa Bennett, and Mac McEvoy, are pseudonyms which I used to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The information contained here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. It was obtained from the official transcripts of interviews between Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) detectives and those individuals, and interviews I conducted with the investigators and other MCSO officials. Most dialogue is taken verbatim from the transcripts, although I have occasionally filled in details that were consistent with the facts when no one was present to hear the actual exchange.

Previously, on September 3, 2019, I posted “A Piece of Yellow Twine” which described a sexual assault that occurred on October 22 1999, just weeks after the Brannon murders.

When Manatee County Sheriff’s officers questioned neighbor Alicia Ruiz the morning of the Lisa Bennett assault, Ruiz was able to name the suspect, a heavy equipment operator by the name of Larry Parks, the same man Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy identified for MCSO investigators. Alicia had dated Parks in 1997 and ’98 and knew him well. They were no longer a couple because his extensive drug use had become a major issue between them, but they remained friends. Larry called Alicia once when rainy weather had interrupted his job and borrowed money temporarily. She loaned him $200 which he repaid when he returned to work. He called her again to share his grief when his estranged wife, Deborah Sharp Parks, died in New York State in a weather-related auto accident in March of 1999, just months before the Brannon homicides.

Despite his positive relationship with Ruiz, detectives discovered that years before–between 1983 and 1985–Larry had been married to Deborah Sharp Parks for only two rocky years, and they had been estranged for 14 years at the time of the Brannon murders. When she left him, a pregnant Debbie took her then 2-year-old daughter Calley to New York State where they lived with her mother Virginia Ucci. She told her divorce attorney that Parks had been abusive to her and ignored their daughter.

Deborah Parks and Lisa Bennett had not been the only people to report Larry Parks’ violence toward women. Of the several women whom investigators interviewed about their relationships with Larry, only Alice Ruiz did not report violent incidents. In 1990, Tina L. Rowell filed a police report alleging that Larry had come to her home and started an argument, slapping her in the face and then retrieving a .357 handgun which he pointed at her, threatening to kill her. Ronald Hochstetler and Scott Richards, whom Parks also menaced, witnessed the attack.

Two years later Brenda G. Canaday said Larry physically and verbally abused her in a motel in October 1992; in July 1993 he called and threatened her and her boyfriend, then slit two of his tires; and in September 1993 slapped her face, pushed her and dragged her on the floor. Another time he came to her Carlton Arms apartment, carved “whore” on her front door, cut up her doormat, and pounded on the sliding glass doors of her deck. She got a restraining order which she later cancelled because they got back together.

They were apparently estranged again by December 1993 when Susan L. Moore reported that during an argument Larry had pulled a knife on her and said “If you mess with me, I will be back.” She nonetheless moved into his trailer where she lived until May 1995. When she tried to leave and retrieve her belongings, he made her pay $50 and threatened her with a gun. “He’s like a walking time bomb,” she told detectives. Two years later he began to date Alicia Ruiz and during that time, sounded like a totally different man. The bomb had temporarily stopped ticking.

Immediately following the incident involving Lisa Bennett and Mac McEvoy, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigators moved quickly to locate Larry Parks, which they did at the address Alicia Ruiz had provided. He unsuccessfully tried to outrun a pursuing Sheriff’s squad car and was arrested on sexual assault charges. Detectives prepared requests for search warrants of the Bennett and Parks residences. Nothing, Sheriff Wells had cautioned, was more important than preserving the freshness of the crime scene. Forensics technicians Beverly Copeland and Diane Williams each spent hours at the residences collecting and processing potential evidence. 117 items and swabs were collected from the Bennett home and an additional 114 items and swabs were collected at Larry Parks’ home. Among the evidence were yellow twine that resembled the twine found under Sherry Brannon’s body and a pair of Reebok shoes that looked like the bloody tread pattern left at the Brannon crime scene. A court order was secured to collect samples of Larry Parks’ blood and hair. A connection was beginning to emerge, and Captain Connie Shingledecker begged the Florida State crime scene laboratory to give the highest priority to processing and comparing DNA from Parks and from flesh found under Sherry Brannon’s fingernail.

Shingledecker says she is not a person easily brought to tears. She recalls that she cried at her wedding. She was conferring with investigators at the suspect’s home when she received a phone call from the lab. Larry Parks’ DNA was a match, and now for a very different reason, she cried again.

Dog Lake Writing

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.

Fruits, Instrumentalities and Evidence

After thirty-five years and many false starts, I am (finally) writing full time, for myself and not for my business. In 1983 I joined a writer’s group and pretended to understand writers who claimed that their process was difficult, even unpleasant. I was 34 at the time and loved to write, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t get published. Now I don’t know whether I can, and I’m afraid to reach out and try. I’m afraid to tell people that I’m writing true crime because it sounds cheesy. I’m afraid I’ll sell the book but then get cancer and die before I finish writing it. I’m afraid to interview the victims’ and perpetrator’s families because I don’t want to open old wounds or ask rude questions.

Writing true crime is hard work! I’ve read and re-read the investigative interviews conducted by the Manatee County Sheriff’s detectives, letters I’ve exchanged with the man who confessed to the murders, the articles written by Bradenton journalists. I’ve read the search warrants asking that the murder scene be searched for “fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence,” and learned what that means. I’ve researched the psychological profiles of killers, especially killers of children, and the subject of writing about murderers (See Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer).

I’ve written some chapters, re-written them, and edited my re-writes; I’ve crafted a book proposal and a query letter to send to potential literary agents. I’ve researched agents who might be interested in representing true crime manuscripts. I’ve created lists of follow-up questions to ask everyone I’ve interviewed and lists of new questions to ask all the people I have yet to interview. It’s true that all those tasks need to be done. But first, I need to write as much of the book as I possibly can now.

So Where Shall We Begin?

So Where Shall We Begin?

Martha Ann and Susan Otto, circa 1952

In books the story is often linear—a beginning, a middle, and an end. In real life, stories begin and end in unexpected ways. The middle moves all over the place. My sister, Martha (left above), was about two and a half when the photo was taken. She grew to be an attractive, athletic woman who didn’t smoke cigarettes for most of her life. She was my only sister and she knew all my secrets and loved me unconditionally; she was an outstanding daughter and mother and teacher and coach; and she loved every child she ever met, especially her two daughters, Jamie and Lizzy. She should have lived forever. Instead she was diagnosed with lung cancer just after she turned 58 and died of lung and bone and brain cancer in that same year.

My own life has had many twists and turns, including sharing the lives of my three terrific sons and having the opportunity to do some fascinating work. On the right, above, I was about four years old and you can tell by the expression on my face that I had an old soul!

As we work on the nonfiction true crime book my colleague and I are writing, our research has opened a mountain of facts about the victims, their families, the investigative team, and ourselves, the two authors. Not all of what has been learned is pertinent to the story. Some of it is unflattering. Deciding what belongs in the story and what ought to be left out isn’t easy.

Choosing to include or exclude facts that might disparage or hurt the people being written about is more than a literary decision, it’s a moral one. As writers, it’s important to select the scenes that move the story forward. It’s important than we honor the commitments we have made to people we’ve interviewed. That may mean that we leave out some sensational, juicy tidbits. But in the end, everything that happened isn’t necessarily “the truth” we’re trying to convey in our story. …So where shall we begin?