The killer had choices.
He could have stayed in Clearwater, washing dishes at Hooters for $7.50 an hour, sitting through classes at St. Petersburg College, trying to impress a stripper named Cynthia in Oldsmar, doing what a 19-year-old on the edge of life does.
He did not have to steal Luke Merryfield's AK-47, or grab four boxes of ammo, or buy a one-way ticket north on Greyhound, or march deep into the forest, or crouch in the bushes and wait, or raise the rifle as blood pounded in his ears.
He committed these acts by his own free will, and that's why he deserves the mean side of prison walls and razor wire. He confessed to police, who took to calling it a "thrill killing," but that wasn't a satisfying explanation. Now, almost five years have slipped by and the ones who remember still puzzle. What made Leo Boatman a killer?
He wears shackles on his wrists and ankles as he shuffles into a cafeteria at the Charlotte Correctional Institution and sits, awkward, at a long table. He has never spoken to a reporter.
He is thin, and taller and less boyish than his pictures in the newspapers. At 24, he has spent more than half his life incarcerated.
"It's kind of all I know," he says. "I know it's kind of weird to say, but it's a comfortable environment."
Beginning with his wretched childhood, most of his life has been documented by state employees: those charged with keeping him safe, and those charged with keeping us safe from him. There were failures. He was abused by parents, abused by foster parents, then locked away from the age of 12 to 19. When finally given freedom, he was bigger and stronger and poised to strike back.
If you believe the killer, when he raised his rifle that day, he was aiming at all of us.
The Ocala National Forest is the southernmost forest in the United States, containing 383,000 acres of wilderness, the world's largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest and somewhere close to 600 rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. Very close to the center of all that, a few paces off the 1,400-mile Florida Trail, is a small, clear, peaceful pond.
It is called Hidden Pond, and it's a favorite for serious backpackers. It's a three-hour hike from the nearest campground, close enough to call for help but remote and cool enough for bathing in your birthday suit.
Leo Boatman had never heard of Hidden Pond as he walked to the Greyhound station in Clearwater on the afternoon of Jan. 2, 2006. He did not know much about Ocala National Forest, or even about camping, save what he gleaned from books and magazines. He had read the Mountain Man series, and all about Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and the Conquistadors. He devoured National Geographic and he thought a lot about hiking the Appalachian Trail to experience someplace besides Florida. Since his release from a juvenile prison five months before, he had often walked to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico at dusk and stared out at the horizon and envisioned himself alone on the water, a young man against the sea.
That was consistent in all his fantasies: independent survival. Leo Boatman, 5-feet-9 and 140 pounds, against everyone who ever said he would never amount to anything. He'd show them, and in his mind, over and over, he did.
Now it was time to do it for real. He was angry and he needed to get away, to clear his head. He was living on his own for the first time, ultimate freedom, yet everyone kept trying to control him. He wanted to stay out on the beach all night, but his sister made him come inside. He wanted to ride a motorcycle, but his uncle said that was a stupid idea. Now the bike was wrecked, in the shop, and Leo was on foot, headed down Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. He popped into Amscot and cashed a check from the state of Florida: $875 from the Road To Independence scholarship for foster children enrolled in college. Books and tuition could wait. He walked into Deer Hunter Guns and bought bullets for $17.04. He walked to the bus station, slid his ID across the counter and paid $32.50 for a ticket out of town.
He held the long blue nylon bag between his legs on the bus bound for Ocala.
• • •
"Very nice," is how the Walmart greeter remembered the killer.
"Well dressed and appeared to be a college-type person," is how a cab driver described him.
"Clean cut," a woman at the campground store told police.
"Very friendly," said the cabbie who took him to the bus station.
"I didn't know I had the devil in the front seat," said the man who picked him up hitchhiking.
"Sat quietly during the transport which occurred without incident," wrote the sheriff's deputy who brought him from Clearwater back to Marion County. "The only other statements made . . . was to ask what he was being charged with and would he be given something to eat and a place to sleep."
"We were shocked to see a very nice, clean-looking fellow," said the mother of one victim. "He didn't look like a killer."
"Appeared to be a healthy, attractive child," wrote the state investigator who took him and his sister away from their mother in 1990, when he was 3. "All around the apartment were trophies which the two children had earned in beauty contests."
• • •
After midnight, Leo Boatman caught a cab from the bus station in Ocala to Walmart. He pushed a shopping cart to the camping supplies and guessed at what he would need. He loaded a tent, sleeping bag, backpack, lantern, mess kit, flashlight, buck knife, belt, binoculars, batteries, camp stove, hiking boots, sewing kit. If something popped into his head, something he had read about in one of his books, he put it in the cart. He pushed the cart to register 18 and unloaded 32 items, enough supplies to survive a long while in the woods. He paid $391.64, called another cab from the pay phone and asked the driver to take him to a campground. It did not matter which.
The cab stopped at Juniper Springs around 3 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 3, and Boatman handed the driver $57. The gate to the campground was locked, so he ducked into the woods not far from Highway 40 and set up camp. The next morning a campground worker found him sitting outside the gate, tending to his new gear. She told him he could buy food at the store nearby. He told the clerk inside he was planning to hike the Florida Trail. She mentioned it was possible to hike from here to the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. This pleased him. He bought a bunch of food, a map, a disposable camera and other supplies totalling $150.91.
He loaded his gear, headed across the pavement to a narrow primitive trail and disappeared into the scrub pine.
• • •
Amber Peck and John Parker hadn't known each other long. They were both 26, students at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. They belonged to a campus club called Students for Environmental Harmony.
Parker was a Marine who had worked on helicopter rotors in Afghanistan and gone to college on the G.I. Bill. He had an 8-year-old daughter, poor housekeeping skills and a gun collection. He smoked Camels and was easygoing and at home in nature. He had been planning a club camping trip for a while. He e-mailed the Students for Environmental Harmony and followed up with phone calls, but everyone had conflicts except Amber Peck.
Peck, a Michigan transplant, hated guns. Her father took her to a range once to teach her to shoot. The two walked out a few minutes later, the girl shaking. She couldn't even pull the trigger.
She loved the outdoors. She cried when she saw animals caged at the zoo and wanted to build a career restoring natural habitats in the wild. She talked about studying zoology at the University of Florida and had been accepted at James Cook University in Australia.
She was in a hurry that Tuesday morning, getting ready for her first camping trip. Her mother called. Peck said Parker was supposed to pick her up at 12:30. The two drove Amber's GMC Jimmy to the forest and parked at a trailhead and hiked in toward Hidden Pond.
• • •
The evidence suggests Leo Boatman did not go into the Ocala National Forest to kill. He bought enough supplies to last weeks. He used his ID to buy a bus ticket. He told at least three people where he intended to camp.
He went to the Ocala National Forest to clear his head, to get away from his uncle, to test himself: a boy who had never had much free will suddenly alone in the wild.
He hiked through a low forest where wildflowers line a narrow sand trail. He said hello to an elderly couple wearing hard hats. He photographed with his disposable camera things he had never seen outside books and magazines. Banana spiders as big as a toddler's hand. Tall pines that lend a mountainous impression to small hills. Open prairie thick with saw palmetto and butterflies.
But somewhere along the way, something began to happen. He started to grow angry. With each step, each bend, each picturesque landscape, the fury inside him burned a little hotter.
• • •
The killer's earliest memory is of his mother, a diagnosed schizophrenic who conceived Leo in a mental hospital. He is about 3. She tells him to go upstairs and hide, and he does, but his curiosity is strong. He eases out of a closet and looks downstairs and sees strangers. One of them is holding a teddy bear. You have to come with us, they tell him. He does not want to go. They pry him from his mother.
That memory is supported by a report from 1990 on file with the Department of Children and Families:
Mother appeared at the door with a T shirt and a bikini bottom. She appeared disoriented and confused. . . . Leo appeared initially nude and then put on his mother's coat. Leo appeared to be a healthy, attractive child. . . . While there, the mother fed Leo a chocolate bar and chocolate milk for breakfast. . . . About ten days later, another report was received for lack of supervision of Leo by mother, Sheila, in Tampa. Leo was picked up and taken into shelter.
The investigator noted that management of the apartment had found Leo and his sister wandering around the complex at all hours.
The mother often seems to be totally incapable of keeping up with these children. Today, she let Leo wander outside unattended away from home for 20 minutes. . . . She once asked someone to help her locate Rose because the child had been missing overnight. When she was asked when Rose left home, she responded that she wasn't sure because she was away from home all night herself.
The killer's next memory is of his mother's boyfriend, around the same time. The man would lock Leo in the bathroom. He does not remember the man sexually molesting him, but he was told later he was abused in that way as well. His mother drowned in a drainage ditch while hitchhiking a few years later.
His next memory is of being placed in a crib in a room full of babies in some type of home. He recalls crying long and loud through the bars.
The state placed Leo with his grandmother. Their relationship was good at first. Leo began calling her mom.
He lived with an aunt and uncle from age 4 to 6. An older cousin made Leo perform sexual acts with a relative while he watched, according to a police report.
He went back to his grandmother, but their relationship soon ended.
Mom admits she hit Leo with a broom, states a report from 1996. He is hard to control child and doesn't want to listen to anyone. . . . Mom stated over and over she does not want Leo anymore. . . . No other relatives wanted Leo. Bio mother is dead. . . . Bio father is unknown.
He recalls his grandmother dropping him off at a group home for juvenile delinquents. He bounced from there to an older couple who eventually dropped him off at a mental health center.
In late 1998, he was back with his grandmother, and acting out. He was about 12 then. When he did well in school and his grandmother didn't believe him, he called the state abuse hot line. An investigator interviewed his grandmother:
She started screaming and yelling at him and saying derogative things with the child present. It was very verbally abusive. . . . CPI stated that she did not think grandmother is an appropriate placement due to her illness and intolerance for child.
Next he was sent to a foster family in St. Petersburg. Beginning in 1998, the state logged complaints of abuse from children at that home. The children claimed the foster father was an alcoholic and punished them in unusual ways. They claimed he withheld meals, made them do up to 5,000 squat jumps at a time, and made them sit in a desk chair for hours on end, sometimes naked. The children began running away. When they did, they set fires because an arson charge drew 21 days in juvenile lockup, which was better than the foster father's punishment.
Investigators vetted the claims several times, but it wasn't until 2004 that investigators verified them.
By that time, Leo had amassed a lengthy juvenile record.
• • •
Steve Schick, a divorced Buddhist in Hudson who has driven an ice cream truck, sold mobile homes and run a janitorial company, met Leo for the first time in 2000, working as a guardian ad litem. Schick felt like he had met the boy in another life.
"He's a warm soul," Schick, 65, said in a recent interview. "He's been tremendously abused. You've got to feel sorry for what he went through up through age 10 or 12 with mom and grandma."
When he was 12 or 13, Leo asked Schick to adopt him. Schick had never adopted a child before and didn't have any of his own. He said okay. Leo's past was what it was, but Schick knew the boy was not a lost cause.
The two drove together down U.S. 19 one day. They passed a car accident. Paramedics worked on an injured person on the pavement. Leo, short for his age, turned on his knees to see.
"I hope he's not suffering," the boy said.
The two sometimes stayed up late, talking, Schick trying to help the boy heal.
"You don't have to go anywhere," Schick would say. "You can stay here. I know you can't erase what happened to you, but we can try."
And then he was gone.
Boatman doesn't know why he ran from Steve Schick, but he spent the next seven years a ward of the Department of Juvenile Justice. His records paint a picture of a kid afraid to get out. Each time he was nearing release, he got into trouble. He headbutted a teacher, tried to punch a pregnant caseworker, chewed on glass.
He was transferred to the high-security Omega 10 juvenile prison in Manatee County. He was in his cell so much, he says, he began fantasizing. In some of the visions he hurt guards, exacting revenge, but those morphed into daydreams of the high seas and great outdoors.
In 2004, at 18, he was evaluated at Omega 10 juvenile prison.
"Youth's behavior is terrible," the evaluator wrote. "Youth has been in program for 43 months. This program has done everything possible to change this youth's behavior. Needs to go to adult prison as there is no hope for change."
• • •
Through the forest he marched, alone with his anger, each footfall a step farther into isolation. He did not expect or understand this rage. Where others saw beauty, he saw pain. The hike was real. He could feel the palmetto brushing his legs and smell the winter air. But it also felt like fantasy, like he was carrying a stolen AK-47 back in his cell in one of his daydreams. Freedom was solitary confinement.
He can't pinpoint the source of his next thought, and he knows how crazy it must sound, but it was this:
I'm going to shoot the next person I see.
He came to a fork and walked around the rim of Hidden Pond, rage in his chest, the rifle in the blue nylon bag on his shoulder. He passed some trees and stopped in his tracks before two campers, sitting on a log. He did not speak.
Boatman walked away, out of sight, and then he stopped. He pulled the rifle to his shoulder. His heart beat so hard he could see the barrel throbbing. He waited 10 minutes, then heard them coming.
He thought about running, about shouldering the gun and ripping down the trail and leaving two people alive and oblivious.
He told himself, Don't do it.
• • •
John Parker and Amber Peck did not come home that day, or the next.
Amber's father found her car late Friday and came back to search in daylight. John Parker's friends and family had already been to Hidden Pond. The authorities soon swarmed the area and put helicopters in the air.
Deputies found the victims in shallow water on the edge of Hidden Pond, not far from a patch of dried blood. Peck was face down, the soles of her shoes visible on the surface. Both were fully clothed. They found gunshot wounds in Parker's right foot, right shoulder, on the right side of his neck and his left biceps. Peck had wounds on her right arm, left biceps and both sides of her head. Their belongings were scattered but nothing appeared to be missing. Sheriff's deputies found bullet casings with a metal detector. They towed Peck's car for processing. On the back windshield, written in the dirt, was a message: AMBER CALL DAD.
• • •
He left evidence. He hitchhiked to a motel, checked in with his own name. He caught a bus back to Largo, rifle in hand, went to the first day of college, confided in an acquaintance that he would probably get caught. Detectives solved the case in a week. He pleaded guilty and took a deal: The victims' families agreed to a sentence of two life terms, rather than pursuing the death penalty. In Florida, that means Boatman will never be eligible for parole.
The prosecutor told reporters Boatman's childhood was "uniquely awful." Amber Peck's mother asked: "Where was the village?" Boatman's public defender said wolves would have been more nurturing.
"Absolutely," says Steve Schick, who still writes Boatman. "I blame myself for not meeting him earlier. I blame myself for not meeting him when he was 4 or 6 or 10. Where was the cutoff point?"
"The system made him," said Kenneth Wooden, a child advocate and author of Weeping in the Playtime of Others: America's Incarcerated Children, who visited with Boatman in prison. "Brick by brick, day by day, year by year. It started at conception and ended the day he met those two hikers in the woods."
• • •
"I had a choice," Leo Boatman says, his voice soft. "I feel like if things were different, I would have been a different person. At the same time, that doesn't excuse anything. They were still my thoughts."
He does not know if he could have been saved. He does think spending his formative years in detention, the loneliness and anger, had direct bearing on what he did that day.
"You start hating society because you blame society," he says. "You've got this nasty guard that violates the law; he does everything he's not supposed to be doing. And yet they tell me that he's an officer and he's the ultimate authority and he's the one I'm supposed to want to be like? Well if that's the case, society's really messed up theirselves and they're pretty sick in the head and it's like, I was screaming at society."
The guard behind him is growing impatient.
Leo Boatman is told that Amber Peck's mother still has a nightmare in which Amber is beneath the surface of the water, eyes open, looking at her mother and mouthing, "Help." He is told Amber's friend was so overcome with grief she committed suicide months later.
For a moment, Leo Boatman looks as though he will cry.
He says he feels remorse for what he did. He says he didn't know anything about the victims that day, and now he does, and they haunt him. Especially Parker, who had an 8-year-old daughter. "I didn't have a dad, either," he says, lowering his eyes.
• • •
They met by chance. The man on the log stood, said hello, and walked toward him.
"You're going the wrong way," John Parker told him. He pointed the boy toward the correct path.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An incorrect first name for Amber Peck appeared near the end a story Sunday about murderer Leo Boatman.