STARKE — Martin Edward Grossman killed a wildlife officer with her own gun 25 years ago. But that troubled 19-year-old, his supporters declared, was not the same man strapped to the execution gurney Tuesday.
He had overcome drugs and alcohol, they said, and embraced his Jewish faith. Tens of thousands of people, including Pope Benedict XVI, had come together across two faiths to plead for his life.
When the curtain to the execution chamber at Florida State Prison rose at 6:01 p.m., Grossman spoke — and that part of him came out.
"I would like to extend my heartfelt remorse to the victim's family," he said as he waited to be intravenously fed the chemicals that would end his life at age 45. "I fully regret everything that occurred that night. For everything that was done — whether I remember everything or not — I accept responsibility."
Grossman said a Jewish prayer, then closed his eyes at 6:02 p.m.
He was pronounced dead of lethal injection at 6:17 p.m.
But the zeal of some of his supporters was too much for the family of slain Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission Officer Margaret "Peggy" Park.
"We were harassed over and over the last week," Betsy Park said after her sister's killer was put to death, "and I think it was reprehensible."
Peggy Park grew up in Ohio, and quickly developed an affinity for the outdoors. She came to Florida to become a wildlife officer.
"I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a park ranger," she told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview before her death. "It will never be a job."
That's how the young officer, just 26, came to encounter Grossman and 17-year-old Thayne Nathan Taylor the evening of Dec. 13, 1984. She found them parked in what is now the Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs.
The officer found a Luger pistol in their van. Grossman, fearing the offense would violate his probation and land him back in prison, attacked the officer with her own flashlight.
"I'm hit," Park yelled over the radio.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Grossman overpowered the 5-foot-5, 115-pound officer. He wrenched Park's .357 magnum revolver away from her and used it to shoot her in the back of the head.
The two men escaped but were arrested on Christmas Day. Grossman was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Taylor was convicted of third-degree murder but served just two years of his seven-year sentence.
As his execution date neared, the clamor to spare Grossman's life grew.
More than 33,000 signed an online petition asking that Grossman's life be spared. Rabbis from groups including the Rabbinical Council of America, the Aleph Institute and the National Council of Young Israel wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist on Feb. 9 asking him to spare Grossman's life because he "has transformed himself from a deeply troubled teenager into a gentle and simple man, a proud practitioner of his faith and a humble servant of God."
At the request of Shear-Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Israel, even the pope weighed in.
"The prisoner has repented and is now a changed person, having become a man of faith," Archbishop Fernando Filoni wrote to the governor Friday on behalf of the Vatican.
Crist said his office was "swamped" by nearly 50,000 e-mails, phone calls and letters urging him to spare Grossman's life.
"I'm getting calls from people who are asking me to stay this execution," Crist said, "and then once I inquired, 'Do you know what the facts are?' I find that they unfortunately do not. … Sometimes the story can almost get ahead of the facts.
"The sincerity of their message is without question," he said. "I've reached the conclusion that justice must be done."
The condemned man spent his last day visiting with his rabbi, his aunt and friends.
Grossman refused the traditional last meal. Instead, he had a chicken sandwich, banana cream and peanut butter cookies and canned fruit punch that he bought himself from the inmate canteen.
After he apologized to his victim's family, he uttered the sacred Shema prayer:
Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
With all appeals exhausted, the warden signaled for the injection of a lethal cocktail of drugs — to sedate him, paralyze him and stop his heart.
Grossman's chest heaved at 6:04 p.m., then stopped. His face twitched slightly. By 6:06 p.m., he was ashen.
A minute later, the warden shook him to see if he was conscious.
Then the warden called in the doctor to pronounce him dead. Everything went according to plan, state officials said.
Grossman was the first prisoner executed this year and the 69th to die on death row since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Afterward, Rabbi Nochum Kurinsky of Jacksonville Beach, who observed the execution, said those who campaigned on behalf of Grossman did not do so in vain.
"I know Martin benefited, knowing everyone stood with him," Kurinsky said.
Then Park's family spoke. Betsy Park said 25 years was far too long to wait for justice. They wished their father had been able to be there to hear his daughter's killer finally apologize.
"I think that statement is long overdue," Betsy Park said. "I was glad to hear it from him."
But the family was not glad, she said, to be harassed in the days leading up to the execution. Supporters of Grossman sought the family out, she said, to get the family to oppose his execution — even obtaining their cell phone numbers.
But they would not be swayed. Park's mother, Peggy, now 79, traveled from Ohio against her doctor's orders to observe the execution.
When asked about watching her daughter's killer die, she said her thoughts turned to Haitian children trapped in the rubble of the earthquake that devastated their country. They died alone, she said, in the dark.
"They had a hard death," she said. "He had it easy."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.