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After 25 years, family of fallen officer comes to Florida for killer's execution

Betsy Park, left, and older sister Peggy Park, center, at Zeta Tau Alpha sorority at Ohio State. “She was my best friend,” Betsy said.

Courtesy of Steve Park

Betsy Park, left, and older sister Peggy Park, center, at Zeta Tau Alpha sorority at Ohio State. “She was my best friend,” Betsy said.

She was a little girl who spent hours and hours playing with her family's cats and dogs.

She was a teenager who listened to wolves howling in the Canadian forest and fell in love with them.

She was an Ohio college student who majored in natural resources and dreamed of working outside with animals.

Finally, as a young woman, Peggy Park became a Florida wildlife officer in Pinellas County.

She searched for eagles, watched for snakes and grappled with alligators. But her killer was a 19-year-old man.

Martin E. Grossman was on probation for burglary and grand larceny, having gotten out of prison five months earlier. He and a friend were driving a van through a rural area of northeastern Pinellas, planning to shoot a stolen Luger handgun. Park pulled over the van and a struggle resulted. Grossman, apparently trying to avoid arrest and another prison term, shot her in the head with her .357-Magnum. She was 26.

That was Dec. 13, 1984. Now, more than 25 years later, one final chapter remains. Grossman is scheduled to be executed Tuesday for the murder he committed a quarter-century ago.

Her mother, also named Peggy, is 79 and has been told by a cardiologist not to travel from Ohio to Florida for the execution.

But she's coming. So are Park's brother and sister. They're grieving and want closure. But they also want something else in the week they are scheduled to watch Grossman die.

They want people to know the story of a daughter, sister, wildlife officer named Peggy Park.

"I don't want Peggy ever forgotten," her mother said.

• • •

Peggy Park grew up in the Columbus, Ohio, area. She played saxophone in the marching band, oboe in the symphonic band, liked art, loved horses, wrote stories, read a lot and watched the Carol Burnett Show.

At one point her father said, "No pets." But with Peggy wheedling, "next thing you know, we've got a Lab puppy," recalled her brother, Steve, 52.

Her parents were educators who insisted all three kids do well in school. They also took summer camping trips to Ontario, where Peggy enjoyed fishing and late-night trips with park rangers to hear the wolves howling.

"Peggy was very, very partial to the wolves," her mother recalled this month. "She would call to the wolves, and the wolves would call back."

Another time in Canada, Peggy used growls and grunts to talk bear cubs down from a tree where their mother had sent them.

"She was very empathic with the animals," Steve Park said.

She went to Ohio State University and joined Zeta Tau Alpha sorority.

When she was a senior, her younger sister, Betsy, joined too — sisters who became sorority sisters. "She was my best friend," Betsy said.

After graduating with her degree in natural resources, Peggy Park was excited to apply for a job as a Florida wildlife officer. During that time, her mother asked why she always went running during the hottest part of the day. "She said 'Mom, it's going to be hotter in Florida.' "

Park described her own career choice in a St. Petersburg Times interview the week before she died: "I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a park ranger. It will never be a job."

• • •

In Florida, the wildlife is far different from Ohio, but she grew to love her job with the agency that is now known as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. And she could see how Pinellas County's fast-paced growth was changing its wildlife.

"I'm watching the ducks change their flight patterns," she said in her Times interview. "Everywhere in Pinellas County you can hear traffic and airplanes overhead. You can't go anywhere without hearing the noise."

She learned about Pinellas County's eagle nests, and where development threatened them.

She often worked alone, knowing she might sometimes approach a drug runner or poacher who could be armed.

This did not dissuade 5-foot, 2-inch Park. "She loved the law enforcement aspect of it," sister Betsy said. "I have a suspicion she was a little bit of an adrenaline junkie."

One time, Peggy Park recalled in her interview, she arrested a man for baiting an alligator with live egrets. "What slime," she said.

• • •

On that day in 1984, Grossman, 19, and his friend Thane Nathan Taylor, 17, planned to spend some time shooting a stolen handgun in a rural area of northeastern Pinellas.

Park stopped the van they were driving and discovered the gun. At the time, Grossman was on probation for burglary and grand larceny, and had been released from prison a few months earlier.

Grossman apparently was worried he would go back to prison, and struggled with Park, with Taylor helping. Grossman eventually wrested away Park's gun and shot her in the head.

The two men escaped, but were caught on Christmas Day. Grossman has been behind bars ever since.

Taylor was sentenced to seven years in prison.

• • •

For more than 25 years, the Parks have struggled with the pain.

After the murder, Peggy's mother dived back into her job as a grade school teacher, and says "It made me a better, stronger teacher. Yes, because I figured if I could live through that, I could live through anything."

Like many teachers, she told her students "You are responsible for your actions." But the words had deep meaning for her. Because in the back of her mind, she was thinking: "Martin Grossman apparently didn't feel responsible about his actions."

Although she had the chance to throw herself into her work, her husband retired the same month Peggy was killed. It weighed on him. He had helped her move to Florida and felt somewhat responsible.

"Of course that's not true," she said. " But it just tore him apart."

Grossman "took my daughter from me, but he also took my husband. My husband became very depressed, clinically depressed actually." He died in 2000.

For years, brother Steve said, it was easy to hate Martin Grossman, because he caused such pain — "how bad it hurts is a question like how high is up. ... There aren't really adequate words to describe it."

But eventually, he said, "I had to give up the hate. I had to give it up because I was going to kill myself if I didn't, just through the stress."

He gave it up in a most unlikely way. A friend persuaded him to join a prison ministry. He spent years volunteering with prisoners.

Now, after living with this winding, twisting criminal case for almost as long as they lived with Peggy, the Parks are preparing to witness the execution.

It's not about vengeance, they say.

"It's to see it finished," younger sister Betsy said. "It's for Peggy, it's for my dad and it's for us to know it's done."

"I take no pleasure in somebody being executed," she said. "But again, he had a chance to make choices. And he made the wrong ones."

timeline of tributes

The Parks say they are extremely grateful for remembrances and tributes given to Peggy Park over the years.

• The very first tribute was arranged by her family not long after her death. They had Park's ashes scattered from a helicopter so they fluttered down toward the eagle nests she had worked to protect.

• A nature trail was named in her honor at John Chesnut Park, not far from where she lived in her trailer off McMullen-Booth Road.

• Wildlife officers have told family members her memory pushed them to fight for better training and equipment.

• Nearly 20 years after her death, an environmental official new to Pinellas County was struck by how much Peggy Park's name kept cropping up. He arranged for a stone marker to be placed in the Brooker Creek Preserve in 2007, to honor "an officer fallen in the cause of conservation."

This article has been amended to reflect the following correction: A stone marker that serves as a memorial to slain Florida wildlife officer Peggy Park is in the Brooker Creek Preserve. An article in Monday's Times listed an incorrect location.

After 25 years, family of fallen officer comes to Florida for killer's execution 02/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 2:47pm]
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