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Gov. Rick Scott signs death warrant for killer of Palm Harbor girl

PALM HARBOR — On Nov. 4, 1980, Elisa Nelson was snatched off the street while riding her bike to school. The next day, a search party found the 10-year-old's body in an orange grove.

On Friday, 32 years after Elisa's death, Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for the man who killed her.

Barring a successful appeal, Larry Eugene Mann will die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. April 10 at Florida State Prison, near Starke.

Mann, 59, was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping in 1981 and was sentenced to death. He has never denied the killing, but he twice won appeals that resulted in new sentencing hearings. Both times, the juries again recommended death.

"If ever the death penalty was warranted, it was warranted in the Larry Mann case," said New Port Richey attorney Larry Hart, who helped prosecute Mann. "I'm really, really comfortable that justice will be done. And I'm glad to have participated in it."

Elisa was expected to be late for school the morning she disappeared. She had an early-morning dentist appointment and her mother wrote a note excusing her absence.

At 10:30 a.m., Elisa rode her bike alone through a residential neighborhood toward Palm Harbor Middle School. Her bike was found later that day in a ditch about a mile from the school.

The same day, authorities were called to Mann's home when he attempted suicide by slashing his forearms with a razor blade. He told responding officers that he had "done something stupid and needed help."

But it wasn't until four days later that he was linked to the girl's death. That's when Mann asked his wife, Donna, to retrieve a pair of glasses from his 1957 Chevrolet pickup. Inside, she found the note that Nelson's mother had written to excuse her from school. It was stained with blood.

Donna Mann told a friend about the note. The friend told police, who got a search warrant for Mann's property. In the truck, they found blood stains that matched Elisa's blood type.

In trying to explain the reason for what happened, a psychiatrist testified that Mann suffered from pedophilia. Because of his condition, Mann loathed himself and anyone who might learn of his flaw, including his victims, the doctor testified.

Prosecutors theorized that Mann abducted Elisa with the intention of molesting her, but he was able to resist and abandoned his efforts. When Elisa tried to get away, Mann killed her. He cut her throat and hit her in the head with a pipe. An autopsy showed no signs of molestation.

It wasn't the first time Mann had been accused of a sexually motivated crime. As a child, he was charged with taking a 7-year-old girl from a church parking lot and sexually assaulting her. At his murder trial in 1981, a woman from Mann's native Mississippi testified about an incident from eight years earlier in which Mann broke into her apartment, where she was babysitting a 1-year-old boy. He grabbed her by the neck and threatened to harm the boy if she didn't "give me what I want." He forced the woman into a sex act.

"Nobody is filled with more remorse and regret than Larry Mann," said his attorney, Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer. "He is not the same man he was 30 years ago. He has spent the last 30 years trying to atone for what he did."

Parmer, who works for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates, said Mann is a model prisoner. He used his time on death row to study ancient Greek in order to read the Bible in that language.

Parmer said she plans to mount an aggressive appeal in the coming weeks to try to stop the execution.

Elisa's family could not be reached for comment Friday night. Her mother, Wendy, has worked in victim advocacy.

Mann's case was used in a 1994 campaign advertisement for Jeb Bush in his first run for governor. The ad accused then-Gov. Lawton Chiles of being soft on crime.

Hart called Mann's death sentence "totally, totally justified."

"I sometimes wonder how I would feel if that was my daughter," Hart said. "When I think about it now, it still causes me to pause. I can still see the picture of (Elisa) in my mind. It's very bittersweet. More bitter than sweet."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

Gov. Rick Scott signs death warrant for killer of Palm Harbor girl 03/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 11:10pm]
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