Monday, November 20, 2017
Education

Decades later, slain Palm Harbor girl gets a memorial

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In 1980 you couldn't get a pizza delivered here, but you could see all the stars at night, and everyone agreed that was better. Instead of gated communities and golf courses, there were orange groves and cow pastures for miles, and so Palm Harbor, in many ways, was the perfect place to be a kid. You could tear off on your bicycle and throw chinaberries at each other in the groves. Everybody knew everybody else, and nothing bad ever happened; you just made it home by supper.

On Nov. 4, 1980, a 10-year-old girl named Elisa Nelson woke up excited. She was going to the orthodontist to have braces put on, and after, she would ride her bike to Palm Harbor Middle School. She and her brother had a standing race after school. Whoever got home first controlled the television; she wanted to watch Bewitched, not Gilligan's Island.

But when Elisa was just 200 feet from school, a man took her, and her body was found the next day in the orange groves, under an avocado tree. And no one biked to school after that.

The school dedicated a plaque to Elisa, but just as Palm Harbor would never be the same, Pinellas was changing. Too small to accommodate its students, the middle school closed that year. The plaque was lost.

Last spring, more than three decades later, Elisa's killer was executed. Her brother, the one who always raced her home, went up into the attic.

There was a cardboard box he hadn't opened in 33 years. Inside he would find Elisa's things, relics of old Palm Harbor: before the car dealerships on U.S. 19 and the tony gated golf communities; when childhood was the smell of citrus and the rattle of roller skates on gravel roads.

He would also find the words to seek out the memorial for Elisa lost three decades ago.

He dusted off the box. He opened it.

• • •

When he put her in his truck, she stabbed him with her pencil. Larry Mann, a sexual predator out on parole. She was so close to the school on 15th Street that she could probably see the bike rack when he took her. She fought so hard he had to pull over into an orange grove, and when he saw he couldn't get what he wanted, he killed Elisa Nelson.

When his little sister went missing, Jeff Nelson was 12. There were no words, he says, because these things did not happen. Girls cried themselves to sleep or crawled into bed with their parents. Mothers walked to the post office with letters to mail, only to realize they brought stamps and forgot the letters.

He remembers that time like a bomb going off, the feeling of being shell-shocked. He looked at things but couldn't see them. People were saying things but he couldn't hear them. He says it was "the end of Palm Harbor the way it was." He calls her death "a watershed moment for a utopia that no longer exists."

In 1977, there were two paved roads in the sleepy fishing village; many in Tampa and St. Petersburg didn't know it had a name.

That June, a large post office and bank branch announced plans to open. Suddenly there was talk of restaurants. Within eight years, nearly 100 acres of Palm Harbor's orange groves were sold off for development.

With the area booming, Palm Harbor Middle had run out of space. The school closed in 1981.

There was talk of naming the new middle school or its library after Elisa. But when Palm Harbor Middle opened in a new building in 1983, there were new students, new administrators, a new PTA.

The school was built over the same orange groves where Elisa was murdered. There was no memorial. Her parents wondered: Did everyone judge them for letting this happen to their daughter?

Years passed, the Nelsons consumed by the trial, the sentencing hearings, the appeals. It wasn't until April of last year that Elisa's killer was executed.

Jeff went.

He lives in the same house he and Elisa grew up in. The Sea World and Three's Company stickers are still on her door, now the door to Jeff's daughter's room. After the execution, he opened the long-sealed box of Elisa's things.

It was all there: her blue roller skates, with dirt from 1980 still stuck on the wheels. Her Little League glove, her name printed in perfect block letters along the thumb. The smell and touch of a girl and a time lost.

There was also a 1981 letter to the Pinellas School Board from a local pastor. "I am writing to you concerning the naming of the new Middle School to be built in Palm Harbor. There is much sentiment to naming the school or dedicating the library in memory Elisa Vera Nelson."

Jeff says he mentioned it to Gov. Rick Scott — just that he wanted to get back the original plaque dedicated to Elisa.

Enrollment in Pinellas schools, once booming, had been declining for years. The old Palm Harbor Middle became an elementary school and closed in 2009.

Scott, who signed the execution order for Elisa's killer, told Jeff he'd look into it. What Elisa's brother did not know was that somebody already was.

• • •

Superintendent Mike Grego and his everything-man, Michael Bessette, pulled up to Palm Harbor Elementary, long-closed and littered with beer bottles.

A few days before, some Palm Harbor families had asked to speak with Grego. They'd spent 45 minutes sharing the story of Elisa Nelson. Grego's parents had lived in Palm Harbor back then. He promised he'd look into it.

The two men unlocked the gate, hoping to find the dedication plaque to Elisa in the abandoned school's library. It wasn't there. Grego called Jeff Nelson.

"Some things just strike a chord with you. This one did," he says. "Something hooks you. And this just pulled at my heart. It just took me over. It took me over. You just keep thinking."

Grego was nervous on the phone. He told Jeff they didn't know each other, but there was something he'd like to do.

• • •

Today, Palm Harbor Middle will dedicate a mural and a reading corner to the memory of Elisa Nelson. They are calling it "Elisa's Reading Nook."

The mural reads "These would be my greatest wishes." It's something Elisa wrote in her journal, another thing Jeff found in that old box. The words are surrounded by images of her favorite things: horses, butterflies and books; the ugly old dog that the neighborhood boys called "Stupid" but she called "Pretty"; Sandy and Danny from the movie Grease.

It has been hard to think of his sister over the past 33 years, Jeff says. As much as Palm Harbor has changed, he sees and hears things that remind him of Elisa. Even when the memory starts off sweet, he can't stop himself from flashing forward, to the end of her life. When he hears Grease Lightning, he sees her cheering on the football field, pointing her index finger as she smiles and dances. But by the end of the song, he's in the orange grove.

He hopes the memorial means there's a new end to her story. A girl will play piano at today's dedication. The school choir will sing Be Like a Bird. Maybe, Elisa's brother says, he can learn to let his memories go here:

Be like a bird

Who halting in her flight on a limb too slight

Feels it give way beneath her

Yet sings, sings

Knowing she has wings

Yet sings, sings

Knowing she has wings

 

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com.

     
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