Pat Buckley hadn't slept well for weeks thinking about this day, the day it could all unravel. It was Wednesday and he paced in front of the Florida Parole Commission, about to go inside to find out if his sister's killer would go free. He had never been this nervous.
"I don't like this," he said.
• • •
John Blasi killed two people on Feb. 10, 1981. He was 21.
He blamed it on a hitchhiker named Peanuts, tall and slender with long blond hair, a man who looked like a woman from behind, which is why Blasi said he picked him up. Peanuts put a gun to his head and made him rob the Denim Den in Holiday. Peanuts shot the shopkeeper, Thomas Hollywood, a retired New York City cop with six kids, in the parking lot. Peanuts forced Blasi to circle back in his gold Trans Am to make sure Hollywood was dead. It was Peanuts who shot Hollywood again and Beatrice Eagan, a waitress at Fat Boy's Barbecue next door who had run over to help the dying man as he said, "It hurts. It hurts. It hurts so bad."
Peanuts killed her too.
But the jury didn't believe Blasi's story at his trial and deliberated for 90 minutes before deciding to convict him of two counts of first-degree murder.
What happened next was a tiny but horrific mistake that changed two families for generations.
The jurors checked the wrong box on the 18-page verdict form, instead convicting Blasi of two counts of attempted murder.
The jurors didn't speak up when the clerk read their verdict. They didn't say anything when they were each individually polled. They didn't realize their mistake until the jurors asked a bailiff when the death penalty phase of the trial would begin. He said there wouldn't be one.
The jurors felt sick. They later told the Times the court clerk was soft spoken and they couldn't hear her read the verdict. They were focused on watching Blasi's reaction.
The jurors signed a letter saying they made a mistake.
The State Attorney's Office argued to get it changed.
But the judge said no. The jury had already been discharged.
The judge did what he could and sentenced Blasi to 203 years in prison. That was meant to keep Blasi incarcerated for life.
It hasn't been easy.
• • •
Eagan and Hollywood didn't know each other, but their relatives think they would have been great friends. They both came from large, Irish New York families; hers from Brooklyn, his from Staten Island. Both had a great sense of humor.
Eagan, 48, had no children, but treated her nieces and nephews like they were her own. Hollywood, 51, an officer for 21 years, lived in Holiday with his wife in the home they built.
Mrs. Hollywood was a shadow of herself after her husband's death. She testified at Blasi's trial on what would have been their 30th wedding anniversary. She died in 2009. Before her death, she told her daughter to remember the parole hearings in Tallahassee.
"Do not let him out," she said.
• • •
Blasi is 53 now. He's found God and paints religious pictures by dissolving the dyes off of M&M candies: Daniel in the lion's den, unjustly imprisoned. The prodigal son, arms raised, welcomed back home after doing wrong.
For his hearing, he sent the commission certificates he's earned; perfect attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous; seminars on life skills and financial freedom. He's studied black history and the Hebrew bible. Blasi is a self awareness facilitator.
"You have what it takes to demonstrate that a person can change and help others in the process," a program leader wrote.
In 2003, Blasi wrote a letter to the Eagan and Hollywood families asking for forgiveness.
"The truth of what I had done began to eat at me, inside and out," he wrote.
He said he felt sorrow and regret. He spoke of himself a lot. He ended the letter by saying:
"I only ask for your forgiveness so that I can live the rest of my life with some degree of peace."
But, for this latest parole hearing, he went back to his story of Peanuts and denied committing the murders. Inmates do not attend parole hearings in person and meet with examiners beforehand. His latest interview was Sept. 13 at Cross City Correctional Institution west of Gainesville.
Blasi told the interviewer he wanted to become "the poster child for success."
"He would like to work with troubled teens on the outside," the report says, "urging them not to get involved in bad decisions that could ruin their lives."
The examiner recommended Blasi be transferred to a program that teaches inmates about re-entering society and becoming law abiding citizens.
After completing the program, the examiner wrote, Blasi would be "an excellent parole risk."
• • •
"When they say they are going to put him in that transitional program, that almost guarantees the next step is parole," Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney, told the family Wednesday morning as they waited in a tight, airless office for the hearing to start.
"We are not doing that," said Nadine Hollywood, 60, the eldest Hollywood child.
The Eagans and Hollywoods usually have about 12 people at every hearing. This year, because so many were trapped up north by Hurricane Sandy, there were only four: Pat Buckley, 59, from Palm Harbor, and Eagan's niece, Patricia DuBois, 50, who came to Florida before the storm from Pennsylvania. On the Hollywood side, there was just Nadine Hollywood and her husband, Joe Slomski, 64, who drove from North Port.
At past hearings, the family members were told to not worry, that Blasi was going to die in prison.
"I'm not as confident today as I have been in previous years," Buckley said.
"No," Bartlett said, "I'm not either."
• • •
There are three parole commissioners and they sit facing the room. The room fits a few dozen people, crowded together, praying, fidgeting, holding handwritten speeches. People wait years to be here, to plead for loved ones to be released, to plead for criminals to stay imprisoned. Each side gets 10 minutes. They sit at a table with two microphones, a timer and a box of tissues.
No family came for Blasi. A minister spoke for him.
"He is asking for forgiveness," said Isaac Williams, of Inspired By Love ministry. "He is asking for another opportunity to live on this side of the fence."
"It's just unbelievable that something like that, checking the wrong box, could cause us to be sitting here today," he said.
Buckley had never been able to speak before because he always sobbed. But somehow, this time, he found the strength.
"My name is Patrick Buckley," he said in a clear voice. "I am Bea Eagan's brother." He said Blasi doesn't deserve another chance.
"It would be a travesty and a horror if I had to leave here today and make phone calls and explain —" he stopped, his voice breaking — "to family members that he was going to be paroled."
The first commissioner recommended Blasi stay in prison.
"Yes, yes, yes," Hollywood whispered. Buckley grabbed tissues.
The second one concurred.
"And that is my vote as well," the third commissioner said.
They were told they didn't have to come back for the next parole hearing until 2019. They clapped and thanked the commissioners and quickly walked out of the room, out of the building, into the sun. It had been a cold morning.
Hollywood tilted her face up.
"I can't believe how nice it is out here today," she said.
"It's beautiful," Buckley said.
They hugged and said goodbye. In 2019, they said, they are bringing their children to carry on the fight, because they worry the one time no one comes is when he'll go free.
Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.