Thursday, June 21, 2018
Public safety

Execution nears for killer of Pinellas girl, possibly linked to more deaths

PALM HARBOR — No one doubts what Larry Eugene Mann did the morning of Nov. 4, 1980.

It has been well established, through forensic evidence, witness statements and Mann's own words — that he abducted 10-year-old Elisa Nelson as she rode her bicycle to school that Tuesday morning 32 years ago.

Mann has never claimed he didn't snatch the blond-haired fifth-grader off a Palm Harbor street. He has never denied taking her to the orange grove where she was killed.

Still, years of legal wrangling has prolonged the dreadful story of one of the worst crimes in Pinellas County history. This week, the final chapter might finally be written.

Barring a successful last-minute appeal, Mann will be strapped to a gurney at 6 p.m. Wednesday inside Florida State Prison and injected with a lethal cocktail of chemicals.

It will mean justice for Elisa's family. But when the 59-year-old former well-driller draws his final breath, he may take with him knowledge of other murders that remain unsolved.

Two states and more than 500 miles away from the place where Elisa died, authorities in south Mississippi have scoured old case files in recent years, trying to link Mann to three of the area's cold cases from the 1970s.

A Mississippi native, Mann lived in Pascagoula in that decade. Despite remarkable similarities to Elisa's case, authorities have never been able to say for certain that he committed any of the murders.

"I just can't fathom that he had never done that before," said Pascagoula police Detective Darren Versiga. "Are there things he got away with? Absolutely."

• • •

On Feb. 1, 1973, Rose Marie Levandoski vanished after she left class to use a restroom at St. Martin Junior High School in southern Mississippi. Three weeks later, authorities found the 13-year-old's nude body floating in a river near Biloxi. She had been stabbed to death.

In October of that year, Larry Mann forced his way into an apartment on Lanier Street in Pascagoula, where a woman was babysitting a 1-year-old boy, according to police. He grabbed the woman by the hair and forced her to her knees.

If you don't give me what I want, Mann told the woman, I will take it from the baby.

He forced her to commit a sex act on him. Police later caught up with Mann. He was convicted of sexual battery and burglary and sentenced to prison.

Two years later, Mann was living in a work-release camp, which allowed him limited access to the outside world while he served his sentence.

On Sept. 24, 1975, Janie Sanders disappeared after walking home with classmates along Lanier Street in Pascagoula. A wildlife officer found the 16-year-old's body the same day, dumped in the woods near Grand Bay, Ala. She had been raped and stabbed.

Even with numerous leads and a handful of other suspects, the Levandoski and Sanders cases both eventually went cold.

In 2009, Pascagoula police, who investigated the Sanders kidnapping, began to re-examine their unsolved cases. Detective Versiga looked for patterns of predatory behavior.

He noted the obvious similarities with the Sanders and Levandoski slayings and the December 1978 murder of 20-year-old Debra Gunter, who was kidnapped from her job as a clerk at a Gautier, Miss., convenience store and found stabbed to death five days later.

He learned of Mann and studied the Nelson case.

"He is a predator," Versiga said. "Predators don't just wake up during the night and say, 'I think I'm going to go kill somebody today.' "

Mann once lived on Lanier Street in Pascagoula, Versiga said, where Sanders was last seen, and where he attacked the woman in the 1973 rape case.

Despite exhaustive efforts, the detective was unable to determine if Mann was indeed involved in the other cases.

"I have looked at him and I can't say he didn't do it," Versiga said. "He was in jail in '81 and a lot of things stopped after that."

• • •

In his years on death row, Mann has maintained he is no longer the violent sexual predator he was three decades ago.

After Gov. Rick Scott signed his death warrant March 1, Mann's legal team filed a lengthy appeal with the state Supreme Court. In it, the attorneys noted Mann's spotless prison record, his status as a revered figure among prison guards and fellow inmates, and his in-depth studies of the Bible.

They noted remorse he has expressed for killing Elisa, an act he once described as "the cross on which I am crucified daily."

That is little consolation for Elisa's family, who have called for the death penalty since the day he was charged with her murder. For 32 years, they have watched and waited and hoped as Mann's first execution date was stayed, as his death sentence was twice vacated and reinstated.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Elisa's mother, Wendy Nelson, was involved in victim advocacy issues, forming the League of Victims and Empathizers (LOVE). In 1994, she appeared in a campaign advertisement for Jeb Bush during his first run for governor. In the ad, Nelson accused then-Gov. Lawton Chiles of being soft on crime for not signing Mann's death warrant.

This month, the state Supreme Court denied Mann's last appeal. The Nelson family has declined to speak publicly since the latest death warrant was signed.

"What we're pushing for is to have the law enforced," Wendy Nelson told a reporter in 1982. "Maybe there will be a little girl alive 10 years from now because of this."

Florida authorities have a sample of Mann's DNA in a database, making links to other crimes possible. Still, answers in the Mississippi cases may never be known. Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the records and evidence there in 2005, Versiga said.

"It would be nice if he decided to give a confession in the last few days here," he said. "He might want to cleanse his soul."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]

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