Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

Thirty years later, memory of Winn-Dixie fire, Billy Ferry still vivid

PALM RIVER — They were strangers in that moment 30 years ago — a bag boy, a cashier, a young mother buying food.

On any other day, their gathering at that checkout counter in the Winn-Dixie store in Palm River would have been fleeting, the names of those with them long forgotten.

But what happened that drizzly evening — July 2, 1983 — is still well remembered by many longtime Tampa Bay residents.

It was the day a man named John William "Billy" Ferry Jr. — a drifter who lived in the woods near the Winn-Dixie — walked in carrying a bucket full of gasoline, doused customers and employees, and flicked a cigarette lighter.

For that, the 60-year-old schizophrenic remains in prison serving five life sentences — one for each person who died in the ensuing blaze.

They were: Leigh Anne Carter, 20, who was working the cash register at the checkout counter; Martha Jean Vance, 23, and her 4-year-old daughter, Jennifer Jean, who were buying food for dinner; Melody Darlington, 27, who was buying baby food; and Darlington's niece, Misty K. McCullough, 16.

Thirteen others suffered severe burns but survived.

Billy Ferry's actions that day have evolved over the years from a local crime story to a piece of Tampa Bay history.

Today, 30 years since they stood at that checkout counter, the survivors still remember that moment.

•••

Elis Pujols was 16 and working as a bag boy at the Winn-Dixie.

Over the years, he was perhaps the most outspoken of the survivors. He appeared many times on local TV shows, recounting how he felt the gasoline splash across his back and down his legs, how he turned around and saw Ferry kneeling down and giggling as he ignited the fireball.

"I think I'm done with Winn-Dixie," Pujols said recently. "The next time I'm on TV, I want to be on TV for something positive."

At the time of Ferry's trial, Pujols said in an interview that he supported the death penalty for the man who left him with burns over 20 percent of his body. But in the years that followed, his newfound Christian faith led him to forgive.

Now, after 30 years, Pujols says he wants to move on.

He stays active, working for the U.S. Postal Service. He and his wife have been married for 20 years. They have a son, who recently graduated high school, and a daughter not far behind.

Recently, his daughter was looking for a part-time job. She told him she applied at a local Winn-Dixie store. Pujols said he could only laugh.

"I don't want to be Elis Pujols, the victim," he said. "I'm just aiming to be better than I've been. I still go by my faith."

Belinda Roberts, who was buying food that night for her family's Fourth of July celebration, also gets by on faith. She, too, forgives Billy Ferry, though her legs and right arm still bear scars from the burns.

The scars are a constant reminder, she said. She spent six weeks in the hospital after it happened. Doctors told her family that she might have been the sixth death.

"I'm just grateful to be living," said Roberts, who still lives in Palm River. "I don't have any hate in my heart."

•••

It is a different story for Leigh Anne Carter's family.

"You never get over this, ever," her brother, David Carter, wrote in an email from his home in Georgia. "It's with you every day, every hour, every second."

Leigh Anne didn't want to go to work that day. She normally worked at a different Winn-Dixie but had been asked to fill in at the Palm River store. She told her family she was scared to work there — she said she thought she would die inside the store.

David Carter had argued with his sister earlier in the day. He said some things he regretted. He wanted to apologize but never got the chance.

"I'll never have that chance," he wrote, "until I see her in heaven someday."

"I got to the store that night with my father," he wrote. "We went back and forth with the sheriff's office and Winn-Dixie about Leigh Anne's whereabouts. They wouldn't tell us anything for six hours."

Later, at the hospital, a sheriff's deputy confirmed what they had dreaded.

Leigh-Anne is buried in a south Atlanta cemetery, alongside her father, Gene, who passed away in 2005. He died, David Carter said, of a broken heart.

•••

The storefront near Palm River Road and 78th Street is still there. A Save-A-Lot food store takes up part of the space that used to be the Winn-Dixie, but the rest remains vacant, boarded up, a sort of eerie monument to what happened.

As for Billy Ferry, the 60-year-old former drifter now resides at Union Correctional Institution. His family, who declined to be quoted for this story, said he has refused visitors for many years.

He still suffers from schizophrenia, a condition that his defense attorneys said led him to do what he did.

Over the years, he has racked up a multitude of disciplinary violations in prison, including assaults against corrections officers. He has never taken responsibility for what he did.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]

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