Monday, December 11, 2017
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]

Comments

Police investigating explosion at bus terminal in New York

NEW YORK — The New York Police Department says it is responding to a report of an explosion near Times Square.The response is centered in the area of the Port Authority bus terminal.It’s led to delays along some of the subway lines that pass beneath ...
Updated: 2 minutes ago
Firefighters brace for second week of California wildfires

Firefighters brace for second week of California wildfires

LOS ANGELES — As Southern California enters its second week engulfed in flames, fire officials anticipate more growth and danger due to continued strong wind gusts, no rain and decades-old dry vegetation. A powerful flare-up on the western edge of th...
Updated: 1 hour ago

No injuries as fire destroys St. Petersburg home

ST. PETERSBURG — A fire destroyed a home in St. Petersburg on Sunday afternoon.St. Petersburg fire officials say the fire occurred some time before 3 p.m. at 1225 21st St. S.The homeowner discovered the fire and was able to escape safely, officials s...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Reasons elusive as Pinellas EMS demand skyrockets

Reasons elusive as Pinellas EMS demand skyrockets

When the fire chief asked if anyone in the room had fallen before, a few in the gray- and white-haired crowd raised their hands. One woman lost her footing as she was answering the phone. Another saw a palmetto bug, sprayed it with repellent, then s...
Updated: 2 hours ago
‘What I am detained for?’ Comedian Hannibal Buress arrested in Miami

‘What I am detained for?’ Comedian Hannibal Buress arrested in Miami

Popular comedian Hannibal Buress was arrested Saturday night in Wynwood on a disorderly intoxication charge after an encounter with a police officer.Buress, 34, was booked into a Miami-Dade jail at 1:57 a.m. Sunday and posted bail just before 6 a.m.,...
Published: 12/10/17
Florida Uber driver charged with sexual assault of passenger

Florida Uber driver charged with sexual assault of passenger

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A Florida Uber driver is facing charges that he sexually assaulted a drunken passenger.The Orlando Sentinel reports that 38-year-old Jorge Alberto Antunez Quintero was charged this week with sexual battery after an investigation ...
Published: 12/09/17
Florida man accused of killing Ollie the pit bull faces 17 counts of animal cruelty

Florida man accused of killing Ollie the pit bull faces 17 counts of animal cruelty

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The Florida man accused in the brutal stabbing death of a pit bull named Ollie is facing 17 counts of aggravated animal cruelty — one for each of 16 deep stab wounds and one for trapping the dog inside a suitcase.Prosecutors filed f...
Published: 12/09/17
Deputies: Friend didn’t pull trigger, still faces murder charge

Deputies: Friend didn’t pull trigger, still faces murder charge

TAMPA — A 23-year-old man faces a charge of felony murder in connection with a drug deal that left his friend dead, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.Daundrea Lamar Butler is not accused of taking part in the killing, however. He ...
Published: 12/08/17
Bill would punish car theft victims

Bill would punish car theft victims

Left your car running, and a teen stole it?Some state lawmakers think you should be criminally charged for that.Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, this week filed House Bill 927, which would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to leave your car un...
Published: 12/08/17

Hernando sheriff: 27 dogs seized in chains, with no water or shelter

BROOKSVILLE — Twenty-seven dogs were seized Thursday after the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said they were found tethered to heavy chains, without water or shelter.Deputies said they received several complaints about the dogs and ended up issuing...
Published: 12/08/17