Leo Boatman ambushed college students John Parker and Amber Peck with a high-powered rifle in Ocala National Forest last year.
He fired about 10 times, killing Peck with a shot to the head to stop her from screaming. Then he tried to submerge both 26-year-olds in a pond, where Parker's father and sister found them a few days later while helping search.
Despite all that, the victims' families agreed to spare Boatman's life Monday.
Boatman, a 21-year-old Largo resident, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in Marion County Circuit Court in Ocala. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
With a trial looming, prosecutors were ready to seek the death penalty, but the victims' families wanted to end the case.
In part, they did not want to suffer through a trial and another retelling of the grisly details, some of which were made public for the first time Monday with the release of Boatman's confession.
"He probably would never have been executed in our lifetime," said John Parker's mother, Vicky Parker, who lives in Interlachen in Putnam County.
Amber Peck's parents said their daughter might not have wanted Boatman executed. Peck, who came from Michigan to Florida a few years ago to become a zoologist, was an animal lover without a mean bone in her body, they said.
"I'm not sure that she would have agreed to us taking his life even if he took hers," said Glenda Peck, who is staying temporarily in Silver Springs with her husband. "She was that sensitive to life."
'Spur of the moment'
In January 2006, Boatman boarded a bus from Clearwater to the Ocala National Forest, taking an AK-47 detectives say he stole from a family friend. After a stop in Juniper Springs, Boatman spent three days in the forest.
In the confession, Boatman said he came across the two students from Santa Fe Community College camping near Hidden Pond. He and the students exchanged heys.
A few minutes later, Boatman fired from 30 yards away as the students walked through the vegetation. He told investigators he got closer and fired the last of about 10 shots at close range.
He wanted to stop Peck from screaming, he said. He also was afraid the two students would get up after they were on the ground and attack him.
He told detectives that the shooting "was a spur of the moment" act.
"That's the only thing that, you know, bothered me about the whole thing," he said.
"What went through your mind to make you shoot these people?" a sheriff's investigator asked him.
"I have my little fantasy world and whatnot," Boatman said. "I've read lots of books, you know, and then I probably got onto, like, the murder mysteries. ... They kind of got me into that state of mind."
Boatman said he wanted to turn himself in immediately after the shooting. He checked John Parker's driver's license because he wanted to know who he was. Then he partly submerged both bodies in the pond.
That's where John Parker's father, his younger sister, a cousin and brother-in-law found the bodies as they helped in the search.
The family knew where to look because they knew Parker loved that forest.
"How does a father forget seeing his firstborn son lying dead in the water?" Vicky Parker said in court. "What does a sister feel seeing her brother lying there dead?"
The families said they also wanted to avoid a trial to keep from casting the spotlight on Boatman. Instead, 20 family members and friends who attended the hourlong hearing talked about the victims.
John Parker was an ex-Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan, his parents said. He was studying forestry at the community college and aimed to transfer to the University of Florida. He was looking forward to an internship in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. He left behind a 9-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Gainesville.
Amber's mother said her daughter had been an animal lover since she was a child. She cried at the zoo because animals were in cages.
Before his sentencing, Boatman also spoke.
"I can't offer an explanation because there is none," he told Circuit Judge Willard Pope.
"He expressed in open court his remorse," said Bill Miller, chief assistant public defender. "He was certainly struck emotionally by the statements of the victims' families."
Boatman was abused by his mother, who drowned when Boatman was 9, Miller said. He spent his youth in foster homes and juvenile facilities.
"He had an absolutely horrific life," Miller said. "No one is making an excuse. It's an enormous offense. He accepted an enormous penalty. Thankfully, it was not the ultimate penalty."
State Attorney Brad King said his office was confident it could obtain death for Boatman, but the families wanted a quicker resolution.
"When a family is faced with that dilemma, if I can oblige their wishes ... I try to do that," said King, whose jurisdiction includes Marion County. "While we did give up the death penalty, he will be in prison for the rest of his life."
Glenda Peck said she struggled with the life or death decision.
"I really had a hard time," Peck said. "I feel like I'm cheating my daughter. But my husband is the one who said she would not have wanted to kill him."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jose Cardenas can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4224.