The Crossover Killer: Excerpt from “Raised by the Courts”

Print More

Yesterday, Youth Today printed the first half of our interview with Irene Sullivan, a former Florida juvenile judge and author of the recently released Raised by the Courts. Sullivan’s book deftly matches narrative with research and analysis of what she believes works, and doesn’t, in juvenile justice today.

One of the most compelling parts of her book is Chapter Three, entitled “Crossover Killer.” In it, Sullivan tells the story of Leo Boatman, a young man who entered the foster care system early and had been sentenced to life without parole for a double murder he committed at age 19, the same year he was release from a juvenile prison after five years. 

Tomorrow, we will run the second half of our interview with Sullivan, in which she discusses some of the lessons she learned from Boatman’s case. Today, she and Kaplan Publishing have generously allowed Youth Today to publish “Crossover Killer” in its entirety.

To order a copy of Raised by the Courts, click here. Kaplan offers a significant discount for schools or organizations who wish to place bulk orders. 

***

Crossover Killer

Maybe Amber and John would have married and had children together.
Maybe they would have just stayed friends, hanging out, attending each other’s weddings. They certainly had a lot in common. They loved the outdoors, camping, hiking, exploring the wilderness, and animals. They were both twenty-six years old, community college students in Gainesville, Florida, who worked part-time jobs and had close families and big dreams. Amber Peck wanted to be a veterinarian. She’d just been awarded a grant to study zoo conservation in Australia. John Parker served two tours of duty in Afghanistan as a marine and had returned home eager to be a real dad to his eight-year-old daughter, who adored him.

On January 3, 2006, Amber and John camped overnight in the Ocala National Forest, central Florida’s wonderland of huge springs, winding streams, scenic lakes, and lush foliage. They parked Amber’s red Jeep in public parking and hiked a few miles to the park’s remote and pristine Juniper Forest section, where they made camp on a hillside overlooking Hidden Pond. Vehicles and machines were barred from the Juniper section of the forest. Even park employees used hand tools to maintain the soft, sandy hiking paths, pines, and palm trees. John knew the forest like it was his backyard, according to his mother, Vicky Parker, and he was eager to share its quiet beauty with Amber. They told their families they would return the next day, as they were both very busy with work and school. No one reported seeing them that night, but perhaps Amber and John saw raccoons, deer, armadillos, or even a bear. On that same day, Leo Boatman’s future looked pretty promising, too. At nineteen, he’d recently been released from Omega Juvenile Prison, a maximum-risk facility. While there, he’d obtained his high-school diploma. He’d moved with his Uncle Vic into a mobile home in Largo, Florida. For the first time in years, he was living with family. He worked at a Hooters restaurant and had also lined up a part-time job at a bakery. In two days, he would begin community college. Boatman told his uncle that he wanted to stay out of trouble and be part of the family again. He told his friends that he was looking forward to college and wanted to become a veterinary technician.

Boatman had aged out of foster care while in Omega. The state had recently initiated a program to provide financial support to foster kids aging out of care, especially those attending college. So the state sent him $800 a month to help with rent and tuition. Boatman’s simultaneous involvement with two state agencies, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families, meant that he was a “crossover kid.”

Boatman boarded a bus in Clearwater to take him to Silver Springs, in the Ocala National Forest. He bought some camping equipment and stuffed it into a travel bag. He carried an AK-47 assault rifle he’d stolen from his Uncle Vic, who’d been keeping it for a friend. He began hiking to Hidden Pond.

Three days later, after an exhaustive search, Amber’s father and brother-in-law found Amber and John shot to death, their bodies partially hidden in the bushes and banks of Hidden Pond.

After the shooting, Boatman had hitchhiked to a Holiday Inn, then taken a bus home to Largo the next day. He returned the rifle to its place, along with the remaining ammunition. He bought a pellet gun and put it in a blue nylon bag with his camping equipment. He attended his first day at St. Petersburg College before he was arrested for the slayings that evening at home while doing his homework. The tip came from Joey Tierney, a twenty-year-old visitor who’d remembered picking up a hitchhiker in the woods a day after the shooting. His passenger had told him that he’d been living in the forest for a few days but wanted a motel. Tierney knew the area well and wasn’t surprised, even when Boatman told him that he had a hunting knife and rifle. Boatman didn’t hide his identity from Tierney or the motel clerk. Tierney later collected the $5,000 reward and said he was through picking up hitchhikers.

Hotel records, store receipts, interviews, and ballistics tests tied Boatman to the scene. Police matched a slug fired from the rifle with a bullet recovered from one of the victims. They proved that the AK-47 was the murder weapon. Boatman’s friend Briana Ryan told authorities that he had confessed to her, saying, “I went out in the woods and killed someone.” When she asked whether he had killed a homeless person, he replied, “I wouldn’t kill a bum, because they would have nothing to lose. I killed two preppies.” In the videotaped confession Boatman made to detectives, he said, “I used to think stuff like that was appalling, you know…I’m not saying like I don’t care emotional-wise or I don’t have emotions or whatnot. I’m just saying I don’t feel them like I should.”?1

Boatman’s public defenders negotiated a life sentence without parole to avoid the death penalty. The families of Amber and John agreed, as it would spare them the heartache of having to hear the details of the crime. At the sentencing before Circuit Judge Willard Pope, on July 30, 2007, Boatman appeared emotionless, head down. “I can’t offer an explanation, because there is none…I’m sorry,” he said. John’s mother, Vicky Parker, called the murders senseless and described her family’s horrible, vivid memories of discovering the bodies. “Only one person in this courtroom knows the truth,” she said, “and he, I hope, will spend the rest of his life wondering was it worth it.”?2

Amber’s father, David Peck, read a poem his daughter had written about looking forward to her move to Australia for college. Then he spoke for the young woman, recalling the murders. “You are such a coward. You hid in the bushes and waited for me and Johnny to approach you, then came up to me as I was crying and screaming for you to let me live…Though I only had a flesh wound, you came up to me and put the rifle to my head and pulled the trigger to silence me forever…[but] you didn’t silence my dreams…they will continue to be heard long and loud. I will not be silenced.” Glenda Peck told the judge her daughter wouldn’t have wanted Boatman put to death.

I decided to correspond with Leo Boatman because I wanted something from him: I wanted to know what he was thinking when he stole the gun and boarded the bus. I wanted to know what he was thinking when he first spotted Amber and John, when he aimed the rifle, and when he fired the fatal shots. I wanted to know because every day in court I see crossover kids living in chaos, locked up in juvenile programs, bouncing among foster homes, lacking positive reinforcements, family, and true friends. I see their empty eyes, I hear their flat voices, and I sense their hopelessness, mistrust, and lack of empathy for others. We—citizens and taxpayers—are the surrogate parents of these children. How many of them will end up in prison? How often are we raising murderers?

I wrote to him at the Cross City Correctional Institution. His speedy reply surprised me. It was neat and well written.

Your letter came at a good time and was well received. Normally I would ignore such a letter, as I usually do, but recent events have caused me to do some deep thinking. Let me explain that before I respond to your letter.

Anybody with life in prison is always looking for some way out. I began to question if I had made the right decisions legally, and so I was thinking of filing a 3.850 [ineffective representation of counsel]. But my lawyers came out to see me and convinced me that my decision was best for me and gave closure to the victims’ families. That’s when I began to think of some other way to continue my life. As it was, my life felt like it was serving no purpose.?… Anyways, to make a long story short, I came to a lot of conclusions. I now have the goal of trying to use my past, my knowledge of foster care and the juvenile justice system, to help others, maybe prevent kids from going through some of the things I went through. I even began dreaming of having certain foster homes shut down.

I say all this not because I feel sorry for myself or want a pity party thrown. Instead I want to draw attention to the flaws in our system.3

When Boatman mailed the letter, he must have called the only person in the world he believes cares for him, Steve Shick, telling him about my inquiries. Steve drove an hour in a heavy rainstorm to the courthouse to talk to me. When Boatman was ten, a juvenile judge had appointed Steve to be his advocate in court, officially called guardian ad litem. The relationship grew, and Steve, single and childless in his fifties, wanted to adopt Leo, but, he said, the state stopped the adoption process when Boatman kept breaking the law and running away from foster care.

“I still consider myself his father,” Steve said to me, blaming the child welfare and juvenile justice systems for treating Boatman unfairly. Steve provided a list of eight “significant events” in Boatman’s life that he claimed led to the tragedy at Hidden Pond:

1. He was abandoned by his mother, who had mental health problems and who later drowned. He entered state care at age four and was adopted by his maternal grandmother. He never knew his father.

2. He was abused mentally and emotionally by his grandmother and sister, Rosie, who was the grandmother’s favorite child. He was called “stupid” at every opportunity.

3. When he was ten, his grandmother gave him back to the state of Florida as a failed adoption, but the state allowed visitation between them anyway because he wanted it.

4. He lived in a series of foster homes, some of them abusive, and he became a chronic runaway.

5. Between the ages of nine and nineteen, he was consistently locked up in juvenile justice facilities.

6. His child welfare caseworker seemed eager to classify everything he did as a felony and wanted him locked up. The caseworker seemed eager to have him committed as an adult.

7. He wanted to be adopted by Steve but still ran from his care at age thirteen and spent the rest of his youth in juvenile prisons.

8. When Boatman was released at age nineteen, Steve offered help, but Boatman told him to “get out of my life.”

Steve said that he still loves Boatman. He remembers a spunky, bright twelve-year-old with a horrendous background and a need to test boundaries. He remembers a foster child who complained again and again of severe abuse at the hands of foster parents, to no avail. He remembers a delinquent youth who was never given the opportunity of probation but locked away instead. Steve cried as he described to me the horror of reading the newspaper headlines of Boatman’s arrest and confession. He has never asked him why he killed Amber and John. They’ve never spoken of it. That’s what I still wanted to know.

Warden Claude Henderson and his assistant warden, Erich Hummel, welcomed me to the Charlotte Correctional Institution, the maximum-risk state prison in Punta Gorda that Boatman was moved to after he was accused of attacking another prisoner at Cross City. They provided a brief tour of the facility. They’d placed Boatman in the tightest level of “close management”: a quad consisting of single cells, approximately ten by twelve feet, where prisoners lived at all times except for a weekly shower and biweekly exercise in a chain-link-fenced “dog run” adjacent to the cells. Meal trays were delivered through a slot in the door. These inmates had no access to TV or the prison library; however, they could order two books a week from the librarian.

Assistant Warden Hummel gave me an alarm device to wear on my belt and escorted me through security to a large visitor’s room. After I sat down on a folding chair facing an opening in the wall, two guards brought Boatman into a small boxed cage. A grey mesh screen and heavy crisscrossed steel bars in the opening separated our faces. Physical contact, even by fingernail, would have been impossible. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the screening, and I could make out his face, a thinner version of the young man I’d seen in the newspaper clippings.

We talked for an hour about prison life, and his desire to get into “open population” and perhaps transfer to a prison where he could take some college courses. We liked the same mystery writers—Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Lee Child—and he told me he was angry with himself for staying up all night to finish one of the two books he got that week. “I’m so bored,” he said, adding that it was difficult to face life without parole. He said that talk of prison rape was “highly exaggerated,” as there are “so many gay guys in prison that, once you get into open pop, the sex is consensual,” called “rocking you to sleep.”

His voice grew hard, and he spat out hatred for an abusive foster father he had lived with during adolescence. The man would discipline the boys by making them “do ten thousand jumping jacks next to him,” while he sat watching TV and drinking beer. “No,” Boatman said. “You never finished the ten thousand—that was the point.” He said most of the foster boys ran away, then went into detention and eventually prison. “They made you sit naked on a towel to keep you from running away.” He claimed that the few gifts he received from family, like headphones, were taken from him. He spoke of sexual abuse by an older male relative of the foster dad. He claimed he saw his caseworker only when he was taken to court.

Sure enough, my research confirmed that the foster parents Boatman named were licensed as therapeutic foster parents; however, their home was closed in June 2004 when Boatman was in a juvenile prison. There were verified abuse reports of bizarre punishment, failure to protect, inadequate supervision, beatings, excessive corporal punishment, mental injury, and inappropriate and excessive isolation.

Bad as this was, Boatman saved his most bitter words for the five years he had spent at Omega, the juvenile prison in Bradenton, Florida, which has since been closed.

“I was the longest-serving boy in Omega, from age fourteen to nineteen,” he said. “It was scared-straight shock. The guards made the difference. It went from strict discipline, like it was supposed to be, to guards who would pounce, yell, slam you into walls. I was taunted by guards who read my medical records and who would shout personal things, like ‘No one wants you anymore.’

“We slept in separate cells on concrete bunks. The guards enjoyed the abuse. They beat the crap out of you for talking, wrote you up for minor infractions like not raising your hand in class or moving your eyes in detention.

“One guard made like he was pointing a gun at my head, and said, ‘If I had a choice—pop!’ But one guy, he was a good guard. He would talk to you.”

Boatman said that his only visitor during those years was his grandmother. “We were starting to get to a better relationship. Then she died, and they didn’t tell me for a while.

“When I was fifteen, I spent two months in solitary confinement. I snapped. You can’t do that to a boy unless you want to make an animal.” I had read Boatman’s delinquency record, an escalating list of assaults and batteries that seemed to grow more violent. Most occurred in juvenile programs, with other boys or guards.

Boatman’s sister, Rosie, didn’t show up to get him when he was released from Omega, so the chaplain drove him to her Clearwater apartment. She didn’t answer the door or the phone. The chaplain left him there with a $20 bill, and hours later Rosie opened the door. She told Boatman that she’d been arrested again—her third time for driving with a suspended license—and asked him for a loan to hire a lawyer. A few weeks later, he signed over his first checks from the state to Rosie.

Boatman then moved into a trailer with his Uncle Vic, who’d recently been released from jail. “It was a little tin can,” he said of his new home, but he had a job at Hooters and an eye on a real apartment for the two of them. He’d received some vouchers for new clothing. He enrolled in college. He said he was “excited” about his life at this time. Then he found a motorcycle that he wanted, put a down payment on it, but crashed it before Uncle Vic gave him the lessons he’d promised. “He was gay, had a boyfriend in Fort Meyers, and was never home to teach me. He also took my rent money.”

Suddenly Boatman felt saddled with debt and victimized by relatives. He relived his complicated Omega feelings. “I wanted a paramilitary life; I wanted to take care of myself alone in the wilderness. I also thought about hurting someone; what it would be like.” Opportunity arose when Vic’s friend, living nearby in his trailer, asked Vic to keep his AK-47 rifle while his parents were visiting, as he had a three-year-old daughter, and his parents would be angry if they saw the rifle in the trailer. “I wanted to buy it,” Boatman said, “but I didn’t have the money. I’d never seen a gun like that before. I’d never shot a gun.”

Boatman startled me by becoming agitated when we began to talk about the murders. He paced the little box and then sat down, narrating a straightforward, factual, and chilling tale. “It took me two hours to hike in to Hidden Pond,” he recalled. “I was climbing a hill when I saw a guy and girl taking down their tent. He was real nice, asking me where I was going. I told him I was hiking further in, and he gave me some good directions. I watched them carry some of their camp things downhill. I sat on the hillside, thinking I would take their campsite once they left it. Then I took the rifle out and watched them walk back up to get the rest of their stuff. I raised the rifle and aimed it at the guy, and then I thought, What if they should see me pointing a gun at them? I’d read James Patterson books, and I knew the difference a second could make. So I shot him. He fell to the ground. She screamed, and I shot her.”

And then he walked down the hill, put the gun to her head and shot her again.

To print this chapter, click here.

Tomorrow: Part Two of our interview with Judge Sullivan