Investigation of slayings centers on the campsite
Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2006 at 10:42 p.m.
Investigators from at least six agencies converged early Tuesday at the site where Amber Peck's red GMC sport utility vehicle was found on Friday. Here, investigators get ready to ride ATVs to the crime scene.
The two Santa Fe Community College students who were shot to death in the Ocala National Forest last week didn't sign the log in a visitors center near Salt Springs on Jan. 3, the day they arrived for an overnight camping visit.
But Mary Barnes recalled on Tuesday that a week earlier she had talked to Amber Peck and John Parker in the Ocala National Forest's Salt Springs visitors center where she works. They had come in that Tuesday to pick up a few free forest maps and brochures, she said, shortly before they left for a remote campsite in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area several miles away.
"I told them, 'Y'all be careful, there's hunters out there. Be sure to wear bright colors,' " Barnes said late Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before investigators announced they had arrested a Largo man in connection with the killings. "I told them to have a good trail walk."
She said she remembers Peck and Parker because they told her they were from Gainesville and attended SFCC, and she used to live in Gainesville. When she saw the information-wanted flier with their photos that is posted on a window at the center, Barnes said, she was certain they were the people she had talked to.
"They were so young," she said.
Earlier Tuesday, investigators from at least six federal and state agencies converged at the site where Peck's red GMC sport utility vehicle was found on Friday. Agents from the FBI's Evidence Response Team were flown by helicopter from the small parking area to the site where the bodies were found.
Lt. Eric Rawls, commander of the Marion County Sheriff's Office's Forest District, said it takes about 90 minutes to two hours to hike from the parking area to the campsite, and about 20 minutes on all-terrain vehicles. Normally no motorized vehicles or equipment are allowed in the roughly 12,000-acre Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area, but Rawls said authorities received federal permission to operate ATVs there during the investigation.
Rawls said checkpoints were set up Monday at all the major intersections of the limerock roads that crisscross the forest. People were stopped, asked if they had any information on the case and given fliers - which offer a $5,000 reward. He said he didn't know if any leads resulted from the checkpoints.
On Tuesday, Rawls said, the investigation was being centered on the campsite.
An officer with the K-9 unit of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, however, said a dog had found some evidence away from the campsite. But it hadn't yet been analyzed, he said, so it was too early to know if the evidence was related to the murders.
News of the murders had spread through campsites across the forest before Tuesday night's announcement that a suspect was in custody. But some visitors said they didn't feel unsafe.
"A friend of ours from Gainesville e-mailed us and said to be careful down here," said Sharon Frank of Moline, Ill., who is camping with her husband, Dave Frank, at the Salt Springs Recreation Area.
"But I wouldn't say we're afraid," she said. "We'd be more concerned about the hunters. We asked someone if there were still hunters in the area, and they said you might want to wear something bright if you go for a walk."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or email@example.com
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