A troubled life brings questions
Published: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Leo Boatman was locked in juvenile detention when he was 12 and wasn't released until a month after his 19th birthday.
His uncle, who Leo considered his brother, Vick Boatman, said he knew Leo would either turn his life around or revert to his troubled ways. His greatest hopes and fears were both realized Monday.
It was Leo's first day of classes at St. Petersburg College, filled with the promise that he had left his past behind and was ready to pursue his dream of being a veterinarian.
It also was the day police arrived to question him about the murder of two Gainesville college students. Now Leo is charged with murdering John Parker and Amber Peck, both 26, who had been camping in Ocala National Forest when they were shot to death.
Police have painted Leo as a ruthless would-be serial killer, saying he traveled to the forest with the intention of randomly murdering people. But Vick Boatman, 38, paints a different picture, of a caring young man who seemed lost in the confusing world into which he was thrust last August.
"Just imagine going to sleep when you're 12 years old and waking up when you're 19," he said. "That's basically what happened to him."
Vick said the family had a history of mental illness and Leo had stopped taking a psychotropic medication he took in juvenile hall for an unknown condition. It's perhaps the best explanation he has about why Leo committed the murders, a proposition of which he has little doubt.
"From what I've seen, I have no choice but to believe he did it," he said.
But questions remain, like how a man Vick said got lost on his way to work a few miles down the road ended up the forest more than a hundred miles away. And he's still trying to piece together how a seemingly innocuous fight over Leo Boatman taking a friend's motorcycle could lead him to allegedly take the same man's gun with the intention to kill.
Jamie Coutcher's fiancé owned the AK-47 that police say Leo stole and used to kill Parker and Peck. She said the gun had no bullets when it was taken, but was returned six days later with more than two clips of ammunition. That combined with Leo's statements to her that he wanted "to see if I'm on the news" after his return and to a friend that he killed people in the forest lead her to believe he's guilty.
"He didn't care about anybody other than himself," she said.
But Vick Boatman said people need to understand that Leo's story involves a troubled family life interrupted by years of incarceration. Leo was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandmother, Vick said. Leo called Vick his brother, but Vick was actually his uncle.
Vick held court Wednesday outside the Largo mobile home where he lived with Leo, answering questions from a swarm of reporters. It was a familiar position for him: defending the adopted brother he always seemed to be picking up as a boy when he got into trouble at school.
"He was just a bad kid," Vick said. "He was like 'Home Alone' on drugs."
Leo's mother, Sheila, had multiple personality disorder and died in 1995 - a drifter who drowned while hitchhiking between Florida and Colorado, according to Vick. She had been mixing her medication with alcohol and apparently fell in the water, he said.
Her mother would inherit a child always in trouble, leading him to bounce between her home and foster care and back again. By age 8, he was facing criminal charges. The problems would escalate from fights to arson, until Leo was locked in a juvenile detention center when he was 12 and kept until after he was an adult.
His adopted mother was the only one to visit there, Vick said, but those visits stopped when she died after a long battle with cancer in March 2002. While Vick said Leo took the death hard, he continued to thrive in his education behind bars.
Vick laid out for reporters the certificates that Leo earned: one for most improved in an alternate education program at Palm Beach's juvenile detention center, another for completing a program to train service dogs. But the important one was his high school diploma, which Vick said Leo earned by getting straights A's at the Omega Juvenile Prison in Palmetto.
Vick said Leo was released in August to face a family that included members too young to remember him. He told Leo to take advantage of a fresh slate, but privately worried he would return to his troubled ways.
But Vick was pleasantly surprised when Leo joined him working in the kitchen at the original Hooters in Clearwater, then made plans to take classes together at St. Petersburg College.
"On the surface he was doing everything right," he said.
They moved in together in a trailer in the Keystone Mobile Home Park in Largo, hoping to save money and eventually get a better place. Vick would introduce him to a new group of friends, including Lucas Merryfield.
Merryfield had moved to Largo from northwestern Ohio several months ago, according to his fiancée, Jamie Counter, 19. She remained in Ohio with their now 3-year-old son, Logan, until the family finally reunited at their newly rented trailer in Largo on New Year's Eve.
Merryfield's parents came down for the move, and according to Vick, a worried Merryfield didn't want them seeing his 2006 Kawasaki motorcycle or an AK-47 assault rifle he owned for sport. He brought those items to Leo's trailer for safe keeping.
New Year's Eve also was a pivotal day for the Boatmans. Vick said he had worked a long day at Hooters and while he promised to go to a party with Leo, he wasn't feeling up to it when Leo awoke him from a nap at 10 p.m.
The next thing anyone knew, Leo had stormed off and was roaring into the night on Merryfield's motorcycle. Vick said he was incensed that Leo, who had never learned to drive, much less acquired his license, had taken the bike.
The two argued over the phone, but that didn't stop Leo from taking the bike again two days later. This time he crashed, causing damage that required the bike to be towed away but only caused him to get minor scrapes. Vick was even more infuriated, deciding he needed some time away from Leo rather than risk a major fight.
Little did he know that Leo would disappear for days himself, allegedly along with Merryfield's assault rifle.
According to police, Leo bought a Greyhound ticket the same night as the crash. He arrived in Ocala early Jan. 3, and video footage shows him buying $391 worth of camping equipment at a Wal-Mart there at 2 a.m. A cab company told police one of its drivers brought him to Juniper Springs Recreation Area from the store.
Later that same day, Parker and Peck left Gainesville for a planned overnight camping trip in the same area. Witnesses heard gunshots at noon the next day, according to police.
Joey Tierney, a Georgia resident visiting his mother in Lake County, said he picked up a hitchhiking Leo about 6 p.m. that same day. Tierney said Leo was carrying a large bag, telling him he had a rifle and knife. He would check into a hotel before returning to Clearwater the next day, police said.
"He came home Thursday like everything was fine," Vick said.
Peck's roommate reported her missing to police when she hadn't returned three days after expected, leading Peck's family members to track down the location of her camp site. The family found the bodies Saturday morning face down near Hidden Pond, off the Florida Trail.
With the help of Tierney, Marion County sheriff's detectives would track down Leo Boatman. They would finally interview him Monday, on the same day classes began at St. Petersburg College.
Vick said Leo was excited about classes and they were setting up a newly bought laptop to do their homework when detectives arrived. He couldn't believe what was happening when Leo was arrested for stealing the gun as a way of holding him for the murders.
Now Vick struggles to figure out why Leo might have committed a crime so random and heinous.
"I want to know why he would do something like this when he had everything going for him," he said.
He tries to put together the pieces of the mystery, but some don't fit. Leo liked fishing and reading hunting magazines, but Vick said Leo knew nothing of the Ocala National Forest. Leo allegedly told a friend that he didn't want to kill someone with nothing to lose and shot the first "preppy kids" he came across. But Vick said Leo himself dressed in designer clothes and most of their friends could be considered preppy.
A stack of videos Leo rented Sunday sits in a bag waiting to be returned. Some titles seem lurid for a man accused of being a would-be serial killer, including "Silence of the Lambs" and "Cape Fear."
But Vick said Leo was merely trying to catch up on films he missed while in detention. He pointed to another film as more significant: "Robinson Crusoe." Leo was a voracious reader in detention and loved the story about a man shipwrecked on a deserted island.
"They can teach you that when you're locked up," he said. "They just can't teach life skills."
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@ gvillesun.com.
history with the law
Leo Boatman had a history of prior run-ins with law enforcement as early as 1997, when he would have turned 11.
The Largo resident, according to records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, was listed as a "serious or habitual juvenile offender."
Charges when Boatman was a juvenile include arson, theft, burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, escape, battery of a detention staff member, aggravated battery, assault and indecent exposure.
A relative said Boatman had been housed in juvenile facilities starting when he was 12 and dating until a month after his 19th birthday.
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