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From troubled boy to campers' killer?

Leo Boatman was arrested for the first time at age 10. Today, the 19-year-old is accused of a double slaying in the Ocala National Forest.

Published January 12, 2006

[AP photo]
Leo Boatman of Largo appears in court Tuesday as Marion County Sheriff's Cpl. Carlos Rios, left, and Lt. Ron Burnett look on. Boatman was charged with the murder of two college students in the Ocala National Forest.
Graphic: Map and timeline of events
Spot where couple died known for its seclusion

LARGO - After his mother drowned in a river, after the arson and burglary charges, after running away from foster homes, Leo L. Boatman entered the juvenile justice system.

He was 12.

There he stayed until August when he returned to family to start over. He was 19.

Boatman moved in with his sister, then an uncle, neither of whom had seen him in several years. He landed a job at Hooters in Clearwater and enrolled at St. Petersburg College.

On Tuesday he was arrested on murder charges, accused of gunning down two campers in the Ocala National Forest.

"Just imagine going to sleep when you're 12 years old and waking up at 19. That's basically what happened to him," Vick Boatman said Wednesday of his nephew. "I can't picture him doing this. . . . But if he did, God help him."

Authorities say Boatman took a Greyhound bus from Largo to Marion County on Jan. 3. They say he hiked into a secluded area of the forest called Hidden Pond, found two college students, Amber Marie Peck and John Parker, and shot them to death with an AK-47 assault rifle.

He left the woods the next day, authorities say.

Detectives tracked Boatman to the Largo mobile home he shared with Vick Boatman, 38, and took him into custody early Tuesday. He appeared before a judge Wednesday after being taken to the Marion County Jail, facing two counts of first-degree murder.

"During the trip, he was concerned whether he was going to be fed upon arriving at the jail," said Marion County sheriff's Capt. Dennis Strow. "There's absolutely no remorse whatsoever."

Strow said Boatman, who has not cooperated with investigators, told a friend about the murders and said he wanted to become a "serial killer."

"There's nothing to indicate he killed other people, but we're not closing the book on anything yet," Strow said. "He was so cold and calculated."

* * *

On Jan. 3, Boatman boarded a bus to Ocala, carrying a blue nylon bag, authorities said. Inside was the AK-47, which belonged to Lucas Merryfield, a family friend who had left the gun with the Boatmans while he moved.

In Silver Springs, Boatman went to a Wal-Mart and bought $391 in camping gear before taking a taxi to a recreational area of the national forest. Investigators say they have recovered a surveillance video showing him at the store.

Peck and Parker, both 26-year-old students at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, traveled to the forest the same day, planning to camp overnight.

Boatman chose his victims at random, Strow said.

Boatman later recounted the crime to a friend, saying, "I wouldn't kill a bum because they would have nothing to lose . . . I went out there and came across two preppie kids and killed them," according to arrest reports.

He told the friend about their bodies, according to the reports. "I tried to sink them in the water and they wouldn't sink," he said.

The next day, motorist Joseph Tierney stopped to pick up Boatman, who was hitchhiking along State Road 40 about 2 miles from the crime scene, authorities said. Tierney dropped him off at the Holiday Inn in Silver Springs.

It wasn't until Saturday, several days later, that Tierney heard the news of the double murder in the forest. He called the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

Investigators went first to the Holiday Inn, but no one matching the suspect's description had stayed there.

A clerk at a less expensive motel nearby provided what they were looking for, a photocopy of Boatman's identification.

Boatman checked out of the hotel Jan. 5, authorities said, and took a taxi to a Greyhound bus station, bound for Clearwater.

There, officials say, he returned the AK-47 to Merryfield - along with a bag of ammunition.

* * *

Vick Boatman saw his nephew that day and asked where he had been. Boatman told him he had been staying in a motel.

Nothing in Boatman's demeanor suggested the crimes he is accused of, his uncle said.

"On the surface, he has been doing everything right," Vick Boatman said. "He has told us, "I want to be part of the family again.' "

His uncle said he has been in trouble since he was very young. Boatman's mother, Sheila, suffered from mental illness - including multiple personality disorder - and cycled through hospitals before drowning in 1996, he said.

Boatman's grandmother, Lucille, filled the role of his mother, but as he grew, she struggled to keep him under control, Vick Boatman said. Then she got cancer and Boatman ended up in foster homes.

Boatman was a frequent runaway and by age 10 had his first arrest when St. Petersburg police officers caught him and a friend on bicycles after midnight, records show. Boatman said they had stolen the bikes and candy bars from a convenience store. Boatman also said he took a pair of shoes from a Goodwill donation box.

From there, records show he graduated to more serious crimes:

In 1997, he was arrested by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on charges of arson and burglary.

In 1999, Boatman and a friend were arrested on New Year's Day after police found them at a St. Petersburg utility building whose interior had been trashed: computers overturned, ink spilled, a fire extinguisher discharged. According to a report, Boatman took police and pointed out places where he had set fires.

In 1999, he was arrested after escaping from San Antonio Boys Village, a residential treatment program in Pasco County. (He tried again the next year.)

In 2001, at a juvenile facility near Lake Okeechobee, he approached a staff member who was seven months pregnant and threatened to "make her have a miscarriage and kill her unborn baby." When the woman turned away from him, Boatman allegedly punched her in the back.

Vick Boatman said his nephew had shown a desire to stay out of trouble since his release in August. He began working at Hooters on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, alongside his uncle, and won a scholarship to go to school.

On Monday, he came home from his first day at St. Petersburg College, where he planned to study veterinary technology. He was excited, his uncle said.

"I'm really going to like college," Vick Boatman recalled him saying. "It's going to be a piece of cake."

Late that night, investigators knocked on the door. By morning, Boatman was in jail.

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Curtis Krueger, researcher Caryn Baird and staff photographer Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 15, 2006, 10:29:36]

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