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Spot where couple died known for its seclusion

People go to the Juniper Prairie Wilderness area of the Ocala National Forest to get a break from modern-day life.

Published January 12, 2006

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
Kathy Ellis, left, and her husband Don look out Wednesday from their Juniper Springs campsite, about 4 miles from the murders.
From troubled boy to campers' killer?

OCALA - Amber Peck and John Parker died in the middle of nowhere.

Their bodies were found Saturday morning at a clearing in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness area of the Ocala National Forest.

The nearest park ranger station was more than 10 miles away. The Juniper Springs campground, which includes paved parking and nature trails, was more than 3 miles south.

Park officials say the area's isolation is exactly what draws visitors off the main roads, down the narrow sand paths and into the heart of the forest.

Juniper Prairie is one of four wilderness areas in the nearly 400,000-acre forest, a federal designation intended to ensure that the area stays in its natural state.

It's a place with soft sand paths lined with palm and pine trees that make the area perfect for hiking. Campers cannot drive vehicles onto the site, so they either pitch tents or sleep under the stars.

Even park employees are forbidden from using mechanical equipment on the site and must use hand tools for maintenance and upkeep.

"People love to hike, to camp and just spend time in those areas of the forest ... for a wilderness experience," District Ranger Jer Marr said.

Family members found Peck's red GMC Jimmy parked on the side of the road near the intersection of forest roads 65 and 76 - about 3.5 miles north of the two-lane state highway that runs through the forest.

The couple was found about 2.2 miles east, near the banks of Crooked Sapling Pond, said Marion County sheriff's Lt. Bill Sowder.

He said investigators roped off a 2-acre portion of the wilderness area for five days as they searched for evidence.

The Ocala National Forest is only 25 miles from the suburban sprawl of Ocala.

Within an hour's drive of about 8-million people living in urban areas such as Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville, the forest draws about 2-million visitors every year, including snowbirds, tourists taking breaks from Disney trips and local scouting groups.

"We won't camp in a private campground where you're right next to each other. ... That's too congested. It's not fun," said Kathy Ellis, 66.

She and her husband, Don, drive to Florida from Dowling, Mich., and park their RV at the Juniper Springs campground for at least five weeks every year. It's the perfect spot to see raccoons, deer, bear and armadillos, she said.

As he swam with several family members in the Juniper Springs on Wednesday afternoon, Thomas Rupert, 36, of Gainesville, said he regularly visits the forest to get away from the bustle of urban life.

"It's such an isolated and beautiful spot, you think it's so safe," he said.

[Last modified January 12, 2006, 01:25:23]

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