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Execution set for murder of wildlife officer

ST. PETERSBURG — Margaret “Peggy” Park thought she had found her dream job. Three years out of Ohio State University and just 26, she was working as a Florida wildlife officer patrolling the lush Brooker Creek nature preserve near Tampa.

Her life ended suddenly on Dec. 13, 1984, after she happened upon two teenagers in the woods with a stolen gun. One of them, Martin Edward Grossman, then 19, brutally beat Park with her flashlight and, prosecutors said, finished her off with a shot to the back of the head from her own gun. He was convicted of first-degree murder.

Grossman, after 24 years on death row, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. today at Florida State Prison near Starke.

“It’s long overdue,” said Margaret Park, the victim’s 79-year-old mother who lives in suburban Columbus, Ohio. “He had very good representation all the way through. I think he’s been treated very fairly by the state of Florida. I don’t take any pleasure in an execution, but it’s time.”

Park said she and her son and daughter plan to come to Florida to witness the execution, which they hope will lead to closure. Her husband died in 2000.

“Every time something has come up (in the case), it has been like a wave coming up and knocking you back down, and you go over all the emotions again,” she said. “We just need to have an end to this coming back and hitting us again.”

An animal lover who enjoyed camping with her family while growing in the Columbus suburb of Bexley, Peggy Park earned a degree in natural resources and wildlife management from Ohio State in 1981. She graduated from wildlife officer recruit school in 1982 and was assigned to Pinellas County, across the bay from Tampa.

Gary Morse, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman who worked closely with Peggy Park back then, remembers her as a “people person” who enjoyed helping him teach hunter education classes.

“Peggy was a dedicated officer, but she was really a sweetheart,” Morse said. “She really loved animals, particularly wildlife.”

Peggy Park “was the type of person who was everyone’s friend,” her mother said. “I don’t think she had a mean bone in her body.”

On the day she was killed, according to court records, Park came upon the two teenagers shooting the stolen handgun. Grossman, who lived in nearby New Port Richey and was on probation from a burglary conviction, begged Park not to turn him in. He had gotten out of prison back in the summer and didn’t want to return.

As she walked back to her vehicle to call in the information, Grossman — a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than the diminutive Park — attacked, hitting her 20 to 30 times with her heavy flashlight as she got in the car. She managed to get off an errant shot and disable the other attacking teen with a kick to the groin before Grossman wrested her gun away and shot her in the head.

Grossman and his accomplice, 17-year-old Thayne Taylor, were arrested two weeks later after they talked about it to a friend who went to police. Taylor subsequently confessed.

Grossman was convicted in October 1985, and the jury recommended the death penalty by a 12-0 vote. Taylor was convicted of third-degree murder and served nearly three years in prison before being released into a supervised program.

Rabbi Menachem Katz, who has counseled Grossman for more than a decade, said the inmate is “holding strong.”

“He’s praying three times a day,” Katz said. “He’s continuing on the path of repentance. (He) has a lot of remorse.”

Courts have rejected multiple appeals based on claims including ineffective assistance of counsel during the penalty phase, and diminished mental capacity. Katz said Grossman was young, drunk and on drugs when he committed the murder and doesn’t believe the facts of the case warrant the death penalty.

Gov. Charlie Crist signed the death warrant Jan. 12. The Florida Supreme Court rejected his latest appeal last week.

If he is put to death today, Grossman will be the 69th inmate executed by Florida since it resumed the death penalty in 1979. The state has killed 24 by lethal injection and 44 in the old electric chair.

As for Park, her body was cremated and the ashes scattered among the eagles’ nests she worked to protect. A nature trail is named in her memory at a Pinellas County park, and several years ago a memorial plaque was installed near the spot where she died.

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