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Crime & Courts

Pain of '83 Winn-Dixie firebombing lingers for family


Published:   |   Updated: July 2, 2013 at 08:37 AM

TAMPA - Thirty years ago, a mentally ill man walked into a Winn-Dixie store in Clair-Mel. He was carrying a large can of gasoline.

John William "Billy'' Ferry Jr. showered several checkout lines with fuel and struck a match. The store exploded in fire. Dozens of people were injured; five died, including a 4-year-old girl and her mother.

It was, and remains, one of Tampa Bay's deadliest crimes.

Nita Carter can't forget July 2, 1983. But what she remembers most isn't the sight of the burned store or the moment she found out her daughter Leigh Anne Carter would never come home. It's of her 20-year-old daughter waving goodbye from the sidewalk.

"I'll always remember that," said Nita Carter, now 76 and living in Sharpsburg, Ga. "It was horrible that day. It's still horrible."

She remembers other things: Like how much she still hates the man who murdered her daughter. And how much she still wants him to suffer.

Leigh Anne Carter didn't want to go to work that day. She had been attending Hillsborough Community College and working at a Winn-Dixie in Brandon. On that day, she was scheduled to help fill a spot at the Winn-Dixie at Palm River Road and 78th Street in Clair-Mel.

She had never worked at that store but had a bad feeling about it. She told her parents she didn't want to go. Like any parent would, they said she should fulfill her responsibility.

"I told her, 'You'll be OK,'" said Nita Carter.

The mom drove her daughter to the store. Her daughter stood at the curb and waved goodbye.

At about 8 p.m., Ferry walked into the store with the gasoline.

In addition to Leigh Anne Carter, those killed were Melody Darlington, who was 27 and in Carter's checkout line buying baby food for her 6-month-old son; Misty McCullough, who was 16 and Darlington's niece who had just completed her junior year at Hillsborough High School; Jennifer Vance, who was 4 and had accompanied her mother to the Winn-Dixie store; and Martha Vance, who was 23 years old and had told her 2-year-old daughter, Melanie, to stay home with her father.

Dozens of others were burned and injured and treated at hospitals.

That was three decades ago, but Nita Carter can't move past that night.

"It never goes away," Nita Carter said. "It's like it happened yesterday. It's always there."

For 17 years, until they moved to Georgia in 2000, Nita Carter and her husband, Gene, kept their daughter's room at their Brandon home the way she left it.

"My husband wanted it and I agreed," said Nita Carter, who said she many times had visions of her daughter coming out of her room. "It was something that made her closer to us."

Today, Nita Carter keeps a photo of her daughter in the living room of her Georgia home. On special occasions -- Leigh Anne Carter's birthday, Christmas, Easter and the anniversary of the firebomb -- she visits the cemetery in Red Oak, Ga., to place flowers on her daughter's grave.

But the rituals and visits to the psychologist don't ease the melancholy that grips her.

After retiring from the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in 1999, where she worked in the medical laboratory, Nita and her husband moved to Georgia, where their son had moved years before.

Gene Carter died in 2005, still deeply wounded by his daughter's death.

"You would catch him crying," Nita Carter said. "You knew what he was crying about, so I didn't even ask."

Nita Carter has never been able to get over the pain. After her daughter's death, she prayed she would never have grandchildren - she didn't want them enduring life's pain. Her son never had children.

She also prayed that Ferry, who is now 60 and serving a life prison sentence in the Florida prison system, would suffer. She prayed his son would, too.

"This really changed me when she died," Nita Carter said.

David Carter is Nita Carter's son, the brother of Leigh Anne Carter. Like his mother, he carries the emotional scars from that night, but he's trying to come to grips with the pain, maybe even move past it.

He's posted videos and news report on YouTube about the firebombing. He still sees a psychiatrist. And he knows he isn't the same person before his sister died, he said.

Every July 2, he plays "Sail the Summer Winds" at 8:05 p.m. for his sister and the four other victims. He heard the song on the first anniversary of the tragedy and felt it helped express his emotions, he said.

"After 30 years, it's not in your face, but it's right next to you," David Carter said. "You can feel the pain, the anger. I don't dwell on it I don't let it control me."

A few years after the fire, he wrote a letter to Ferry. He said he learned through his Christian faith to forgive others and to love his enemies.

He didn't expect a reply and he didn't get one, he said.

"I feel some sense of relief," said David Carter, 46. "I never thought I would say anything to him. I've tried to look at it constructively."

David Carter said his sister, as she did to her parents, described a premonition to him about the Winn-Dixie store in Clair-Mel, which is no longer there. A few weeks before the fire, they had gone with friends bowling near the Winn-Dixie store.

From a distance, she stood in the bowling alley parking lot and looked at the store. She told them that something would happen to her there. That she would die, David Carter said.

He described Leigh Anne Carter as joyful. She dreamed of being a school teacher to help children, he said.

He tries not to dwell on what happened, but his idealism is forever shattered, he said.

"It has changed the way I see life," David Carter said. "You can try to be the perfect person and love everybody, but it won't keep you from being a victim. Leigh Anne was a victim but didn't deserve to be."

jpatino@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7659

Twitter: @jpatinoTBO

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