PALM HARBOR — Staying up late at a slumber party singing the lyrics from “Grease,” roller-skating with friends, dreaming about owning a jet black horse — these were some of the things that filled Elisa Nelson’s 10-year-old life.
Classmates remember her as adventurous and fearless, and there seemed to be a lot less to fear in this small town of orange groves and dirt roads before Nov. 4, 1980, when everything here changed.
“Kids were out all day, every day and the only rule was you had to be home by dark; but other than that your moms didn’t want you in the house,” former classmate Maia Snitkin recalled.
Elisa was only 200 feet from Palm Harbor Middle School when a man ran her bicycle over, threw it in a creek and took her away in his pickup truck to an orange grove, where she was killed.
“A lot of times they say kids grow up thinking nothing can happen to them. For me, I felt like anything and everything was going to happen to me. It completely changed that mindset,” said Andrea Brotherly, whose family left Palm Harbor after Elisa’s death.
Droves of family members, friends, sheriff’s deputies and others packed the Palm Harbor Middle School library Saturday to memorialize Elisa more than 30 years later, a strong testament to the lingering impact of her life and death in a tightknit community.
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A year after the execution of her killer in April 2013, the school dedicated a reading nook in the library in Elisa’s honor with a mural in the center that colorfully depicts the bright spots in her short life: Girl Scout troop 712, a scruffy street dog she dubbed “Pretty,” ballet shoes and books.
In the past year, Elisa’s family had contacted the school looking for a small plaque displayed in the old library before the new middle school went up in 1983 at 1800 Tampa Road.
After discovering the plaque had gone missing, Superintendent Michael Grego and school Principal Victoria Hawkins met with Elisa’s brother and parents to discuss setting up a PTA fund for the mural and new reading area.
A trust fund in her honor to pay for new books and updates to the library has raised more than $26,000, and there are plans to establish an annual book drive, Hawkins said.
Elisa’s brother, Jeff Nelson, said the past year has been therapeutic for his family and friends who have struggled for decades to talk about her life and not just the heinous crime that ended it.
A table in the library showed pieces of that life: faded dance shoes, a well-worn catcher’s mitt, a green Girl Scout sash and dozens of cards, some of which she wrote to loved ones and others written to the family through the years by sympathetic friends and neighbors.
“Thank for you inviting me to your wild and crazy slumber party. I had a great time,” Nelson read aloud from one of the many cards his sister wrote to classmates.
The continuous outpouring of community support and enormous showing of people Saturday was humbling, Nelson said.
“There’s a weight on our hearts that’s never going to be lifted and we live with it every day of our lives, but knowing that many of you are also carrying that weight with us makes it just a little bit easier to for us to carry,” he said.
For many, Saturday was a time to reunite with a lost community.
Brotherly’s family moved to Safety Harbor following Elisa’s death and the brutal murder just a year later of a woman and her 11-year-old daughter inside their home.
Being among old friends has helped Brotherly and others in the community give voice to feelings that had been buried for many years.
“For me, it was really a gift because I reconnected with these people that I’d lost since seventh grade,” Brotherly said.