Friends, police focus on son in death of his mom

Published July 15, 2012 by Florida Today

MELBOURNE BEACH — The residents of this quiet beachside community were suspicious of James Tollye Parker for years.

They described him as an agitated and lurking man who was as clever as he was unpredictable. A police investigator described him as mean and vindictive. He was sentenced to four years in prison on May 31 for Social Security fraud, but his neighbors wondered why he wasn’t found guilty of more.

More than a decade before Parker confessed in a police interview to disposing of his mother’s body, neighbors rumored that remains found in the Indian River Lagoon might be hers. Bertha R. Parker, who was 87 the last time anyone saw her, was dead for 14 years before anyone officially noticed — including the Social Security Administration, which continued to deposit her checks.

Her son withdrew that money and used it for himself. As part of his four-year sentence, he was ordered to repay $158,992.80.

The body found in the river in 1992 wasn’t identified as Bertha Parker until 2007, after DNA tied her to her son, and even then the Social Security Administration continued depositing checks into her account for another year.

Despite Parker’s explanation that his mother died of natural causes, police consider him a suspect in her homicide. He has not been charged.

Parker, who is in federal prison in Oakdale, La., declined to be interviewed by FLORIDA TODAY.

Those who encountered the family say they tried to warn authorities long ago.

“I told anybody who’d listen, but nobody would pay attention to me,” Lisa Cutler said. She lived across the street from the house Parker was renting on Floridana Avenue in 1992 when the remains were found in the river near Grant.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told this story,” Cutler said. “It’s just crazy.” Parker had multiple conflicts with residents during the 15 years he lived in the area.

He and his neighbors called the police many times. Some of the trouble is documented in police reports. Some incidents prompted police response but went no further.

By 2007, however, neighbors finally had enough and called a meeting, which led police to look into Bertha Parker’s whereabouts.

Mom was old, frail

Parker started renting a home on Floridana Avenue in August 1992, according to Don Reynolds, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office’s lead investigator on the case. Initially, he lived there alone, but brought his mother to live with him after Hurricane Andrew.

Cutler described the woman as old and frail.

Parker’s landlord, whose identity was concealed in the federal indictment, said the man told her that he did not like taking care of his mother. She said that after Parker stopped renting from her, she continued to receive mail addressed to his mother. She thought that was odd because Parker told her his mother moved north.

In December 1992, a joint account was set up for Parker and his mother, Reynolds said, into which her Social Security checks were deposited.

Parker told people he was a pilot, but investigators haven’t been able to verify that.

“Mr. Parker has told many, many stories about what he has done, accomplished,” Reynolds said. “He admits to being a liar.”

Reynolds said many of the things Parker told him were later disproved. “Ultimately, when you look at the man, he’s a question mark.”

Parker would leave his elderly mother alone at home, Cutler said. “She would holler, ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ ” she recounted.

One Sunday morning, Cutler said she was on her front lawn with two neighbors, talking about Parker’s mother, when James Parker brought his mother outside and put her on a swing.

“That was the very last time we ever laid eyes on the woman,” Cutler said.

Weeks later, when she heard the news about human remains found in the river, Cutler called police, remembering one morning when her husband spotted Parker coming out of a nearby area of old grapefruit groves that borders the Indian River at 3 a.m.

“(The police) looked at me like I was crazy,” she said, when she suggested there could be a connection between the body in the river and Parker.

Sheriff’s Office records show Cutler did talk with police around the time the body was found, but Reynolds said the record does not indicate the conversation included any murder suspicions.

“There was nothing inferring that they suspected and reported that Mr. James Tollye Parker was involved in the disappearance of his mother,” Reynolds said. In more recent years, police have interviewed Cutler about the Parkers, Reynolds said.

‘Little evidence’

Remains of Parker’s mother were found by two Bombardier Corp. employees testing watercraft 300 yards east of 6545 U.S. 1, near the second spoil island south of Grant Farm Island. The medical examiner determined the body, which appeared to be cut into pieces, was likely that of an older woman. The death was ruled a homicide, but with no way to identify her, the case was closed less than two months later.

“There was very little evidence discovered,” said Cmdr. Doug Waller of the Sheriff’s Office.

Over the years, neighbors said, Parker was a nuisance.

“This guy has done all kinds of crazy stuff,” said Ernest Desantis, owner of the Floridana Beach Motel, which borders the property Parker bought on Delmar Street in 1993.

Desantis said his troubles began with Parker when he found banana trees torn out of the ground on property the two had disputed.

Parker bought land at 105 Delmar St. in January 1993 for $27,400, according to county property records. This land was just around the corner from the house he was renting on Floridana Avenue. He built a 1,280-square-foot house on the lot and lived there until he sold it in September 2007 for $225,000.

There were rumors in the neighborhood that Parker had a lot of guns. Reynolds confirmed Parker had a concealed weapons permit, but no firearms were found when he was arrested.

Records document some of the run-ins Parker had with police in the 14 years he lived on Delmar Street.

In 1996, Parker was charged with criminal mischief for allegedly slashing four tires and shattering the windshield and rear window of a neighbor’s car. In 1998, he was charged with battery. In 1999, he was charged with aggravated stalking and aggravated assault for following and threatening to kill a person over 65 years old.

Parker was convicted of petit theft in 2003 and ordered to pay $4.29 restitution to Melbourne Beach Supermarket. According to court records, he was never convicted on charges related to his other arrests.

Neighbors fed up

In January 2007, the neighbors had enough. Desantis spearheaded a community meeting at the Floridana Beach Civic Association. He said about 40 concerned neighbors attended and voiced concerns to County Commissioner Helen Voltz and Lt. Todd Maddox of the sheriff’s office. Jan. 30, based on information gathered at the neighbors’ meeting, Deputy Jonathan Kent started a review of the cold case file on the woman’s body found in the river, according to court records.

On July 29, Kent and Sgt. Carlos Reyes met with Parker at his house. During that conversation, investigators say Parker was unable to explain his mother’s whereabouts. Parker told them her monthly Social Security checks deposited into a joint bank account he shared with her. Authorities say bank records show Parker typically withdrew the money the day after it was deposited from the teller window inside the bank. He admitted to spending the money for himself.

The deputies collected DNA samples from Parker and they were compared with the remains from the river. The analysis determined the body was 99.9 percent likely to be Parker’s mother.

Parker sold his house on Delmar Street in September 2007 and left the neighborhood. His last known address was at the Ocean View RV and Mobile Home Court on State Road A1A in Satellite Beach, about 15 miles north.

More than four years later, on Oct. 12, 2011, a death certificate was issued for Bertha Parker. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but listed the cause as unknown. From her death in December 1992 until June 2008, eight months after the death certificate was issued, Parker collected her social security money. The total: $158,992.

Waller said Parker is a suspect in the homicide. He has not been charged. Parker said in interviews with the sheriff’s office that his 87-year-old mother died of natural causes. He admitted to disposing of her body, but investigators would not disclose further details. Reynolds said Parker did not express remorse.

“At this point in the investigation, we have to be able to determine how she died and where she died,” Waller said.

Ike Gilmore spoke with Parker several times at the Orange County jail while he awaited assignment to the federal prison in Louisiana.

“I can’t believe it happened, but it did,” Gilmore said. “The Bible says only God knows what’s in your heart, so we’ll leave it up to God.”

Gilmore said he has known Parker a long time and is helping take care of his affairs. He said he made sure Parker’s sheepdog, “the love of his life,” ended up with a good owner. He said Parker’s relationship with God is what’s important.

“I’m praying for his eternal salvation,” Gilmore said. “As a Christian, that’s my responsibility.”

“I just feel sorry for him.”