It’s been nearly 26 years to the day since Steve Turner looked down on his fellow Glades Correctional Institution guard and realized he’d been killed by the two men who ambushed their prison transport van outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office.
Wednesday, he hopes to look on while his partner’s convicted killer pays the ultimate price for the crime that has haunted him and the family of Fred Griffis for too long.
“Closure,” he said when asked why he will be among the roughly two dozen people who will gather at Florida State Prison to watch as William Van Poyck is killed by lethal injection. “Also, I want to see justice prevail for Fred.”
Unless the U.S. Supreme Court grants a last-minute stay, Van Poyck, 58, is to be executed at 7 p.m.
The time of execution was originally 6 p.m., but was moved back late today.
Turner, 55, who began his law enforcement career at the infamous maximum security prison just north of the aptly named town of Starke, said the Griffis family asked him to represent them at the execution.
Fred Griffis’ brother Ron and sister Carolyn Martin said the family plans to gather in Palm Beach County privately to remember their 40-year-old brother. The retired Army Ranger, a decorated Vietnam vet, was killed when Van Poyck and fellow ex-con Frank Valdes ambushed the prison van outside a dermatologist’s office where a buddy, a convicted murderer, was being taken for skin cancer treatment.
Even if they hadn’t asked, Turner said he might have gone to the execution. He is hopeful there will be something cathartic about seeing Van Poyck take his last breaths. Like all crimes, there were unintended ripples.
While his son, Steven Jr., was only 9 when Griffis was killed, he vividly remembers the day, June 24, 1987. His memory was cemented when a news reporter mistakenly told him his father, not Griffis, had been killed.
The elder Turner sustained a flesh wound when one of the bullets ricocheted off the van. When he arrived home from the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, 12 hours after the shooting, he said he hugged both of his sons and told them he was all right.
But the memories have remained for his son. Now 33, he’ll be by his father’s side Wednesday, looking through the glass window of the execution chamber.
Turner said his son not only has his own memories of the fateful day but of the years he watched his father struggle to deal with his. “I’ve been doing a lot of research about PTSD — post traumatic stress disorder,” Turner said. “Apparently, I had a lot of it.”
He stayed at Glades Correctional for a while after the shooting before transferring to Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach. When his wife left him, he took his two boys and moved back to his hometown of Dallas, Ga. He worked in law enforcement for several more years. Then, one day, while rushing to a report of a bomb threat, he had to make a call: hit a woman and her young daughter whose car pulled out in front of him or swerve and hit a tractor-trailer loaded with timber. He chose the timber truck.
While he wasn’t seriously injured, he said his sons were worried. “Daddy,” he remembers Steve telling him, “you’ve used up four of your nine lives.”
He got a general contractor’s license, built and remodeled homes until the economy tanked and now works for a company that puts on trade shows. He’s happily re-married.
But, he has never forgotten. It was 1:48 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. One minute he and Griffis were doing a routine transport. The next minute, Griffis, a soft-spoken, family-loving man, was dead.
For reasons he can’t quite explain, Turner said he believes Griffis saved his life that day. Ten years older with military training, Griffis made sure the prisoner wasn’t freed and that his partner wasn’t seriously hurt.
Turner knows Van Poyck has long maintained that Valdes was the killer. The nation’s high court is being asked to grant him a reprieve because he insists the evidence shows he wasn’t the triggerman.
But, like Griffis’ sister, Turner said he believes both Van Poyck and Valdes killed Griffis. Van Poyck shot Griffis in the head and Valdes shot him twice in the chest, he said.
Further, he said, Van Poyck wanted him dead, too. “I was standing over Fred’s body and (Van Poyck) pointed his gun at me and said, ‘You’re dead.’ I saw the hammer go down and it didn’t fire,” he recalled. For some reason, the gun misfired. “The grace of God and the angels were with me.”
Death row inmates
Following is a list of current inmates sitting on Florida’s death row for crimes commited in Palm Beach County, and how many years they have been on death row.
1. Paul Scott, 57, 33 years
Bludgeoned James Alessi, a Boca Raton florist, with a ceramic vase during a 1978 kidnapping and robbery.
2. Duane Owen, 52, 27 years
Killed 14-year-old baby sitter Karen Slattery in Delray Beach in 1984, raping her and stabbing her 18 times. Two months later, he fatally beat Georgianna Worden, 38, with a hammer as she slept in her Boca Raton home. Her children found her.
3. Jerry Haliburton, 58, 25 years
Stabbed neighbor Donald Bohannon 31 times with a pocket knife during a robbery in West Palm Beach in 1981.
4. Noberto Pietri, 50, 23 years
Shot West Palm Beach motorcycle officer Brian Chappell during a traffic stop in 1988.
5. Leroy Pooler, 65, 17 years
Shot ex-girlfriend Kim Wright Brown five times in 1995 in West Palm Beach as she begged him not to kill her.
6. Carlton Francis, 37, 14 years
Stabbed 66-year-old twin sisters Claire Brunt and Bernice Flegel in 1997 in their West Palm Beach home.
7. Ronald Knight, 44, 17 years
Lured Richard Kunkel to a deserted area near Loxahatchee, then shot him, in 1998; authorities said Knight targeted the waiter because he was gay.
Source: Florida Department of Corrections.
Follow Palm Beach Post courts reporter Jane Musgrave’s coverage on Twitter @pbpcourts beginning at 1 p.m.
Palm Beach Post reporter Jane Musgrave, who has been covering the William Van Poyck case since the death warrant was first issued by Gov. Rick Scott., will be one of four journalists to witness today’s 6 p.m. scheduled execution at Florida State Prison in Starke.