Ron Griffis carries a photo of one of the four Bronze Stars his brother earned in Vietnam in his cell phone.
The medal is a symbol of his brother’s service to his country, but also of the role Fred Griffis played in the family that still struggles after 26 years to make sense of his senseless death.
“He was my John Wayne,” Griffis said. “Every good quality I have as a man comes from him.”
Recalling Fred’s booming laugh, his uncanny ability to diffuse potentially volatile situations and the cruel irony of his death, Ron Griffis and other family members said it’s time for their brother’s killer to pay the ultimate price for his crime.
Barring a successful last-minute appeal, that time is to come at 6 p.m. Wednesday when William Van Poyck is scheduled to be killed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison for Fred Griffis’ death. The 40-year-old Army Ranger endured the jungles of Southeast Asia only to be shot dead outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office in 1987 while performing a mundane task in his new job as a guard at Glades Correctional Institution.
“We want it over and done with,” said his sister, Carolyn Martin. “The way it’s dragged on for years … I want justice for Freddy.”
While other families have endured similar agonizing delays, the Griffis family’s experience has been unique. Their brother’s killer didn’t have the notoriety of a Ted Bundy or a Danny Rolling. But the strange cast of characters that swirled around the murder kept their brother’s death in the limelight, forcing them to relive the loss again and again.
“If you tried to write it into an episode of Law & Order, the critics would pan it,” Ron Griffis said.
Martin put it more succinctly: “It was like the nightmare that would never end.”
3 suspects, 3 trials
First, they endured three trials — one for Van Poyck, one for his accomplice Frank Valdes and one for James O’Brien, the convicted murderer whose skin cancer treatment spurred Van Poyck’s deadly plan. Learning his buddy from one of his prison stints was being brought to a West Palm Beach dermatologist, Van Poyck decided to ambush the prison transport to free O’Brien. When Griffis tossed the keys to the van in the bushes, he was shot dead and the other guard, Steven Turner, was injured.
While O’Brien was acquitted of Griffis’ murder by a Palm Beach County jury, both Van Poyck and Valdes were convicted and sentenced to death. But even though both were moved to the most secure prison in the state, their lives continued and evolved.
Van Poyck became an award-winning author of three books. With the help of his sister, he launched a blog — “Death Row Diary” — on the Internet. Valdes became the first — but not the only — inmate in state history to get married on Death Row. He and Lake Worth resident Wanda Eads, the mother of a boy he had met at a juvenile detention center, tied the knot in 1994.
When Valdes in 1999 was beaten to death by prison guards, one coincidentally named Griffis, Martin admits that she felt a measure of relief. But then came the trials of the guards, who were ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing.
Strange events stoked the pain
Each event — the bizarre wedding, Valdes’ death, the trial of the guards, Van Poyck’s notoriety and even his dashed appeals — brought attendant publicity and yet another reminder of their horrific loss.
Even efforts to escape failed. Fred Griffis’ death was the beginning of a sorrow-filled decade for Martin and her only surviving sibling. In the ensuing years, she and Ron lost their mother, Thelma, and sister, Cathy Bowen. Martin and her husband, Dennis, decided they needed a fresh start. Leaving their longtime home, the couple moved to Virginia.
Months after they arrived, they learned another Florida resident had followed. While they were investigating Valdes’ death, state corrections officials decided to temporarily move Van Poyck. He ended up in a prison in Virginia.
“Oh please, cut me some slack,” Martin said of her reaction to Van Poyck’s arrival in her newly adopted state. “What’s the chances of that?”
Along comes Wanda Valdes
Since Gov. Rick Scott signed Van Poyck’s death warrant on May 3, all of the memories — fueled by many of the same well-worn claims of innocence, and some of the same odd characters — have come flooding back.
In a series of appeals, Van Poyck again claimed that he doesn’t deserve to die because he didn’t pull the trigger. As evidence, he offered Wanda Valdes. Now 70, Valdes was transformed from a flighty sideshow into a key witness.
In an affidavit given to Van Poyck’s attorneys, she swore Frank Valdes told her that he, not Van Poyck, killed Griffis. Van Poyck never wanted anyone to get hurt, she said of her late husband’s claims. Valdes, she said, had other ideas.
“Frank told me he shot Officer Griffis in the head, and a couple more times,” she said. “After Frank shot Officer Griffis, Billy (Van Poyck) said, ‘Why did you kill him?’ Frank said he just laughed.”
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Charles Burton and the Florida Supreme Court rejected her claims as irrelevant and too little too late. The high court pointed out that it has consistently maintained that it didn’t matter if Van Poyck was the triggerman. Van Poyck admitted he planned the ambush and made sure he and Valdes were well-armed. He fired repeatedly at police during a short-lived escape.
“Evidence establishing that Van Poyck was not the triggerman would not change the fact that he played a major role in the felony murder and that he acted with reckless indifference to human life,” the court wrote.
Had Wanda Valdes’ claims gained traction, Martin said she was prepared to refute them. For some reason, Martin said Wanda began calling her after she married Valdes. In those days, Wanda insisted Frank had nothing to do with Griffis’ death. “Frank didn’t do it. He was just the driver. Van Poyck did it,” she said, describing Wanda’s former claims.
‘He knew what they were doing’
For her part, Martin is convinced Van Poyck killed her brother. She is also convinced Fred knew he wasn’t going to get out of the situation alive and was going to make sure Van Poyck’s plan to free O’Brien failed.
“Freddy could read people better than anyone I ever knew,” she said. “He looked into those guys’ eyes. He knew what they were doing.”
She suspects her brother, who earned one of his Bronze Stars for single-handedly killing 13 Viet Cong soldiers who had his platoon pinned down, was trying to disarm Valdes. Van Poyck, she suspects, snuck up behind him and shot him in the head. Valdes, she said, likely pumped the other two bullets into her brother’s chest.
“The medical examiner said any one of the three shots would have been fatal,” she said.
Like the high court, Ron Griffis said it doesn’t matter who fired the fatal shots. “Every crime begins with intent,” he said. Once Van Poyck planned to overpower the prison guards, he was responsible for everything that followed.
Van Poyck’s protestations of innocence, echoed by many of the nearly 1,200 people who have signed an online petition to spare his life, ignore the gruesome facts of the case, Griffis and Martin say.
“If Van Poyck hadn’t planned it from the beginning, Freddy would still be alive,” Martin said. “Van Poyck’s been writing books, he’s had blogs, he has a web site. He may be behind bars but he had some semblance of a life. He robbed Freddy of his.”
‘Wheel of the family’
With the clock ticking toward Wednesday’s scheduled execution, many have reached out to them, remembering their brother who grew up in Lake Worth and then left for 20 years when he decided to make the U.S. Army a career. When he retired, he returned home. He had yet to collect his first retirement check when he was killed.
While the agony of his last moments are inescapable, so are the memories of his life.
“People just can’t understand what he meant to us,” Martin said. “He was like the wheel of the family. We’d plan everything around when he’d be home on leave.”
There were the Christmases in February because that was the only time Fred could be there. There were his orders to Martin to wait for him before she gave birth to her first child. Nearly two weeks past her due date, she went into labor three hours after he arrived home, leaned down to her oversized belly and yelled, “Yo, George, you can come out now.” Then, there was his killer spaghetti sauce. He threw in everything, including, they suspect, the proverbial kitchen sink.
Ron Griffis and Carolyn Martin laugh at their shared memories. They hate that they were denied more.
“Freddy was a soldier and if he was going to die, he would have preferred to die in battle not at the hands of a couple of cowards,” Martin said.
On Wednesday, if Van Poyck is executed, the Griffis’ extended family will meet quietly. They have no interest in attending the execution. They want to remember Fred; not Van Poyck.
“He’s always been a role model for me,” Ron Griffis said of his older brother. “I admired him for his loyalty, his sense of duty, his love of family, his honor. He was a remarkable person.”
Jane Musgrave has been covering the William Van Poyck case since the death warrant was issued by Gov. Rick Scott on May 3.
What’s next … Jane will be one of only three journalists to witness the scheduled execution on June 12 at Florida State Prison in Starke.
Online: Executions in Florida since 1979, including last meals plus local inmates www.mypalmbeachpost.com/florida-executions/ and their cases www.palmbeachpost.com/deathrow
Coming Monday in Accent: William Van Poyck’s Death Row diary