By John Romano,
When memories are all that remain, you keep them within easy reach.
And so, all it takes is a Beach Boys song on the radio to return Wanda Vekasi to some nondescript summer day and the blond-haired girl with a surfer’s tan playing in the sand.
Or maybe spotting a little girl with braces, and remembering the T-shirt her niece so desperately wanted to get after her own brush with orthodontics: Tin Grins Are In.
It’s been far too many years, and even more tears, since 10-year-old Elisa Nelson was last seen pedaling her blue and silver bicycle toward Palm Harbor Middle School north of St. Petersburg on the same morning Ronald Reagan would go on to defeat Jimmy Carter in the presidential election.
For those who loved her, memories of Elisa are all that live on.
Memories, and the man who killed her.
”It is a slap in the face of David and Wendy Nelson to have this guy still living on Death Row,” said Ms. Vekasi, who is Wendy Nelson’s sister and Elisa’s aunt. ”Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about Lisa, and that man still living at our expense.
”I can’t imagine what it’s been like for David and Wendy having lived through this for almost 33 years, and still waiting for his sentence to be carried out.”
If it is any consolation, justice may finally be near.
Gov. Rick Scott recently signed the death warrant for convicted killer Larry Mann, and his execution is scheduled for the early evening of April 10.
This means, in the coming days, there will be lawyers arguing for Mann’s rights. They will talk of his remorse. Of the sickness that attracted him to children. Maybe even of the technical details of his trial and the several sentencing hearings that followed.
And there will be little said about a blue-eyed girl with John Travolta posters on her wall, a cat named Smokey and a dog named Stupid.
Elisa Nelson — Lisa to her family and friends — used to tutor a younger, neighborhood boy. She took ballet, played Little League and once phoned in her own donation for a muscular dystrophy telethon.
”Sometimes I try to imagine what (Lisa) would be like,” Wendy Nelson once told a Washington Post reporter. ”But I only ever knew the child.”
Wendy began a victim’s rights organization shortly after her daughter’s death, and spent years lobbying for an execution perpetually delayed. Former Gov. Bob Graham signed Mann’s first death warrant more than 27 years ago.
”I was on the phone with the governor’s office today, and the lady said, ‘You realize there are going to be appeals right up to the last minute,’?” said Ms. Vekasi. ”I know how this works, but I’m optimistic it’s finally going to happen this time.
”It’s time for closure. I once made a vow that I was going to be there to watch his execution, and I intend to keep that promise.”
Of the 404 prisoners on Death Row in Florida, Larry Mann has been around longer than 385 of them. He has been part of the Nelson family’s life for 32 years.
Or, to put it another way, their daughter’s killer has occupied their thoughts for three times as long as they had Lisa in their lives.
In what world does that seem just?
John Romano is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.