SAN DIEGO — Saying she can't believe he's guilty, the longtime guardian of Orange County's accused "Bludgeon Killer" remembers a boy who was left emotionally broken by the death of his mother in 1963, when he was only 8.
"If he did these things they say he did--and I hope to God he didn't--then I think he did them because he never got over his Mama being dead and his Daddy just leaving them all," said Florence Russell, who helped raise Gerald Parker, a suspect in a series of killings.
"It's as though he's trying to kill his Mama for leaving him behind," she said last week at her San Diego home.
Russell, 59, lives in a small house on a narrow street in the heart of Logan Heights, one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. It's the house where Parker, now 41, spent his adolescence.
Today, Parker's face is one of dozens that adorn the walls in what looks like a loving monument to children. On one wall of Russell's living room are the framed photographs of 16 smiling grandchildren. Scattered throughout the house are the likenesses of children whom Russell raised.
Among the latter group is Parker, "Gerry" as Russell knows him, who awaits trial in Orange County Superior Court, accused of raping and bashing to death five young women and causing the death of the fetus of a sixth, more than nine months' pregnant, who survived the attack. Conviction could result in a death sentence.
"This is the honest-to-God truth: He never gave me no problem," said Russell, an older cousin of Parker whose connection is complicated: She was a niece of Parker's late mother, Frankie Wagner Parker, whose brother was Russell's father.
"He never gave me no problem at all," said Russell, who lives alone after having 14 children under her roof at one time. "He never brought no girls around here. Far as I know, he had no problem with girls."
But authorities say Parker, who declined to be interviewed, is a former Marine who once told a psychiatrist he had "always thought of raping women" and who claims to have had intercourse as early as age 6.
He was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted in 1980 of raping a 13-year-old Tustin girl, whom he abducted on the day of her father's funeral.
Parker has pleaded not guilty to the six Orange County slayings, which took place in the late 1970s. Police and military officials (Parker is a former Marine staff sergeant who was stationed at El Toro) are investigating the possibility that he may be responsible for more slayings across the country.
Russell, a friendly, soft-spoken woman, raised eight children of her own, six boys and two girls, who in her words never experienced a problem with Parker. She also raised her three younger sisters after her mother died. And she helped raise nieces, nephews, cousins . . . any kid who needed a guiding hand in the wake of abandonment or loss.
Court records indicate that, after the death of Parker's mother, he stayed with his grandmother for five months, then ended up in Juvenile Hall for glue-sniffing, the beginning of what Russell calls a recurrent drug problem. He and a brother eventually were brought to San Diego, where Russell was waiting.
She describes Gerry as a "good boy . . . a good-looking boy," who did not get into trouble until his drug habit worsened in his teenage years. She blames the habit on Parker being a victim of both abandonment and loss.
That feeling of rejection, coupled with drug use, she said, are the only things that could have led to Parker being accused of raping and bludgeoning women.
Russell took Parker in during the 1960s, after his mother died while delivering the last of her 10 children and his father, Custer Parker Sr., "just headed for the hills," she said, "casting Gerry and his brothers and sisters to the four winds. It broke up the whole family . . . destroyed them."
The young Parker "was just never the same after that," Russell said.
One day, Russell said, she saw Parker's father in downtown San Diego.
"I was real surprised to see him, hadn't seen him for years," she said. "So, I invited him to the house, this house where I've lived for 28 years, and he said he would come. And I thought he would. Well, I made the mistake of telling Gerry about it. He just sat outside, waiting for his dad, and of course, his dad never came."
Parker went "completely haywire," Russell said, after he got word of his father's death, which authorities say occurred in 1980. He returned to Phoenix, where he had been living when his mother died, and was inconsolable for months.
He also lost touch with relatives and friends, who, according to Russell, were "all white, not a black one in the bunch. I never ever remember Gerry having a black friend, which I thought was odd. Well, he started drinking and doing drugs. He got real messed up."