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Inside Dateline: Visiting the Erie Manufacturing crime scene

Producer Bob Gilmartin: There was no blood, no bullet holes, no chalk outlines of bodies, but the feel of death hung over everyone there.


Visiting the crime scene (Bob Gilmartin, producer)

It had been discussed a number of times early on in the trial:  the jury in the Nelson Serrano murder trial might visit the crime scene where the four victims fell at Erie Manufacturing in Bartow, Florida back in December, 1997.

I knew we wanted to be there, but didn't know if  the judge would allow us. I had seen other situations where jurors visited a crime scene, but reporters had been excluded.

At first, Judge Susan Roberts said no to any media going along on the jury view.  Then she agreed to allow one still photographer which didn't help us in television.  Finally, she relented when I told her that I would be both a pool reporter and a pool television cameraman, shooting the jury visit on a DV camera.   

The local newspaper, which had covered this case over the last nine years, also sent a still photographer and a print reporter for pool coverage. We would both share whatever material we obtained at the scene.

But before we went, the judge made it clear to everyone — jurors, attorneys, media — that not one word would be tolerated once we arrived at Erie Manufacturing.   She did not want the jurors (who were not allowed to be photographed) to be influenced by any discussions of what anyone thought had happened there that night.

I had watched this jury closely during the six weeks of the trial. They were extremely attentive, taking copious notes, and looking at some brutal crime scene photos without  flinching.  On the day we went to the crime scene, they were visibly shaken.  This would be a real wake-up call for a group of local people who happened to be called for jury duty in the biggest mass murder in their county's history.

When we arrived at Erie, there were at least a dozen deputies and agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement already there.  The tension rose quickly as we all walked into the building and started looking at the little maps we were given showing where the bodies had been found.

We had all seen the charts in court before, but now you were literally walking where the killer walked.  You were walking where the bodies fell in pools of blood.   As one juror said in an interview after the verdict, "Well, the word eerie, Erie Manufacturing — it was — really fitting that day."

Of course, nine years later, there was no blood, no bullet holes, no chalk outlines of bodies, but the feel of death hung over everyone there.  Especially the room where the three men were found.  It was a very small office, perhaps 10 feet by 20 feet, and it was hard to believe three people were shot execution style in such a small space.

And of course, everyone was fascinated by that ceiling tile the prosecution had focussed on, along with the chair positioned just below it with a dusty footprint on it. Had Serrano stepped on the chair to retreive a gun hidden in the ceiling?  

It was a horrible brutal crime. It's amazing that Phil Dosso, one of the owners of Erie Manufacturing who lost his son, daughter, and son-in-law that day, was ever able to go back into that building and keep the business going.  

He did, and is one of the kindest, nicest, strongest men I have ever met.   But after the crime, he sealed up those rooms where the murders took place, and never used them again.

They are not a shrine, just a place in the building that everyone would like to close off from their memory but probably never will. They've been opened twice, I'm told, since the murders in 1997.  Once when prosecutor John Aguero visited the crime scene before the start of the trial, and the next when I accompanied the the jury as they went there to see for themselves where mass murder had been committed.  It was an experience I won't soon forget.

"Unfinished Business," Dennis Murphy's report on Nelson Serrano and the four murders, airs Dateline Wednesday, Dec. 20, 9 p.m.