Mark Parker, shot in 1984 Orlando courthouse massacre, dies at age 44
Wound hobbled young corrections officer but did not break his spirit
Henry Pierson Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer
9:25 PM EDT, March 19, 2009
Mark Parker died on Thursday, 25 years after throwing his body in harm's way to protect the residents of Orange County.
Then 19, Parker was gunned down at the old Orange County Courthouse in Orlando on Jan. 10, 1984, in a massacre that changed court security forever across the United States. His wound crippled the young Corrections Officer but never broke his spirit
"Mark is the last victim of Thomas Provenzano," said State Attorney Lawson Lamar, who was county sheriff when Parker was shot.. "He was a tough, tough kid. He didn't spend time being miserable."
Paralyzed from the chest down, Parker attended the annual memorial service to honor the other victims slain by Provenzano: court bailiff William "Arnie" Wilkerson, who died the day of the shootings, and court bailiff Harry Dalton, who succumbed to his injuries in 1991.
Nine years later, Parker attended Provenzano's execution at Florida State Prison.
"Justice has finally been served," Parker said afterward, adding that he had considered telling Provenzano, "Say hello to Satan."
Parker, 44, died about 2 a.m. at Orlando Regional Medical Center, where he was admitted Wednesday.
News of his death spread quickly throughout the Orange County Sheriff's Office and its network of retirees and their families.
Some remembered his father, former Chief Deputy Charlie B. Parker, jumping on the ambulance stretcher wheeling Mark from the courthouse, fearful he would never again be able to hug his son. Against all odds, the son outlived the father.
Others remembered a husky teen who took every law enforcement program in the early 1980s open to anyone too young to carry a badge. He went through agency's Explorer program, a police academy and corrections officer training to be able to follow in his dad's footsteps as soon as he was old enough to be sworn in as deputy.
Condolences came from as far away as Afghanistan.
"It was a long hard battle for Mark and he made a go of it," former Sheriff Kevin Beary said in a telephone interview from Kabul, the capital, where he is teaching counter-terrorism tactics to Afghan forces. "He never stopped trying to make it better for people who had suffered catastrophic injuries like he did. He made several trips to Tallahassee to lobby for better benefits for injured law enforcement officers, firefighters and corrections officers."
Before leaving office in January, Beary fulfilled one of Parker's lifelong wishes.
"One of the things Mark wanted was to be made an honorary deputy, which I did, of course," Beary said.
On the day of the massacre, Provenzano showed up at the courthouse intending to shoot police officers who had given him a traffic ticket. Suffering from a history of mental illness, he walked into the building with three guns. It was an era without metal detectors and bag searches -- the now-familiar checks for weapons at courthouses throughout the country.
Inside a courtroom, Provenzano shot and wounded Dalton. Then he killed Wilkerson. He fired again but missed hitting a judge. Stepping into a corridor, Provenzano traded shots with another court deputy. That's when Parker was hit in the crossfire.
After the shooting, hundreds of tradesmen, cops and other volunteers raised money and built an addition on the Parker family home in Winter Garden. Walt Gallagher, a sheriff's supervisor who later became sheriff, organized the campaign to make the house as comfortable as possible for Parker, who required around-the-clock-care for the rest of his life.
"It really was a project of love," Gallagher said Thursday. "He was a young man who wanted to serve the public...He was not left without support."
A hardcore rock-and-roll fan, Parker loved Led Zeppelin and thrilled at having met lead singer Robert Plant during a performance years ago in Orlando. And he never missed a NASCAR Daytona 500, where he showed up in his van to be ribbed ruthlessly by friends and family for his devotion to back-of-the-pack driver Kyle Petty.
After relearning skills as small, yet momentous, as feeding himself with a spoon, Parker mastered computers for regular gaming sessions with soldiers in Iraq and Internet buddies around the world.
"My brother's better on the computer with his mouthstick than I could with my two hands," said his sister, Colleen Parker. "You've never seen anyone else make the most of what they were able to do."
It was a common observation.
"Mark would not let you feel sorry for him. He was not that person," said sheriff's Chief David Black, who remembered Parker delivering his father's eulogy in 2005. "He had us all laughing the entire time. You'd never expect that from someone who came up in a wheelchair."
Windermere Police Officer Carl Head, Parker's best friend since their days at West Orange High School, laughed between choking up as he talked about being running buddies with a guy who kept pace in his wheelchair.
"It's hard to deny you're redneck when you spend all your time watching racing and wrestling, but he was into science fiction, history and the military, too," Head said. "If you really knew Mark, then you really knew his love for his country, law enforcement and his friends."
He is survived by his sister and by his brother, Marvin Parker, also of Winter Garden. His mother, Beverly Parker, died in 2004, followed almost a year later by his father.
His funeral will be conducted with full law enforcement line-of-duty death honors at 10 a.m. Tuesday at First United Methodist Church in Winter Garden. It will include a montage of about 200 photographs of women sitting in Parker's lap and someone, no doubt, will not play his favorite song, "To all the girls I've loved before," by Willie Nelson.
"There's a lot of rhetoric today about (law enforcement and corrections officers) putting their lives on the line, but they really do," Lamar said. "The world has changed since 1984 but the dedication of the people who protect us has not changed."