Live oak, central Florida
Live oak, central Florida

In retrospect, we might have been lucky to find only bullhorns and barfers in the Ocala National Forest. This is an almost outlandishly beautiful place, with its sand pines and crystal clear spring pools and basking alligators, but it has a dark human side reaching back a long way. The Forest is one of the last stretches of protected contiguous space in the state, and it’s located near the bustling I-75 corridor, which feeds a diverse array of characters into the area. Some of them, like Travis and me, are outdoor types looking to see wildlife and nature. Others are in the area to kill and dump their latest victim.

I moved to Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, thirty miles north of the Ocala area, in 1993. I had just graduated from college. When I arrived, the town was still reeling from the serial murders of five students three years before.  Shortly after I moved to the area, the state tried, convicted, and sentenced Danny Harold Rolling to death for the murders. One of my co-workers was cousin to one of the victims. The day Rolling was convicted, she sat in her office, sobbing.

The north-central Florida area that includes Gainesville and Ocala has always struck me as a bit edgy, even as I love it for its many virtues.  But as population and traffic increases, which it seems to do every year, I see no reason to alter that perception.  In August 1990, the area was host to two active serial killers: the aforementioned Rolling, and Aileen Wournos, who killed an Ocala salesman that month and dumped his body in the National Forest.

The Forest’s history as a scene of death, both natural and intentional, does not end (or begin) with Wournos’ visit in 1990. One news account from 2008 reported that of the 278 murder cases in Marion County since 1992, 21 of them occurred in the National Forest.

One of them happened like this: At 3:00 a.m. on January 3, 2006, a cab stopped at Juniper Springs Campground – where Travis and I stayed during our trip – and dropped off a man named Leo Boatman. Boatman was a dishwasher at a Clearwater Hooters and a community college student with a hideous childhood history. Later that day, carrying a stolen AK-47 and a lot of backpacking gear, Boatman hiked into the scrub forest and eventually happened upon two hikers camped just off the Florida Trail at a place called Hidden Pond.

By his own admission, he thought, as he hiked into the forest, “I’m going to kill the next person I see.” And so he did. Both of them.

Aside from the deaths, there have been many squatters and homeless camps, and even exploding meth labs – and one woman blithely manufacturing methamphetamine in her tent at a campground. The forest got a new district ranger in 2005, and he immediately went to work on the crime problem.

For my part, I’ve never felt threatened in the Ocala National Forest, though I’ve had disturbing encounters on the Pacific Crest Trail in southern Washington, and coming off the Long Trail in Rutland, Vermont. I don’t know that the Ocala National Forest is inherently a more dangerous place to be than any other natural area. Outdoor pursuits are always going to involve some element of risk from malevolent human beings, as well as the usual risks from wildlife, weather, and terrain.

Still, six days after we left the forest for home, they found another body.

If – when – I go back, I won’t be camping alone.

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