He spent a few semesters at the University of Miami before leaving college for good and then trained as an EMT, eventually working five years in Dade County. The job put him up close to everything from bloody car wrecks to decapitations to shootings. He also delivered 14 babies.
The couple had a son, Josh, in 1981 and then settled in Plantation. Four years later, Marissa was born. By then, he'd traded the erratic hours of emergency work for selling copiers for Minolta. He was home that December day when Susan suddenly went into labor. He delivered Marissa on the living room floor, his medical skills kicking in when the baby emerged with the umbilical cord around her neck. By the time paramedics arrived, mother and daughter were both stable. Gary told the EMTs he'd called just so they could transport the family to the hospital. The parents married the next year.
Marissa had a close call early on, after the family had moved to Sunrise. As a toddler, she wobbled into a neighbor's yard alone. A dog viciously mauled her face. Gary feared the damage — both physical and mental — would be long-term. The little girl underwent plastic surgery and eventually was unmarked by scars, either physical or emotional. "She endured a lot, but she bounced back."
The father saw a strong independent streak brewing inside his cute little girl — characteristics she was drawing from his side of the gene pool. Sometimes it flared up in mischievous ways. The family once piled into their Toyota van after running an errand. On the road, passing drivers wailed their car horns in his direction. Gary looked back to find Marissa wasn't in the car. After pulling over, he found her hanging from a ladder running up the van's back end. His anger was quickly elbowed out by appreciation. "She was fun, a handful."
In January 1996, the family was rocked by an unexpected loss. Susan had always struggled with chronic asthma, and one day an attack hit her at home. Gary rushed her to Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation, where she passed away. Suddenly, Gary was a single father, responsible not only for handling two kids and a job but also for juggling his own grief.
"I remember thinking my life was going to change," he recalls.
Both children took the loss hard. Marissa became more stubborn, Gary remembers. She showed flashes of uncontrollable temper at school and at home. Eventually, Gary began dating a woman he knew from the neighborhood named Francine, whose own daughter attended Walker Elementary and Westpines Middle School with the Karp kids. Francine calmed Marissa a bit. She sometimes took the girls to gymnastics or a barn where she cared for horses. Although Marissa enjoyed the outings, she continued to act out. Gary placed her in counseling, but it made little difference.
Even today, Gary won't speak much about the bumps in his relationship with his daughter. But around 1999, Marissa, then 14, left home to live with Gary's mother, Susan, in Lauderhill. According to police records, the teenager quarreled with the 85-year-old woman in early 2001, pulling her hair and swearing at her. Marissa was charged with battery, and a judge sentenced her to probation.
After she returned to her grandma's house, a second argument took place and Marissa was charged with violating her probation. Gary says he was, in a way, relieved to see his daughter inside a courtroom. She had committed a crime, so she would suffer the punishment. Prosecutors threatened she could spend nine months to a year in lockup.
"I thought the court system was going to rescue her," Gary recalls. "I thought she was finally going to get contained, get help, and that we would all live happily ever after."
Then, in the summer of 2001, the public defender's office asked Judge Larry Seidlin to drop Marissa's charges. They noted her behavior had improved. At the shelter for troubled youths where she had moved, Marissa had received good grades and been respectful.
When the charges were dismissed in December 2001, Gary felt betrayed. The state was backing off of its responsibility to see his daughter's case through. Outside of juvenile court, Gary tried to show a game face. He'd recently started a business called the Soap and Scent Store in Coral Springs with Francine and a neighbor named Steve Poli. At work, he didn't say much about the case.
"I heard little things here and there [about Marissa], but nothing much," Poli remembers. Still, the father's general demeanor seemed off. "He was still the same Gary, but something was different."