Long before the prison guard was executed in the botched jailbreak and William Van Poyck, blood-streaked and clutching a pistol, zipped his Cadillac through West Palm Beach blasting several slugs into pursuing cop cars, there were clues of the impending chaos.
Van Poyck -- who was sentenced to death in late 1988 for his role in the guard's murder and will be executed tomorrow at 6 p.m. -- grew up in Miami under the yoke of an indifferent father and three allegedly abusive women, according to never-before-disclosed court testimony and affidavits from the mid-1990s. From there, Van Poyck bounced into juvenile detention centers riddled with controversy and child abuse before he landed in prison at age 17 -- where he would live virtually his entire adult life.
And though Van Poyck and his family maintain the convict never squeezed the shotgun trigger that killed the guard that bloody day in 1987, Van Poyck's early life in Miami carried the same themes as his adult one: violence, disharmony, and instability. It began with his mother's death.
When Van Poyck was 2 years old, his mother, who was a nurse, went to a neighbor's house to check on a family that had fallen ill. The next day, Phyllis Van Poyck and the neighbors were found dead -- killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Van Poyck's father, a double amputee and a World War II veteran, couldn't overcome his wife's passing and expressed apathy toward his children, said sister-in-law Alma Van Poyck in an affidavit entered in one of the many Van Poyck's appeals for mercy.
Soon came a string of women who passed through Van Poyck's life as either caretakers or his father's lovers. Rather than raise him, court documents allege, they condemned him under the banner of Christian values. First was a woman referred to in court documents only as "Mrs. Dano."
"She would use a wooden coat hanger for punishment," testified Van Poyck's sister, Lisa. "She was a religious fanatic who needed very little to provoke her to anger and a beating. When she got home to the house, she would beat both [Van Poyck] and me... Mrs. Dano was harder on Billy because he was a boy, and, according to her, boys are more sinful." One time, Mrs. Dano almost killed Van Poyck, brother Jeffrey Van Poyck testified. "He never said or did anything until [that occasion], and I told Dad. Dad then fired her."
Afterward, a relative named Amy Marin moved into the house, who, according to court records, pushed the house deeper into turmoil. She took her motherly duties seriously and demanded everyone call her Phyllis -- the same name as Van Poyck's deceased mother. "She had no children, and she was fixated on wanting to be my mother," Lisa Van Poyck said in an affidavit. "She had scars on her abdomen and she would point at one and say, 'That is where Lisa came from.' The she would point at another and say, 'That is where Billy came from.' "
Van Poyck's father asked her to move out after he married someone named Lee Hightower, who also had a vengeful temperament, records allege. "Lee believed in brute force as the primary means of discipline," Lisa testified. "She would beat us by using the buckle end of a belt. She would get carried away and just hit on us, using her full strength, until she tired... Bill would have welts that lasted for days."
Van Poyck, only into his preteens, started to rebel, and the trouble he stirred pushed him into the state-run Florida School for Boys. The juvenile detention facilities have since been shuttered, though many of the stories still haunt those who were detained there. At one school in Marianna, former students have claimed physical and sexual abuse occurred. Recently, unmarked graves were discovered at the school -- and former students say wrongful deaths were common.
The most horrific acts occurred inside a room called the "White House" -- which Van Poyck came to know very well at an institution in Okeechobee.
"Both Billy and I were sent to an area called the White House on many occasions," said fellow inmate Bruce Kinnane in an affidavit. "There was a room that had a cast-iron bed that kids would be tied down to. The beatings would be up and down the back of your body as you lay stretched out. If you cried out or moved your hands, they started over... It was a torture chamber. It continued until the staff brutally killed a young boy... I know that Bill was familiar with the White House."
Keep New Times Broward-Palm Beach Free... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering South Florida with no paywalls.