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A cry in the night: Can technology settle murder doubts?

GULFPORT

The old detective stands in his living room, phone at his ear, fending off a sales pitch from a funeral home. The company already has a beautiful resting place in mind. A nice little plot in a cemetery just off the interstate.

"They're trying to bury me," Larry Tosi mutters. He's only halfway smiling.

Tosi's not dead yet. He's not even that old — only 62. He retired from the Gulfport Police Department seven years ago on disability. His impossibly thick brown hair, mistaken all his life for a toupee, is turning gray. His voice, always gravelly, now barely rises above a whisper. He has a bad back and a weak heart. When he grocery shops with his wife, he rides in a motorized cart.

"Otherwise, I get winded."

Even in his retirement, though, the biggest case of Tosi's career — the case that haunted his three decades in law enforcement, the one where he put a close friend on trial for first-degree murder — refuses to go away.

Another appeal looms. The Innocence Project of Florida, a group that employs DNA testing to exonerate those convicted unjustly, thinks Tosi arrested the wrong man.

"It's like a nightmare," says the detective, sitting at his kitchen table, rubbing his face. "It just goes on and on and on."



***

The case began, one rainy night nearly 24 years ago, with a scream.

In the early hours of May 23, 1984, Karen Gregory — a 36-year-old graphic artist — was murdered inside the Gulfport home she shared with David Mackey, her boyfriend. Mackey was gone that evening at a conference in Rhode Island. Sometime after midnight, someone entered the house and stabbed Karen repeatedly. During the assault, she let out a terrible cry that broke the silence of the surrounding neighborhood.

More than a dozen people heard her scream, but none called the police. Some rationalized away the cry, telling themselves it was nothing. Others were anxious, not sure they should get involved. Karen's body was not discovered until almost a day and a half later.

The investigation initially focused on Peter Kumble, an acquaintance of Karen's and David's. Kumble had been seen driving up to the house early on the evening after the murder, then walking onto the porch and knocking on the door while Karen's body still lay inside. Kumble had left a note on the windshield of one of the cars parked in the yard.

Karen & David, the note began.

Hello. Stopped by about 7:15 or so but saw no signs of life.

Kumble said that Karen had invited him for dinner. Investigators took his fingerprints and samples of his hair, but none matched any evidence found inside the house. Other suspects were questioned, but the leads went nowhere.

Eventually the case was assigned to Larry Tosi, then a sergeant with the Gulfport police. The investigation stalled, but Tosi would not let go. More than a year after the murder, he was still studying photos from the crime scene, hoping to find something he'd missed. Other detectives would hear him talking aloud to Karen.

A supervisor told him to move on, but Tosi refused. Eventually, his attention turned to George Lewis, a young St. Petersburg firefighter who lived across the street from Karen and David. Around their neighborhood, Lewis was well-liked. He often worked in his garage late at night and was known for keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. A neighborhood crime watch sign stood in his yard.

Tosi knew Lewis well. Tosi's wife, Debbie, and Lewis' girlfriend, Glenda, worked together as bank tellers. The two men became friends, too, and when Lewis decided to marry Glenda, he asked Tosi — a notary public — to perform their wedding ceremony in the bucket of a fire truck.

The wedding was on Dec. 15, 1984, almost seven months after the murder. In early 1985, the investigation turned unexpectedly toward Tosi's friend. Lewis had been in his garage on the night of Karen Gregory's murder. He was one of the neighbors who reported hearing her scream. But when he was asked again what he had noticed that night, his story changed. Initially he said he hadn't seen anything unusual. Then he said he'd seen a bearded man standing in Karen's yard. Then he said the man had threatened to kill him.

Lewis was given two polygraphs and failed them both. Soon Tosi was staring at George's hands, wondering if they were the same size as the bloody handprints left on Karen's body.

The case dragged on. Finally, in March 1986, nearly two years after the murder, the FBI matched Lewis to a bare footprint left in Karen's blood in the bathroom of her house.

Confronted with the new evidence, Lewis changed his story again. This time he told Tosi he'd climbed through Karen's window to help her. Karen, he said, was dead when he found her. He sneaked back out of the house, he said, because he panicked.

When Lewis was done talking, Tosi placed him under arrest.

"This hurts me worse than it does you," the detective told his friend. "Believe me."

• • •

Outrage followed. Friends of Lewis, including many St. Petersburg firefighters, angrily insisted Tosi had made a mistake. They believed they knew George, and that was enough.

Not everyone saw it in such simple terms. An investigator asked a neighbor if she thought Lewis looked like a murderer.

"What does a murderer look like?" the neighbor replied.

Testifying at trial, Lewis offered yet another version of the night in question, adding that after finding Karen's body he had gone into the bathroom and thrown up — thus explaining the bloody footprint. His lawyers, meanwhile, suggested that the real murderer was Peter Kumble, the friend who left the note, and that the man under the tree was Kumble's roommate, stationed as a lookout. Both Kumble and the other man denied the accusations, and there was no physical evidence putting either man at the crime scene.

As deliberations began, Lewis sat on a bench outside the courtroom with Glenda and their 2-year-old, Tiffany. Glenda snuggled against her husband's shoulder; George wrapped his daughter in his arms. To some, it was a portrait of a family under siege. To others, it was clumsy manipulation. One of the jurors, seeing Lewis hug Tiffany, became convinced that he was putting on a display to win their sympathy.

The jury convicted Lewis, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

After the conviction, questions lingered. Lewis' lawyers began a long round of appeals. One of the jurors was plagued with doubts about the verdict. Even the trial judge had concerns.

Crockett Farnell, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, was a highly respected judge, known for doing what he thought was right, even if it meant a torrent of criticism. And when Lewis' attorneys argued the trial had been conducted unfairly, Farnell stunned everyone by overturning the verdict.

An appeals court eventually reinstated the convictions. But the point had been made:

This was a case that shook everyone who got close, a case that tested the criminal justice system's ability to establish the truth. Unless new evidence were found, it seemed unlikely there would ever be a clear, clean, absolute resolution.

• • •

That was two decades ago. Since then there have been more appeals. Two attempts have been made to make DNA comparisons from the evidence. Both times, the results were inconclusive.

Today, George Lewis is serving his life sentence at Tomoka Correctional Institution, in Daytona Beach. Glenda divorced him long ago, saying she still believed in George but that she and their two daughters needed to move on.

Lewis' current prison photo, on the Department of Corrections Web site, shows the passage of time. His hair is gray at the temples. His 46-year-old face is weathered. His brown eyes gaze into the camera, as though he is waiting for something.

Seth Miller, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, says that Lewis wrote the group several years ago, asking for help in pursuing another round of DNA testing. Advances have been made in the technology. Maybe this time the results would be conclusive.

When he visited Lewis in prison, Miller says, he was struck by a sense that this was no murderer. Later, after studying the many volumes of the court file, he concluded, more strongly than ever, that the wrong man was in prison.

After his group worked through the details with prosecutors, evidence from the case was sent in December to ReliaGene Technologies, a private lab in New Orleans that both sides agreed was trustworthy. The results are due soon.

If the new tests can identify whoever attacked Karen Gregory, Seth Miller is confident it won't be Lewis.

"We think the case is compelling," he says, "and we think if we can get a result, it will bear out his innocence."

The prosecutors, meanwhile, believe any results will confirm that Lewis was Karen Gregory's killer. David Mackey, Karen's former boyfriend, agrees. So does Neverne Covington, a St. Petersburg artist who was Karen's close friend. To them, the evidence against Lewis was always convincing. Covington calls the bloody footprint Lewis' "autograph."

Still, she believes he's entitled to the new tests, just to be sure.

"Quite honestly, I do think everyone deserves DNA testing," says Covington. "I don't want to see anyone go to prison wrongly."

• • •

The new tests may end up proving nothing. If the evidence is too degraded, even the most advanced technology in the world may not bring any further clarity.

Even so, Larry Tosi is not troubled by doubts. He understands why Lewis' friends and family would believe in him. Tosi recognizes that it's human nature to think the best of those you love. He, too, trusted George. But eventually, he says, the evidence squeezed that trust out of him and left him with no choice but to realize that his friend was guilty of murder.

"I just can't see it any other way," says Tosi, still sitting at his kitchen table. "Anything else would not make sense to me."

What the detective still doesn't understand is why. What drove Lewis to such violence? Tosi has his theories. He believes Lewis had been watching Karen for some time and had become attracted to her. Maybe she rejected him that night. Maybe he just decided to take what he wanted, and then killed her so that she could not turn him in.

Tosi wonders if even Lewis knows the truth anymore.

"Maybe after some point in time," he says, "you convince yourself that you didn't do it."

Tosi would like to know, to understand. As he gets older, he likes to believe the world can be explained. But such certainties aren't always within reach.

Thomas French can be reached at french@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486.

.MORE INFO

About the story

St. Petersburg Times staff writer Thomas French began covering Karen Gregory's murder 22 years ago, when he wrote the first of two series on the case for the Times. French later adapted the series into a nonfiction book called Unanswered Cries.

On the Web

To read one of French's original series, go to
life.tampabay.com.

A cry in the night: Can technology settle murder doubts? 04/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 3:54pm]

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