Thursday, November 23, 2017

Trial opens in killing of mother of two

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Ebony Stewart died on the dark tile floor of a home in St. Petersburg, prosecutors say, because one man she didn't know owed money to another man she didn't know.

Three years ago, one of those men walked into a Pinellas pawn shop and spotted his own bracelet on sale. The man asked who had pawned the piece of jewelry, and he was given a name: Ronnie Betts.

Incensed, he confronted Betts, who is his cousin. Betts, a felon on probation, insisted he would make it right. He had a plan.

Assistant State Attorney Natalie Scruggs explained that alleged plan to a 12-person jury Wednesday afternoon. Betts, now 24, has been charged with Stewart's murder and the attempted murder of two other people. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

On the night of March 23, 2011, more than a dozen friends and family members gathered for a regular card game at a green block house in the Jordan Park neighborhood. Stewart got a call from her boyfriend about 10:45 p.m., so she and her friend, Nicole Eubanks, readied to leave.

As Stewart walked to the door, she heard a faint knock. She opened it and, investigators say, Betts leveled a semiautomatic handgun at her chest and pulled the trigger. He stepped by the bleeding mother of two and kept firing.

A 58-year-old woman holding an 18-month-old toddler was shot, as was a 28-year-old man. Both survived.

Another man, still not identified, stood in the doorway with an assault rifle. They demanded money and purses.

Eubanks, the prosecution's first witness Wednesday, scrambled to the bathroom and out a back window. She hid behind a nearby building. The robbery complete, the two men fled to an awaiting red car, just feet from where Eubanks was hiding. After they left, she went back to the house. Eubanks tried to push open the front door, but something blocked her path.

"It was her body," Eubanks said of Stewart. "I laid on the ground with her."

Bloody playing cards all around, Eubanks watched her friend die. She was 27.

At the defense table, Betts, his hand on his chin, appeared unmoved by her testimony or the gruesome images of the woman he's accused of killing. He wore a gray suit and a spotted black tie.

Scruggs told jurors that, amid the chaos, only one person at the home got a good enough look at Betts' face to later identify him, but she insisted investigators had other evidence: Betts borrowed a friend's red car that day; cell tower records showed his cell phone in the area at the time of the shooting; his cousin later saw purses in the red car; people heard Betts say he didn't know "there were going to be women in there" and told them to "watch the news" when they asked what he meant.

How defense attorneys will refute those allegations remains unclear. They chose not present an opening statement.

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