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2010 in review | Courts

12 months of disturbing trials in Pasco County

A neo-Nazi got a life sentence for a hate-fueled killing. Three young rapists faced a judge. A ruined attorney went to prison. A lawsuit resulted in a murder victim being blamed for her own death.

That's just a sample of the news from the Pasco courthouses in 2010.

It took two trials, but in December, John Ditullio, a young recruit in a small west Pasco American Nazi group, was convicted of stabbing two people in a 2006 rampage, killing one. He was spared the death penalty. Ditullio, 24, had gone to trial in December 2009, but the jury deadlocked.

The year saw the conclusion of two horrific rapes in Zephyrhills in 2007. The elderly victims each had to testify four times in the trials of Jathniel McMichael and Bobby Lee Black III about how the men broke into their homes late at night and brutalized them. Both men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

A similar attack in Port Richey in April 2009 yielded 30-year sentences for the young teens accused. Carlos Fernandez and Luis Reyes each pleaded no contest to two counts of sexual battery, burglary and home invasion robbery. Authorities said teens, who were 15 and 14 at the time, the ransacked the home of an 89-year-old woman and raped her. A third defendant, Johnathan Rodriguez, who was 20, worked out a deal for 20 years in prison with prosecutors, who said he was less culpable than the others.

Two murder trials this year resulted in acquittals. Max Horn shot a man outside a downtown New Port Richey bar after the 2008 Chasco Fiesta parade, but claimed self-defense under Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people to meet force with force when they feel threatened. Joseph Martell, who was unarmed but much larger than Horn, died in the incident. The jury found Horn not guilty.

Anthony Harris was accused of killing Cleo Stinyard in a drug-related shooting in Dade City in June 2009, but after hearing conflicting witness accounts, the jury acquitted Harris. Not long later, though, Harris was indicted in another Dade City murder, and in the meantime, was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in Zephyrhills.

Among the year's more unusual cases were Steve Cruz and Christopher Wells.

Cruz, a felon with a history of drug addiction, was waiting outside a Hudson department store on Nov. 12, 2008, when 62-year-old Linda Roma walked out with her daughter. Cruz grabbed Roma's purse and jumped into a car. Roma fell and struck her head on the pavement and died the next morning with a skull fracture. Prosecutors acknowledged that Cruz probably didn't intend to kill anyone, but because Roma died as he was committing a felony, he could be guilty of murder.

The jury agreed. Cruz got life in prison.

Christopher Wells had pleaded to aggravated child abuse in 1989 for injuring his 2-month-old daughter, Christina. He went to prison for a year and she was adopted, but she had permanent disabilities, never learning to speak or walk.

When Christina died in 2006, prosecutors charged Wells with her murder, contending that her death was a homicide caused by complications of blunt trauma inflicted by her father years ago. Instead of risking a life sentence at trial, Wells pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in March and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Voters re-elected two Pasco judges to the bench: County Judge Debra Roberts and Circuit Judge Michael Andrews. And this summer, the court system put a mediation program in place to help manage the unending tide of foreclosure cases still being filed as a result of the housing market crash.

Disbarred attorney Jessica Miller, who was accused along with her former paralegal of stealing thousands in clients' money, pleaded guilty to grand theft and was sentenced to more than four years in prison. Kristen Collins Lausberg, the paralegal, nearly cut a deal with prosecutors that would have kept her out of prison, but a judge refused to approve it. Her case is still pending.

In civil court, a jury heard the lawsuit of a woman who sued an apartment complex over the death of her daughter. Sandra Delancey said that Carlton Arms in New Port Richey failed to enforce its own security policies, which led to her daughter's murder in 2004. Adam Calcote, who was staying at the complex with his girlfriend, struck up a conversation one night with Kim Delancey, a 27-year-old special education teacher. When they went inside, authorities said, he raped her and then smothered her with a pillow. He went to prison for life in 2005.

Delancey's lawsuit said Carlton Arms should be held liable because it failed for months to notice that Calcote was living there. He was not on his girlfriend's lease, which enabled him to avoid the required background check that might have revealed he was using a fake name and had an out-of-state arrest warrant for arson.

The jury agreed that Carlton Arms was negligent, but found that Kim Delancey was more responsible because she was intoxicated at the time of her death.

The complex didn't have to pay any damages.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

12 months of disturbing trials in Pasco County 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 9:54pm]

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