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Confession from 1982 murders played in death penalty resentencing

LARGO — The state has called its last witness for now in the sentencing trial of Richard Michael Cooper.

Cooper, 50, has spent nearly 30 years on death row over his participation in the murders of Steven Fridella, 26; Bobby Martindale, 24; and Gary Petersen, 21. The three men were killed with shotgun blasts early June 18, 1982.

In 2011, a federal appeals court vacated Cooper's death sentence, saying that evidence of the childhood abuse he suffered should have been presented to the first jury.

Cooper seemed to listen attentively Thursday as prosecutors played his taped confession in a district courtroom. Cooper was 18 when he and three other Citrus County men piled into a 1969 Chevrolet and drove 70 miles to 6351 143rd Ave. near Largo, for what was supposed to be a robbery of money and marijuana.

Day two of the resentencing trial brought out some of the same witnesses and the same chilling details that have always marked this crime, known as the "High Point murders." Ron Beymer, the former Pinellas County sheriff's detective who conducted the taped interview and testified in the first trial, appeared again.

On the tape, a 19-year-old Cooper answered questions flatly and without elaboration. He recounted the apparent turning point, when Petersen recognized ringleader Jason Dirk "J.D." Walton despite his ski mask and said, "J.D., what are you doing?"

The confession also covered the moments after Cooper said he and Terry Van Royal, 19, shot the victims in their living room on Walton's orders.

According to Cooper then, he had walked outside into a storm, headed for the car. Walton, 23, came out after him, saying, "One ain't dead."

On the tape, Cooper said he re-entered the house and shot one of the men. Then he, Van Royal, Walton and Jeffrey H. McCoy, 18, headed back to Citrus County without discussing what had just happened.

The state concluded its witnesses with former FBI forensics examiner Robert Sibert, who analyzed two 12-gauge shotguns, along with their casings and pellets.

During cross-examination, Washington, D.C., lawyer Laura Fernandez, one of at least four on Cooper's defense team, questioned Beymer about other details of his original investigation. Those included unconfirmed reports of significant stashes of drugs hidden throughout the secluded house the victims shared and bad blood between Walton and two of the victims.

The defense is scheduled to start calling witnesses today.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

Confession from 1982 murders played in death penalty resentencing 02/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:48pm]
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