LARGO — Only days before the start of a murder trial, a new and potentially crucial piece of evidence has surfaced — a .25-caliber handgun that may have been used in the killing.
The last-minute discovery was discussed in a Friday morning court hearing for Cody Dials, one of three men accused in the 2012 death of David Rhea, a 39-year-old commercial fisherman from Pinellas Park.
Attorneys plan to meet again Monday to discuss whether experts at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have linked the gun to bullets and shell casings found at the murder scene.
It's a rare, 11th-hour twist in a murder case, more reminiscent of movies and detective novels than the normally plodding pace of real-life trials.
Dials, who is being held in the Pinellas County Jail, is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday, but the new evidence could lead to a delay.
According to the discussion in court Friday, authorities believe Dials wrote a letter and drew a map, and sent them surreptitiously to another jail inmate. It's not yet clear who the letter and map were being sent to, or why. It also has not been proven that Dials actually wrote the letter — but it does have his fingerprints on it, attorneys said.
Authorities screen the mail that jail inmates send out to friends and relatives, and inmates often are aware of that. But this letter was being handed from inmate to inmate, and had not been sent through U.S. mail.
An inmate forwarded the letter to an attorney, who gave it to authorities. Pinellas Park Detective Roxanne Hunt followed instructions in the letter and followed the map to a canal off 93rd Avenue N, said Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John.
There, Hunt found the .25-caliber gun, which was missing the magazine. St. John said a magazine to a .25-caliber gun had been found at the murder scene.
It's not immediately clear how the discovery affects the trial. Dials' attorney, Andrew Crawford, who is with the Office of Regional Conflict Counsel, asked to be removed from the case because the new evidence creates a problem of legal ethics. To get to the bottom of the letter, he may need to cross-examine an inmate who helped uncover it. But the inmate also is a client of the Regional Counsel's office, creating a conflict of interest. If Dials gets a new attorney, it would undoubtably create a delay, because he or she could not prepare for a murder defense by Tuesday.
But Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Cynthia Newton urged Crawford to consider some other legal reasons that could benefit the defense if the case is tried next week.
She scheduled a follow-up hearing for Monday, in hopes of hearing by then whether FDLE investigators found that the gun was the same one used in the murder.
Rhea was shot and killed on May 7, 2012, and three young men were arrested for the crime.
It was known that Rhea did not trust banks, and kept thousands of dollars in cash. Two of the three men accused in his death had been friends of his, almost looking to him as a father figure. Those two include Dials, 20, and Randy White, 21. Zachary Perrine, 23, also has been charged.
The three will be tried separately, and Dials is the first scheduled case.
While in jail, Dials got tattoos on his face of teardrops appearing to come out of his eyes, and words above his eyebrows that say "out of sight, out of mind." Judge Newton recently said she would allow the tattoos to be covered up with make-up during the trial.
Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected]mpabay.com or (727) 893-8232.