TAMPA — As she learned her septuagenarian husband would not be punished for killing her 32-year-old lover, Johnna Lynn Flores, 41, cried tears of joy.
"I am elated, absolutely elated," Flores said outside the Tampa courtroom where her spouse, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Wald, 70, was acquitted of second-degree murder Thursday.
Once Wald was released from jail, she said, he had promised her a special celebration. "Because my husband puts me first, he's taking me to the Waffle House," Flores said.
It was what amounted to a happy ending for the starring couple in a tragic and inimitably Floridian morality tale involving sex, liquor, self-defense law, erectile dysfunction and a man shot to death with his pants around his knees.
After two days of testimony in Hillsborough Circuit Court, a jury decided Wald committed no crime when he fatally shot Walter Conley, a man less than half his age, on March 10. Wald woke around midnight in his Brandon home and found Conley and Flores having sex on the floor in the living room. He took a .38 revolver from his bedroom and shot Conley in the stomach and head.
Prosecutors argued that Wald, who suffered from erectile dysfunction, killed Conley in a jealous rage when he discovered him with Flores.
"It's a personal insult to conduct that kind of activity in a man's home, his castle. It cuts to the quick. It's brazen," Assistant State Attorney Chris Moody said in closing arguments Thursday. "That kind of deep and personal insult, when you find another man having sex in your living room and you can't, would make you want to lash out. And he did."
However, Wald's attorneys argued he did not recognize Conley — a resident of Lovers Lane in Riverview and old flame of Flores — and shot him thinking he was an intruder raping his wife. They invoked the state's "stand your ground" self-defense law, noting that Wald had "no duty to retreat" when facing perceived danger within his own home.
"This is a military man," said Joe Episcopo, Wald's Tampa-based attorney, noting that Wald had been decorated for valor in combat during the Vietnam War. He said Wald was "trained what you do with the enemy … you take your gun and kill the enemy."
Flores, the surviving central actor in the episode besides Wald, testified she was "black-out" drunk the night of the shooting after consuming a large quantity of cognac and remembered almost nothing.
It took jurors about two hours to reach a verdict.
Episcopo, whose melodramatic touch was on display at the trial — in his closing statement he quoted Rudyard Kipling's poem Gunga Din staring at his client and saying, "You're a better man than I am, Mr. Wald!" — called the outcome appropriate for a man he called a "hero."
"That same Constitution that he defended came to his aid when he needed it," Episcopo said. "He is the kind of American who has made this country great."
Yet there was little glory in the details that emerged over two days of tabloid-ready testimony that focused on Wald's sexless marriage, Flores' drinking problem and the lurid circumstances of the killing.
Testifying Thursday, Wald said he hoped to salvage his marriage despite all of it.
"That's my hope," he said. "I love my wife."
Before the shooting, the couple had agreed to undergo therapy for their sexual problems.
"In fact, she would joke a lot with me … that we were a perfect couple," Wald said. "She didn't want to do it, and I couldn't do it."
But when the trial concluded, and Wald embraced his lawyers, and Flores quietly wiped her eyes, there was a group of men and women who found nothing about what had happened funny. They refused to speak to a Tampa Bay Times reporter, saying they were disgusted with press coverage the case had received.
They were the surviving family members of Walter Conley, and in the seconds after the verdict was read they sat very still, their backs straight against a courtroom bench, holding tight to one another's hands as though the floor had just dropped out beneath their feet.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.