TAMPA — Cop killer Carlos Bello, who claimed for decades that he was too mentally ill to understand his first-degree murder conviction, announced Wednesday he perfectly understood an offer of life in prison instead of his original death sentence.
Bello's acceptance of life with no chance of parole ended a 30-year wait for justice for the family of Tampa police Detective Gerald A. Rauft, fatally shot by Bello during a 1981 drug sting gone awry.
"Thank you for coming forward and taking your punishment, even though it's long overdue," said the detective's daughter, Patricia, who was 11 years old when her 38-year-old father was killed. She said it seemed like yesterday. She still can't stomach chicken and yellow rice, the meal her mother had prepared that day.
Only two months ago, Bello's attorney had said the defendant seemed unable to understand court proceedings. But in the past month, Bello expressed his complete understanding of an offer of life over death.
"He wants the state offer," assistant public defender Charles Traina said Wednesday.
In the 1980s, Bello was examined at least three times and found incompetent to stand trial. Doctors didn't deny he was mentally ill, but said he took advantage of his illness by exaggerating symptoms.
Bello tried to commit suicide. He became catatonic. Doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and medicated him at a hospital. He stopped taking his medications in jail.
Six years after his arrest, a jury convicted him of killing Rauft and attempting to murder another detective. A judge sentenced him to die in the electric chair.
But in 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the sentence, partly because Bello was made to wear leg shackles in court, which could have prejudiced the jury. The court ordered Bello resentenced.
Each time prosecutors tried, Bello had to be re-evaluated by mental health experts. Every time, he was declared incompetent.
Finally, last February, a psychologist who observed Bello for eight months said he was faking it, and Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta declared him competent.
Offered a chance to speak before sentencing Wednesday, Bello asked only for reassurances he was getting the life sentence. His nephew also spoke, asking that Bello serve his sentence in South Florida, where his family lives, and receive mental health care.
Patricia Rauft's sister, Kimberly, who was 12 when their father died, reminded Bello that "you have never apologized, nor has your family, not once."
Bello, hollow-eyed and skeletal, remained silent.
In tears, Patricia Rauft made a prediction:
"When you reach the heavenly gates, Detective Gerald Rauft will be waiting to beat the s--- out of your sorry a--. I promise you that."
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]