TAMPA — Christopher Hanney waited two years to tell a jury how he'd been wrongfully accused of setting his wife on fire. Lawyers from around the Hillsborough County Courthouse came to hear him do that on Wednesday.
The crowded courtroom heard plenty.
In a breathless staccato, Hanney told a harrowing tale of being tied up by his wife and an armed, masked accomplice and nearly shot in the head and burned to death before a miraculous escape.
He said his wife had surprised him with a butcher knife in his kitchen. "I got you," she said. They struggled for the knife. He felt a gun poke him in the back of the head. A man stood behind him in a red devil mask.
They forced him into the garage. He grabbed a hammer, swung at the masked man, but struck his wife instead.
They tied him to a chair. The masked man held the gun, muffled by a pillow, to his face. The gunman demanded the personal identification number to his ATM card. Hanney's wife sent out fake text messages to his family on his cell phone. She laughed as she texted.
Then she stood ready with a lighted candle and a bottle of gasoline.
"He picks up the pillow and holds it to my face.
"I'm kicking, kicking.
"My feet hit her.
"She went up in a fireball."
Hanney said he broke free from the chair. The masked man disappeared. Hanney tried to save his wife by smothering the flames with a blanket.
With that, the defense rested its case.
For the past two years, Hanney's wife, Audrey Mabrey, has told another story — that of a survivor of domestic violence.
As Hanney stood trial this week on charges of attempted murder, aggravated battery and arson, she told a jury the story again. Her husband, she said, was jealous of an ex-boyfriend. They were divorcing. When she stopped by the marital home in Apollo Beach in November 2009, he forced her into the garage, tried to rape her, threw gasoline on her and set her on fire.
Her testimony was bolstered by the text messages sent from Hanney's phone minutes before the fire, read to the jury Wednesday.
"I'm sorry for all I've done," one said. "Now I am that monster she made me out to be."
Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Gabbard also asked Hanney about a letter he wrote to his wife after he first saw her burns during an earlier court hearing.
The letter began, "Hello Audrey."
"I am sorry," Hanney wrote. "I know you cannot feel how sorry I am with just words. … I cried so bad because I was the one who hurt you. … I do ask you to please forgive me and to voice it at my sentencing."
Gabbard asked Hanney what he was sorry about. Hadn't he been the intended victim?
"She's the mother of my children," he said. "If I'd just let them kill me, Audrey wouldn't have been burned."
Gabbard bore in.
"It was you who threw gasoline on her, wasn't it?"
"No, I did not."
"You were the one who forced her into the garage. You were the one who picked up a candle. You were the one who poured gas on her. You were the one who set her on fire."
"No," Hanney said. "I did not."
Lawyers will make closing arguments this morning before the six jurors begin deliberating. The charges of attempted first-degree murder with a weapon and aggravated battery with great bodily harm are each punishable by up to life in prison. The arson charge could carry 30 years.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.