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Church youth leader's murder trial begins

Ron Tomlinson hugs his daughter, Cherie Tomlinson, 16, as they listen to testimony during the Joshua Rosa murder trial, which began on Tuesday. 

KEN HELLE | Times

Ron Tomlinson hugs his daughter, Cherie Tomlinson, 16, as they listen to testimony during the Joshua Rosa murder trial, which began on Tuesday. 

TAMPA — Ron Tomlinson waited 2 1/2 years to see the man accused of killing his 13-year-old son stand trial.

Testimony began Tuesday, bringing relief but also fresh pain. Tomlinson listened as jurors heard about Joshua Rosa, 22, who attended community college and volunteered as a church youth leader before being charged with first-degree murder in the death of his young neighbor.

Ron Tomlinson and his family knew the gruesome details, how Stephen Tomlinson had been strangled at dusk in a park in Carrollwood's Logan Gate Village and was found lying on his back with his jeans pulled down around his ankles.

But when prosecutors flashed Exhibit 15A on a screen — a close-up photo of Stephen's bloody face — the brutality proved too much for one of Tomlinson's sons.

"Stay calm, stay calm," a friend whispered, but Ronnie Tomlinson Jr., 18, rose from the back of the courtroom and cursed in a low voice at Rosa. A bailiff shepherded him out. His father hurried after him, banging the door.

The testimony barely paused.

It was like Dec. 8, 2005, all over again as witnesses recounted their memories from that day.

Kevin Whiteley and two other young men had driven to the park to party with beer and marijuana. They headed to "the cut," a secluded spot of the park with no lights or police.

They saw a flashlight coming out of the woods, Whiteley said, and thought it was the cops. Instead, it was Rosa, begging for a cell phone.

"There's a kid back there, possibly dead or hurt," Rosa said, according to Whiteley.

"Do you have any idea who it is?" Whiteley asked.

"No," Rosa said.

Someone called 911 at a home nearby. Whiteley went into the woods and saw a bike. It belonged to Stephen, whose family he knew well. Stephen's body lay not far from the bike.

Whiteley wiped tears from his eyes as he recalled lifting Stephen a couple of feet in the air as he looked and listened for signs of life. He put the teen back down, felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing.

He remembered seeing Rosa holding the white gloves that investigators later had tested.

Lab tests found Stephen's blood on the gloves and matched his DNA to fingernail clippers found in Rosa's jogging pants. Blood on Rosa's shoes, pants and hands matched Tomlinson, too, Assistant State Attorney Christopher Moody said during his opening statement.

Prosecutors said there were signs of a struggle. DNA evidence taken from Stephen's fingernails suggested a possible link to Rosa, who had scratches on his arm.

But defense attorney Brian Gonzalez said authorities arrested the wrong man. He said prosecutors had only circumstantial evidence. No confession or eyewitnesses linked Rosa to the death of the young man with whom he had once played video games and attended church services.

"He tried to save Stephen Tomlinson" after finding him in the woods, Gonzalez said.

On Tuesday, Ron Tomlinson searched for emotion in Rosa's face and saw none. Since Stephen died, the father successfully petitioned the county for upgraded fencing and lighting at the park, then filed a negligence lawsuit to punctuate his point.

He has been a fixture at Rosa's pretrial hearings, often accompanied by his twin brother, Donald. The men share tired eyes, weathered faces, quick tempers. The outburst in court Tuesday spilled into the hallway, where the men and Stephen's older brother made threats against Rosa and bailiffs. Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente warned them to behave or risk getting banned from the courtroom.

Ron Tomlinson apologized. During a smoke break a short while later, he pushed up an arm of his gray suit jacket to reveal a blue ink tattoo of his dead son's face. Yes, Tomlinson said, he was glad that the trial had finally come.

"I've been waiting too long," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Church youth leader's murder trial begins 07/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 5:24pm]

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