LARGO — Thirty-two years after the fact, a witness appeared in court on Tuesday and contradicted the official account of what Robert Waterhouse did on the night Deborah Kammerer was murdered.
But it's not clear if Tuesday's testimony will make a difference for Waterhouse, who is scheduled to be executed next month.
Leglio Sotolongo came forward to tell what he recalled about that 1980 night, saying he felt it was his responsibility to set the record straight.
But the condemned man chose not to listen in on the hearing that could help decide how long he lives. Waterhouse is in prison, but he spoke briefly by telephone with Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach and said he did not wish to participate.
Sotolongo, now 55, was a doorman at the ABC Lounge on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg in 1980 and knew Waterhouse as a regular patron. He saw Waterhouse on the night of the murder and says he told a detective that Waterhouse left the bar with two men that night.
That's significant because at trial, a bartender testified she saw Waterhouse leave the bar with the victim — a more incriminating version. Kammerer was raped and beaten to death and found in St. Petersburg's Lassing Park.
Now, based partly on Sotolongo's testimony, defense attorney Robert Norgard is seeking to throw out the death penalty and win a new trial for Waterhouse. A decision from Beach is expected later this week.
Sotolongo said that after he saw a recent Tampa Bay Times story recounting the case, he felt it was important to come forward and say Waterhouse left the bar that night with two men, not with the woman who was killed. He says he spoke to a friend who told him, " 'It's a serious issue.' I agreed.''
But the next person on the stand was Gary Hitchcox, the former detective who took Sotolongo's statement 32 years ago. He flatly denied Sotolongo ever told him that Waterhouse left with two men, instead of with the victim.
"I say it's false," Hitchcox said Tuesday, speaking of Sotolongo's account. He said if Sotolongo had told him about Waterhouse leaving with two men, he not only would have made notes and written it up in his police report, he would have considered it an exciting new wrinkle in the investigation.
"If that had been told to me, it would have been in the report," said Hitchcox, now an investigator with the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office.
There also was testimony on Tuesday about an incident that purportedly happened months after the time Hitchcox interviewed Sotolongo.
Sotolongo said he and a friend were at a different bar one night when Hitchcox approached the two of them and criticized them both for trying to help a murderer with their comments.
Sotolongo said he was so upset he later filed an internal affairs complaint against Hitchcox. But Hitchcox later responded from the witness stand: "Never happened." He said there was no such confrontation, and no such investigation.
Norgard said that although Sotolongo has been a known witness for decades, it was only discovered recently that his version of events contradicts others.
But Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said he considered Sotolongo's account a "fabrication." He also said there would have been enough evidence to charge Waterhouse with the murder even without testimony about who left the bar with whom.
Also on Tuesday, Beach denied the defense's motion to overturn Waterhouse's death sentence because evidence in the case was destroyed after the trial. If that evidence still existed, such as blood samples, modern DNA testing methods might have exonerated Waterhouse, his attorney said.
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8232.