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Daughter testifies about fatal purse snatching outside T.J. Maxx

Steve Cruz, 39, right, sits with attorney Dean Livermore during his trial on first-degree murder.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Steve Cruz, 39, right, sits with attorney Dean Livermore during his trial on first-degree murder.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jennifer Roma took one look at the man lurking outside the T.J. Maxx where she'd been shopping with her mother and clutched tighter to her purse.

Before she knew it, he swept around behind her and grabbed at her mother's purse. Linda Roma didn't let go.

"She was really fighting," Jennifer Roma, 34, testified Monday.

In the struggle, the man got hold of the handbag, and Linda Roma fell and struck her head on the ground.

The next day, after suffering bleeding in her brain, she died in a Tampa hospital. She was 62.

Authorities charged Steve Anthony Cruz, 39, with felony first-degree murder. His trial started Monday. Even though authorities acknowledge he likely didn't go to the shopping center that night to kill anyone, he can be charged with murder because Linda Roma died during the commission of a felony — in this case, strong-arm robbery.

Cruz's girlfriend, Lisa Dillard, drove the getaway car the night of the attack, Nov. 12, 2008, authorities say. The two were captured on a Walmart surveillance video trying to use Roma's credit card an hour after the incident. Authorities spread pictures from that video around, and tips led to the arrests a few days later.

Dillard, 41, was charged with being an accessory after the fact. She pleaded no contest last year and was sentenced to more than three years in prison. She is expected to testify this week.

Linda Roma was a retired nurse and full-time caretaker for her ailing husband, Ralph. They had just celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary.

Jennifer Roma bought a house less than 2 miles from her parents' place in Hudson. With her husband working late, she and her mother decided to go shopping. They were looking for household items, and they debated between JCPenney and T.J. Maxx. The decision still haunts Jennifer Roma today, she said.

She broke down several times on the witness stand, but still described the incident in sharp detail. She said she was trying to imprint the incident in her mind as it was happening — the appearance and race of the attacker, the way she screamed profanities as she chased him, the fact there was no tag on the getaway car.

Most vivid was the image of Linda Roma, splayed out on the parking lot pavement.

"My mother was on her stomach, and she had her hands braced against the ground," Jennifer Roma testified. "I was trying to talk to her and she didn't respond. She was vomiting."

Cruz's attorneys acknowledge that he went to T.J. Maxx that night and snatched Linda Roma's purse. But they say the state is relying on the memories of witnesses who were traumatized by what they saw to make the case for murder.

"It's going to become obvious that people who shared this event have differing memories of it," Assistant Public Defender Violet Assaid told the 12-member jury.

Dean Livermore, Cruz's other public defender, asked Jennifer Roma whether she might have been the one to knock her mother down when she went after Cruz.

"Absolutely not," she said.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Daughter testifies about fatal purse snatching outside T.J. Maxx 02/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 1:24am]

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