TAMPA — Lt. Col. Ralph Lewis Wald awoke one night in March to find his fifth wife having sex with another man. Wald killed the guy on the spot with a .38 revolver.
Can you blame him?
The legal version of that question loomed over the first day of testimony in a second-degree murder trial that is laying bare the tawdry details of a love triangle involving a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, his hard-drinking wife and the ill-fated Lothario from Lovers Lane (the victim's home street) who came between them.
Wald, 70, doesn't deny the shooting. He was the one who called 911 on the night of March 10, right after he found his wife, Johnna Lynn Flores, 41, having sex on the living-room floor of their Brandon home with an old flame. "Some guy was fornicating with my wife," Wald told the dispatcher in a recording played Wednesday in Hillsborough Circuit Court. "I got my gun, and I shot him."
But Wald's defense lawyers said he did not at the time recognize his wife's 32-year-old lover, Walter Conley of Riverview, and was acting to defend himself and Flores. Awakening around midnight to get a glass of water, they asserted, Wald saw the pair in flagrante delicto and thought Flores was being raped. He took his gun from the bedroom and shot Conley three times, including in the head and stomach.
Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Renee Muratti told the jury there was no evidence the act was not consensual. Flores had had an on-again, off-again relationship with Conley for years, Muratti said.
"He didn't hear his wife crying for help or screaming for help," Muratti said. "He shot Walter Conley not once, not twice, but three times, all before Walter Conley was even able to finish pulling his pants up."
Flores, who testified Wednesday, was not able to shed much light on the shooting.
She said she was "drunk and probably passed out" that night after consuming three measuring cups of cognac.
The last thing she clearly recalls, she said, was watching Ever After: A Cinderella Story with Wald before he went to bed. She has a hazy recollection of gunfire later in the evening.
"I was told by the detectives that my husband said that he saw some man fornicating with his wife," she said. "I'm going by what my husband said."
Conley was unlucky in the man he cuckolded. Before he became a legal-aid attorney, Wald was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1969, he was awarded the prestigious Silver Star, one of the highest decorations for military valor.
According to a government commendation, he received the medal in Vietnam, after a grenade was thrown into the midst of a group of soldiers under his command. Keeping calm despite wounds to his face, Wald turned his attention to the grenade's origin: a set of enemy "spider holes" along a hedge row.
"Hurling grenades into the hedge rows, he destroyed two hostile positions and began routing the enemy from the holes, killing each occupant as he came to them," the commendation reads.
Flores herself had a turbulent relationship with Conley, whom she said she once employed for her fencing company. Last year, she said, less than two weeks before she and Wald were married, Conley tried to sneak into her house. She fired a "warning shot" in his direction from a shotgun, she said.
Despite these ups and downs, and Flores' marriage to Wald on Halloween last year, Conley appears to have been devoted to her. He had tattoos of her name on his neck and of her face on his forearm, his brother testified.
"I had sex with Walter because he's 10 years younger (than me) and doesn't look like or remind me of my stepfather," Flores said. She testified she had been sexually assaulted by her stepfather as a girl and since then has disliked sex with older men.
Wald's lawyer, Joe Episcopo of Tampa, also said in his opening statement that his client suffered from erectile dysfunction. "To this day," Episcopo said, "his marriage has not been consummated."
He said Wald and Flores agreed to undergo counseling for their sexual issues before the shooting.
The trial continues today, when Wald is expected to testify.
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.