LARGO — Michael Scott Norris, who escaped last fall from a Pinellas work release center and killed two men working inside a St. Petersburg home, pleaded guilty to murder on Monday.
Norris, 36, was immediately sentenced to life in prison.
The deal with prosecutors — approved by the victims' families — means Norris no longer faces the possibility of being put to death for a crime authorities called brutal and random.
But officials also said the case further spotlights sloppy security procedures at the Goodwill-run Largo Residential Re-entry Center, where Norris, a serial burglar, stayed.
"There's two people dead," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. "If they had had tighter controls, he wouldn't have the flexibility to do what he did."
Meanwhile, a convicted murderer who was housed at the same Largo work release center was recently sent back to prison after state Sen. Jack Latvala complained about the inmate's presence there.
Latvala said he called a Department of Corrections official Saturday afternoon, just after the Tampa Bay Times published an investigation online about the number of violent criminals in Florida work release centers. The official promised to have the inmate, Andrew DeNapoli, moved later that night, Latvala said.
"I personally don't think murderers need to be in privately run work release facilities," Latvala said Monday. "I don't think they need to be there." A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said she was unable to provide a fuller explanation for the inmate's transfer.
Norris had lived at the Largo work release center, on U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, since late 2011.
He got a job washing dishes at a downtown St. Petersburg restaurant. But on Sept. 30, he left the center several hours before his shift was set to begin.
Police said he went to St. Petersburg and stole a gun from his ex-girlfriend's hotel room before making his way to the Historic Kenwood neighborhood.
No one is sure why he broke into a brown bungalow where Bruce Johnson, 51, of St. Petersburg, and Arthur Regula, 36, of Hudson, worked. Johnson, an interior designer, and Regula, a tile tradesman, were helping the homeowner remodel.
Neither victim knew Norris or had any connection to him, police said.
Both were shot to death. Norris then set the home on fire to cover his crime, police said.
Norris slipped away from the scene without rousing neighbors, who wondered about the mysterious blaze. But Norris left behind his backpack, with his ID.
He was arrested within days. Prosecutors said they spoke to the victims' families before agreeing to the plea arrangement.
"Today was bittersweet," said Mitch Harrison, whose home was torched. "He took them from us, two very dear, sweet people who did nothing. Nothing."
On Monday, Norris actually received three life sentences — one for each murder and one for armed burglary.
"I think it was a reasonable result," Bartlett said. "It puts some closure to everything for the victims' families."
For many close to the victims, Monday was the first time they felt up to describing the pain they suffered because of the murders. Several spoke at the court hearing Monday morning.
They told Norris he'd destroyed more than just two lives. He also ripped apart the lives of those who loved Johnson and Regula and scarred the community.
Norris did not look up as the victims' families spoke, those who were in the courtroom said.
He offered no apology.
"I know for criminals like him it wouldn't matter what I said," said Maikel Mahadeo, Regula's partner. "It was not for him, it was for me. I felt that I needed to do it to help me heal. I went today for Arthur. I felt it was my job to do this for him."
Mahadeo, who is originally from Surinam in South America, and Regula, a native of Poland, met a decade ago.
They immigrated to the United States from opposite sides of the world but fell in love. They watched each other become citizens and built a home together. Regula did all the tile work.
"He took away someone that was wonderful," Mahadeo said. "I didn't have a chance to say goodbye. All I have now is memories."
Johnson's friends said the last few months have been a struggle. They said they miss Johnson, who always made people laugh and often was the first to comfort a friend in need. In addition to his design work, Johnson volunteered at a local hospice center.
"I'm trying to hold my head up and trying to move on," said Harrison, who had stepped out for an errand when the murders and fire happened. Harrison said he's relying on his faith, family and friends. "I can't live without them, and they're helping me get through this," he said.
At one point, when the judge asked if he was taking any medication, Norris said he was taking antidepression medication because he was no longer taking steroids. It was not clear why he would have been taking steroids as a prisoner, but the police investigation did indicate he previously worked out in a downtown St. Petersburg gym, even while on work release.
"It absolutely was a horrific crime," Bartlett said after the hearing. It was particularly scary because unlike many violent crimes, Norris had no connection to the victims. He was "walking down the street, picked a house on a Sunday morning and shot two people."
Bartlett also said the facts of the case — that Norris managed to get out of the work release center so early, that he had access to a gun, that he obtained cellphones, which he wasn't supposed to have — "certainly suggest a lack of oversight by the work release center."
A subsequent police investigation also found that Norris struck up a relationship with a female employee at the work release center, which got her fired last year.
Bartlett said the concern of residents nearby the work release center would "certainly be well-founded just based on this case in and of itself."
The Times' investigation showed even though work release often is billed as a program for nonviolent offenders, 17.6 percent of the 3,495 prisoners in work release centers are serving time for a violent crime, including 20 murderers.
DeNapoli, the inmate moved from the Largo center on Saturday, was convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder for shooting a friend in the head during a drug deal in St. Petersburg. He is now at Polk Correctional Institution, according to DOC records.
State officials have defended putting killers and other violent felons into work release and said they only pick inmates who have had good records in prison.
Latvala said he is strongly considering some sort of legislative action to address the issue of violent offenders in work release.
"They've got to tighten up the standards on who's eligible," Latvala said.