BROOKSVILLE — Last year, a jury decided that Kirk Bleich Jr. was one of two armed men who broke into a Spring Hill woman's home one morning in 2010 and robbed her. A judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison.
Now he is a free man.
Another jury, hearing the case after Bleich's first conviction was overturned on appeal, took 90 minutes Wednesday to acquit him of home invasion robbery. The 50-year-old Brooksville resident faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
When the clerk read the verdict, Bleich nodded his head, smiled and looked back at his mother. Then he took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes before bailiffs led him away to be officially discharged.
Over two days, jurors heard the same evidence presented in the first trial except for one crucial statement — from Bleich's brother, implicating him in the crime.
Just before dawn on 2010, according to testimony, two men wearing ski masks and brandishing handguns barged into the bedroom of Tracy Paulk Blake, a disabled 47-year-old woman with a plethora of prescribed medications. Claiming to be police officers on a raid, they demanded drugs and money.
Barak Bleich, Kirk's brother, later told detectives that he and Kirk committed the robbery. Barak pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Kirk, a felon who had served time for burglary, battery, and drug and weapons possession, opted to go to trial.
Barak later told prosecutors he would not testify against his brother. He claimed that he couldn't remember whether Kirk had participated in the robbery. Assistant State Attorney Rob Lewis called Barak Bleich as a witness in his brother's first trial and, when he claimed he couldn't remember, played a video recording of his interview with detectives.
The appellate court ruled that Lewis impeached Barak as a witness by calling him for the sole purpose of introducing an inconsistent, "extremely prejudicial" statement that otherwise would have been inadmissible.
That left Lewis, when Bleich's second trial started Tuesday, with a case built on circumstantial evidence. Jurors were told that Barak Bleich pleaded guilty to the crime, but not about his prior testimony. He was not called to testify.
Blake testified that she met Kirk Bleich through a woman named Sheri Schoonover, who cleaned Blake's house in exchange for some of her OxyContin pills. Blake said Schoonover brought Kirk Bleich a couple of times to help clean.
Blake said she was in her bed when the men barged in about 5 a.m. on June 19, 2010. They took pill bottles, her iPhone and some ammunition, among other items.
Something about the man who did the talking seemed familiar, Blake said. Later that day, she told Schoonover she suspected it was Kirk Bleich. Schoonover got Kirk on the phone so she could hear his voice.
"That's the son of a b- - - - that was in my bedroom this morning," Blake recalled telling Schoonover, who also testified and corroborated the account.
According to testimony, the Kirk brothers stayed with their parents in Brooksville — Barak in the house, Kirk in a travel trailer on the property. In the house, detectives found Blake's cellphone, some of her medication bottles and a ski mask with Kirk Bleich's DNA on it. In the travel trailer, investigators found one of Blake's OxyContin bottles and Kirk Bleich's work ID card.
"The only reasonable conclusion is that Kirk Bleich was the other person," Lewis told jurors during closing arguments.
Defense attorney Peyton Hyslop told the jury there was plenty of reasonable doubt. Blake said the robber she thought was Kirk Bleich had green or hazel eyes. Kirk's are brown. Kirk grew up in his parents' house, so finding a ski mask there that he had worn wasn't unusual. And finding Blake's stolen goods anywhere on property frequented by the man who already pleaded guilty to the crime doesn't prove Kirk's guilt, Hyslop said. If anything, he said, Kirk is guilty of telling his brother that Blake had pills she was willing to sell or trade.
"Everything here that ties Kirk Jr. to this is either circumstantial or suspect," Hyslop said.
Melanie Fielder served as jury forewoman.
"The evidence we had to work with is what we based our decision on," Fielder said.
Does that mean she thought Bleich was guilty?
She declined to say.