Former youth leader guilty of killing teen; gets life without parole

TAMPA — For a moment Monday, the only sound in Courtroom 52A was the clerk reading the jury's verdict form in the first-degree murder trial of Joshua Rosa. In an even voice, she rattled off the formal charge and case number.

Then one word shattered the quiet.

"Guilty," she said.

Rosa's jaw dropped. The 22-year-old former church youth leader hung his head.

His father began to cry. His mother stared in stunned silence.

Ron Tomlinson, father of the 13-year-old boy whose Dec. 8, 2005, death prompted safety upgrades to Carrollwood's Logan Gate Park, smiled and whispered, "Thank you, God." Then he put his head in his hands and sobbed.

It had taken 2-½ years to get to this point. Supporters of the accused and the deceased sat on opposite sides of the courtroom for five days last week, then waited out a weekend recess after jurors said they wanted a break.

The 12 jurors deliberated a total of about five hours. Their decision left Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente with only one sentencing option for Rosa: life in prison without parole. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Rosa, who did not testify, spoke publicly for the first time after learning his fate. He said he understood why jurors would be suspicious of him, but he maintained that he had not killed Stephen Tomlinson in an isolated corner of the park.

"I still stand by my innocence," he said. "Those who have wronged me in this situation, I just pray that God has mercy upon them."

Ron Tomlinson said Rosa's words meant nothing. The father had no doubt about Rosa's guilt. But prosecutors offered no motive, leaving Tomlinson without greater understanding of why his son had been killed.

"We'll never get an answer," Tomlinson said. "Do I think he's going to tell me? No."

The Tomlinsons and Rosas once were neighbors. Stephen and Rosa occasionally spent time together, playing video games or attending church.

Stephen was strangled sometime before 8 p.m. He was found lying on his back, his jean shorts around his ankles and blood pouring from his nose. There was no evidence of sexual abuse.

A few hours before, Rosa's mother had seen her son and Stephen hanging out on her front porch. Others testified that they saw Rosa looking for Stephen and walking with a flashlight toward the park minutes after the younger teen rode his bike there.

Rosa, then 19, said he had gone running and was searching for his lost keys when he found Stephen's body. He said he tried to help the boy, wiping blood from his face with a pair of white church gloves that were a part of his Royal Rangers uniform.

At the time, Rosa was a full-time community college student, part-time employee at Sports Authority and leader in the Royal Rangers ministry at Zion Pentecostal Church. He had no prior criminal record.

Dozens of family members and supporters, many from the church, packed the courtroom each day of his trial and prayed outside.

"There would have been 1,000 people here if we had let them come," said defense attorney Brian Gonzalez. "It just wasn't something they could ever fathom him being capable of."

But prosecutors said Rosa's story didn't synch with the facts. They pointed out that he denied knowing who Stephen was when he ran from the woods purportedly looking for help. The Alonso High School graduate's keys were found beneath Stephen, and the younger teen's DNA was on both the bloody gloves and fingernail clippers Rosa had in his pocket. Rosa had Stephen's blood in the creases of his hands.

After the verdict was announced, Danny Rosa, the defendant's father, had to be escorted from the courtroom. His sobs could still be heard inside.

Ron Tomlinson, whose son's face is tattooed on his forearm, addressed the judge before sentencing. But his message was for Joshua Rosa alone.

"My life is destroyed," he said. "And I want him to know that's what he did to me."

Back in his seat, Tomlinson swapped his tie for a royal blue one that featured the Ten Commandments.

Centered in the middle in bold white letters, one message stood out.

Thou shalt not murder.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Former youth leader guilty of killing teen; gets life without parole 07/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 7:16pm]

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