MASARYKTOWN — In this small community of canopied streets, dirt roads and acres of open pasture, the message to outsiders is clear: Keep your distance.
Most of the homes that line Korbus Street are ringed with chain-link fences and gates. And on them, residents prominently display many of the same signs: "Private Property," "No Trespassing," "Keep Out," and, the most popular, "Beware of Dog."
Around Masaryktown, population 920, few people have forgotten what happened at 333 Korbus Road in late October of 2006.
And they're doing their best to see that it never happens again.
"We had gotten a little too relaxed around here," said Niki Levesque, who operates the town's post office from a small building that once housed a Sheriff's Office substation. "A lot of people had been blind to the types of people who creep in the night."
Last week, authorities closed a chapter in one of the most gruesome crimes in local history when a 12-person jury convicted a 35-year-old Brooksville man in the fatal stabbings of Patrick DePalma, 84, and his wife, Evelyn, 79.
Jurors found Robert Jardin guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of robbery, one count of burglary of an occupied dwelling and one count of grand theft. At the jury's recommendation, Circuit Judge Jack Springstead sentenced him to life in prison.
Authorities have identified only Jardin publicly, though court affidavits and hundreds of pages of documents and interviews reveal that other suspects remain at large in the deaths. The Sheriff's Office declared the case inactive as of April 15.
That fact isn't lost on some Masaryktown residents, who were relieved by the verdict against Jardin, but remain uneasy about the possibility that the other killers could be on the loose.
"It worries the hell out of me," said Hilton Maldonado, who lives about a half-mile away from the DePalmas' old property. "People have put up some alarms. One even put up some cameras."
Over the past several years, few criminal cases in Hernando County have generated as much interest or as many headlines as the brutal deaths of the DePalmas.
This is especially true in Masaryktown, a 1-square-mile rural settlement just north of the Hernando-Pasco county line.
Because of the isolation and a relatively elderly population, many residents had come to believe violent crime was something reserved for larger places like Tampa, St. Petersburg or maybe even Spring Hill.
But not here, not in the shade of live oak trees, the peace of the country and the support of good neighbors.
"It shook the community up," said Levesque, who testified briefly during the trial. "We're trying to keep history from repeating itself."
"What do you think should happen to someone that is involved in the killing of two elderly people?"
Hernando sheriff's Detective John Cameron III
"… Basically an eye for an eye."
Jardin in an interview at the Sheriff's Office on July 10, 2008
Patrick and Evelyn DePalma moved to Masaryktown in 1985, a working-class couple from New Jersey who embraced a simple life that included Mass on Saturday and large Italian dinners with family and friends on Sunday afternoons.
After 62 years of marriage, these were supposed to be their golden years.
And then one day, one of their nephews — a regular guest — showed up for dinner on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2006, and waited for an answer at the door that never came.
When deputies got inside, they found that the DePalmas had been stabbed to death with a long-bladed knife and the house had been ransacked, with at least five items stolen: a Sanyo VCR, a Bissell vacuum, an RCA stereo, a wooden knife block with its knives and a rifle.
"I always thought that bad things couldn't happen to good people," Kyle DePalma, the couple's only grandson, told jurors.
A former Marine and divorced father of three, Jardin came to the attention of detectives in July 2008 after they received a tip connecting him to a bar fight. When Jardin went to the Sheriff's Office for a pair of interviews that month, questioning soon shifted to the murder case.
Jardin eventually admitted that he was at the DePalmas' home the night of the murders and saw the couple lying dead in a hallway.
"I keep … remembering that night," Jardin told detectives during the final interview. "It keeps … playing in my head over and over. I'm stuck in a nightmare."
Evidence showed that Jardin was at the home at the time of the slayings, but he insisted that two other men, whom he never fully identified, killed the couple.
After nearly two days of questioning and a lie-detector test, Jardin was arrested and charged with murder. Prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty.
"It was a difficult time. I'm not ready to talk about it."
Juror Frank Bubb in an interview at his Spring Hill home Thursday
The jury of 12 — five older than 60, one younger than 40, none from Masaryktown — returned with a guilty verdict after 15 hours of deliberations over two days, following a weeklong trial.
When the jurors returned to the courtroom Tuesday afternoon to announce their decision, at least two of the female jurors had tears in their eyes.
Those tears were the reflection of seven days of graphic crime-scene pictures, a complicated set of instructions and emotionally charged deliberations, according to jurors who spoke with the St. Petersburg Times.
"I'm just glad it's over," said Olga Rodriguez of Webster.
"It's not something that I'm ready to talk about," said Richard Ortiz of Brooksville.
"I'm tired of thinking about it," said Charles Cole of Brooksville.
But one juror, Jeannette McCants, spoke freely about what happened in the jury room once attorneys finished their closing arguments Monday morning. A married mother of three from Puerto Rico who moved to Spring Hill in 2002, McCants said she had never served on a jury before.
In fact, McCants said, she had never even heard of the double murder in Masaryktown before she was seated on the jury.
McCants said jurors started deliberations with a quick vote to see which way they were leaning: Seven jurors thought Jardin was guilty; five others favored a not-guilty verdict. That kicked off a series of heated arguments.
"There was banging on tables, people were yelling, tears were flowing in there," she said. "It was that intense."
Over the next few hours, jurors debated the veracity of Jardin's testimony, weighing the forensic evidence and attempting to grasp the complexity of Florida's felony murder law.
In Florida and about 35 other states, a defendant can be charged with felony murder if, in the process, two or more people commit a dangerous felony together, such as armed robbery or burglary. Thus, someone can be charged with murder even if the person didn't play an active role in the killing.
That proved problematic for McCants, who struggled with the fact that authorities were unable to prove that Jardin had actually stabbed the DePalmas.
"I could not place the guy with a knife in his hand. No one could," she said. "I could not put that weight on myself (to vote guilty), knowing that I had doubt."
After at least four more votes, McCants said, she was the only juror who couldn't vote guilty. That afternoon, the jury sent Springstead two questions asking for more clarity on their instructions. Soon after that, the judge ended deliberations for the day and had jurors sequestered for the evening.
Jurors returned to the courthouse Tuesday. They made sure not to pressure McCants into a decision. And in time, McCants said she grew more comfortable with a guilty vote.
McCants said they all had trouble believing much of Jardin's story, especially once it was revealed that he lied to authorities throughout the course of the investigation. They also couldn't overlook the fact that authorities found several items from the DePalmas' home in his trailer, motor home and Chevy pickup truck.
But when it came time to decide on the appropriate sentence, the jury was split once again. McCants said jurors voted only once, by secret ballot: six for life, six for death — with a majority required for a death sentence.
In the end, McCants said she couldn't agree on a death sentence if she couldn't be sure that Jardin killed the DePalmas.
"I don't feel (the case) is resolved," McCants said. "Even if it's just one more person, I believe he did not do this alone. That's what makes this so sad and so difficult."
"Everyone's got skeletons in their closet they don't want coming back biting them in the a--. And I've got some demons. … I've done some stupid (stuff) as a younger kid and kind of got away with it."
Jardin in an interview at the Sheriff's Office on July 10, 2008
In the end, Jardin simply could not resist his self-destructive impulses.
That should have come as little surprise, said family members and a psychologist who interviewed him before the trial.
"He was in a bad position emotionally," said clinical psychologist Peter Bursten. "Even before his birth, there were a lot of variables in place to create some very negative early-life experiences."
During testimony at the sentencing hearing, his mother, Janice Link, who lives in upstate New York, admitted to abusing amphetamines during her pregnancy. Link told jurors that she lost custody of Jardin three days after giving birth because of allegations of physical abuse.
When Link regained custody four months later, she said she was unable to bond with her infant boy. Jardin's attorneys claimed Jardin was abused throughout his childhood.
"(Link) has a lot of guilt," said Jardin's aunt, Roseanna Link. "She's not doing good at all."
As he grew older, Jardin started stealing from neighbors, turned into something of a street brawler and eventually developed a taste for alcohol and cocaine.
His penchant for fighting got him kicked out the Marine Corps. He struggled to keep a job, trying his hand at construction, bartending and security. His marriage fell apart amid allegations of domestic abuse and infidelity, according to court documents.
In October 2006, Jardin was nearing a low point: He was bouncing from house to house and using drugs regularly.
One night late that month, Jardin said, he accepted a ride with a man named "Rick" to find some cocaine. Along the way, Jardin said, Rick stopped to pick up another man named "Bub," and the trio continued to a secluded beige stucco home on Korbus Road.
Rick and Bub went inside the home, leaving Jardin in the car, Jardin said. About 15 minutes later, Rick beckoned Jardin inside, "into a nightmare."
Those close to Jardin don't believe that he could have killed anyone.
"I've never seen him angry," said Carey Daniels, a close friend who attended the trial from start to finish. "In my heart, he's a good person."
Daniels added: "I pray to God the Sheriff's Office won't stop looking for the other people."
Prosecutor Pete Magrino said he believes Jardin lied to minimize his role in the slayings.
"I have no evidence to believe that mystery person 'Rick' or mystery person 'Bub' ever existed or were ever there," he said. "It's a figment of his imagination."
"We've had you cold from … the jump, man. And we've been extending you every opportunity to help yourself. Who was there, Robert? Who was there with you? … Who was in that house with you? Come on, buddy. We can do this."
Detective Phil Lakin in an interview with Jardin on July 10, 2008
If Jardin knows, he's still not telling. He has said that Rick threatened to harm his family if he ever talked about what happened that night at the DePalmas' home.
Back in Masaryktown, people are not sure what to think now that Jardin's trial is finished.
"I'm pleased that somebody was held accountable," said Levesque, the town's postmaster. "But I'm not sure if there are more out there.
"I don't have any idea.
"I wish I did."
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.