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Hattenbrun guilty of lesser charges in Hernando County slaying

BROOKSVILLE — As jury deliberations dragged into a fourth hour, an image of her sister popped into Jenny Mervolion's mind.

"This is the moment when Joey would get up and do the Sprinkler," Mervolion said, then did an imitation of her sister, Joey Hattenbrun, doing the classic disco dance. "She had such a corny sense of humor."

Mervolion and the rest of Joey Hattenbrun's friends and family waiting outside Courtroom D laughed in agreement, then fell silent again. Joey, 30, had been gone for more than two years, and now they were waiting for a jury to decide if her father-in-law, Brett Hattenbrun, was guilty of her murder.

An hour later, they had their answer. The 12-member panel convicted the 63-year-old former corrections officer of second-degree murder, a lesser offense than the first-degree, premeditated murder with which he'd been charged.

In addition, Hattenbrun was found guilty of six counts of aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer, two counts of making or throwing a destructive device and one count of theft. He had been charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer and armed robbery.

Hattenbrun, who had joked and laughed during breaks in the six-day trial, remained stoic. He faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder or attempted murder of officers. Hernando Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. can still give him up to life in prison. Sentencing was set for April 24.

Over six days of testimony, prosecutors Bill Catto and Rich Buxman sought to prove that Hattenbrun had murder on his mind when he went to the home Joey shared with his son, Chad, on the night of Sept. 16, 2011.

"When she didn't just talk to him, he reached for that pipe … and he beat her to death," Catto said during a closing statement Tuesday.

After many denials, Hattenbrun told detectives he waited for her to get home after a shift as a pharmacy technician at a Brooksville CVS. He said he confronted her about suspicions she was cheating on his son. She started to call police and Hattenbrun snatched her cellphone. When he grabbed a metal pipe from the bed of a nearby truck, she kicked him in the groin, and he beat her until she crumpled to the ground.

"I had no intentions to kill the poor thing," he said.

But he also said he brought yellow dish gloves "in case there was a confrontation." He said he slipped off her wedding rings, scattered the contents of her purse on the ground to make the attack look like a robbery and dumped the pipe and gloves in a trash bin behind a Tire Kingdom.

The rings, pipe and gloves were never recovered, but prosecutors said Hattenbrun provided details of the crime scene that only investigators knew.

Eleven days after the attack, Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Phil Lakin and four co-workers came with a search warrant to Brett Hattenbrun's Owl Road home, about a block from his son's house. When Lakin knocked, Hattenbrun opened the door, threw a Molotov cocktail at Lakin's feet and then started shooting a nail gun. He was shot in the abdomen by a detective and surrendered.

Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter told jurors that Hattenbrun, who did not testify in his defense, was coerced into giving a bogus confession at the end of a lengthy interrogation. Fanter noted that none of the physical evidence collected from where Joey was attacked or from Brett Hattenbrun's house and car linked him to the crime.

During his closing argument, Fanter offered a theory: Maybe Chad Hattenbrun, who was at a party at his brother's house on the next block, took the path between the two properties, killed his wife during a confrontation about her suspected affair and then returned to the party.

"It is just as reasonable to believe that the defendant, concerned that Chad may have been involved in this, decides, 'I'm an old man. If I go ahead and get the cops to kill me, that will close the case. They'll believe I did it and (Chad's son) can have a father,' " Fanter said.

Joey Hattenbrun's mother, Carolyn Crouch, said she knows Hattenbrun planned to kill her daughter. Now she wants the maximum sentence.

"He took a precious life," Crouch said, "and deserves to be under a rock with all of the other vermin."

Hattenbrun guilty of lesser charges in Hernando County slaying 03/25/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 9:45am]
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