BROOKSVILLE — The first words spoken in Brett Hattenbrun's murder trial were his own, read to the jury from a transcript of his statement to detectives 11 days after his daughter-in-law's slaying.
"I said, 'Stop screaming,' and I hit her, and she's screaming more and I hit her again," Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman read to the 14 jurors in a Brooksville courtroom Tuesday morning. "I just basically hit her until she stopped screaming."
Prosecutors say that statement, given to detectives as Hattenbrun lay in a hospital bed, is the true, horrifying account of how he murdered Joey Lynn Hattenbrun in the driveway of her home near Weeki Wachee on Sept. 16, 2011. The 30-year-old pharmacy technician and mother of a 3-year-old boy suffered skull fractures and brain contusions and died later that night at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
Brett Hattenbrun went to his daughter-in-law's house planning to kill her because he thought she was cheating on his son, Chad, and "wasn't worthy" of being married to him, Buxman said. The prosecutor also said Hattenbrun intended to go out in a blaze of glory 11 days later when five Hernando County sheriff's deputies showed up at the door of his home about a block away from his son's house.
Hattenbrun, 63, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder or attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. He also is charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and throwing a destructive device.
In an opening statement, Buxman recapped what Hattenbrun told detectives:
Joey Hattenbrun arrived home after a shift at CVS in Brooksville, saw her father-in-law and exchanged heated words. She said she was going to call police. Brett Hattenbrun took a metal pipe from the bed of a nearby truck and knocked the phone from her hand. She started screaming; he put his hand over her mouth.
When that didn't silence her, he beat her until she crumpled to the ground. Hattenbrun went to his car, pulled on yellow rubber gloves and, as Joey Hattenbrun lay dying, slipped her wedding ring off her finger. He scattered the contents of her purse on the ground to make the assault look like a random robbery. He then drove to Tire Kingdom on State Road 50, where he once worked, and dumped the gloves and pipe in a trash bin.
Then he stopped at Arby's and bought a roast beef sandwich and a jamocha shake.
Eleven days later, Buxman said, Hattenbrun tossed a glass jug filled with gasoline at the feet of Sgt. Phil Lakin after Lakin knocked on Hattenbrun's door carrying a search warrant. A fireball erupted, and Hattenbrun started shooting a nail gun out the door. Deputies returned fire and shot him in the abdomen. Investigators found more gas-filled containers.
"The defendant was clearly ready for this day," Buxman said.
At Tampa General, Hattenbrun initially denied involvement in his daughter-in-law's murder. Then, as a detective was about to leave, Hattenbrun confessed.
Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter told jurors that Hattenbrun "snapped" when Lakin started banging on his door. Fanter said Hattenbrun tried to provoke deputies into killing him but did not want to hurt them.
"He was a corrections officer. He respects police," Fanter said. "They shoot him. He thinks he's going to die. Mission accomplished."
Fanter said detectives cajoled Hattenbrun until he gave a false confession.
"They just relentlessly pursued him and pushed him until finally they hit a button," he said. "He told the cops everything they wanted to hear, but what he tells them isn't consistent with the physical evidence."
Investigators never found the pipe or gloves.
Chad Hattenbrun testified that he had told his father that the couple had drifted apart and that Joey admitted to talking to a man online but had never met him in person. He said the couple had agreed to work on their marriage and were making progress.
He sobbed as he recalled arriving home with his son and hearing grunts in the dark. He turned on a flashlight and saw his wife on the ground, bleeding.
At the defense table, his father turned away, removed his glasses and wiped his eyes.