BROOKSVILLE — Manessa Donovan, dressed in all black, stared at her uncle as she sat at the witness stand in Hernando County Circuit Court. Tears trickling down her cheeks, she described how John Kalisz stood over her two years ago and fired round after round from his pistol until he thought she was dead.
Kalisz, his face without expression, stared back at her.
As jurors in his capital murder trial watched and listened Thursday morning, Donovan recalled her uncle's shooting rampage that left two women dead: her mother, Kathryn "Kitty" Donovan, and Deborah Tillotson. He's also charged with trying to kill Manessa Donovan and Amy Wilson, an employee at Kitty Donovan's home-based business.
On the afternoon of Jan. 14, 2010, Donovan said she was petting a horse when she heard her mother scream from inside their home on Wilhelm Road, west of Brooksville.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Kitty Donovan yelled.
Manessa heard three shots and then saw her mother crumpled on the floor. Seconds later, Kalisz stepped outside the back of the home and stopped in front of her, the end of his gun 2 inches away and pointed at her chest.
Without a word, she told jurors, he shot her and she fell to the ground. He then fired three or four more times.
"I eventually decided that he wasn't going to stop until he thought that I was dead," she said, "so I closed my eyes and put my head down."
Kalisz and his niece already had a complicated history.
Months before the killings, the 57-year-old roofer had exposed himself and masturbated in front of Manessa, then 17, in his sister's home. He was also accused of giving her nude photos and threatening her boyfriend with a knife.
After accepting a deal, he was convicted in October 2009 of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He got six years of probation.
The sexual allegations, he told friends back then, ruined him. He hated his sister and her family for it.
Manessa was two months pregnant at the time of the attack but, because of her injuries, she lost the fetus. She didn't mention that during her testimony.
During his cross-examination, public defender Alan Fanter may have again foreshadowed at least a piece of his defense strategy — Kalisz's alcoholism.
After asking prospective jurors this week dozens of questions about their opinions on alcoholism — including if they believed it was curable — Fanter asked Donovan if she thought Kalisz had been drinking before he shot her.
She couldn't tell.
In the months before the crime, Kalisz claimed to have been sober for 20 years, but he drank whiskey the night before the killings. A toxicology report also indicated that, in the hours after the crime, his blood-alcohol content narrowly exceeded 0.08.
Fanter asked Donovan if Kalisz was "mentally there" at the time, if he looked like a statue.
He asked if she thought Kalisz didn't recognize her during the shooting.
"No, I do not feel that way," Donovan responded. "I feel he recognized very well."
Fanter then read Donovan something she had told a friend soon after the rampage.
"His eyes were black. I thought he was on drugs," Donovan had told the woman. "He looked demon possessed."
Yes, Donovan told Fanter, she had said that.
"He did look like he was possessed by a demon."
The trial took an unexpected turn in the afternoon when a of key state witness, Todd Linville, contradicted much of what he told a detective two years ago.
Linville, a self-described friend of Kalisz's, smiled at the defendant as he sat at the witness stand. The accused killer grinned back and nodded.
The night before the shootings, Kalisz went to Linville's home. The two talked for hours as the suspect drank from a bottle of scotch. In an interview the next day, just minutes after the shootings, Linville told Hernando sheriff's Detective George Loydgren that Kalisz had made several incriminating statements to him the night before.
Kalisz, Linville said to the detective, had told him that he had a 9mm pistol and seven clips of hollow-point rounds; that his sister had ruined his life and he intended to ruin hers; that he would use his weapon and ammunition to "take 'em out."
In court Thursday, Linville denied remembering that Kalisz had told him any of those things, despite prosecutor Pete Magrino repeatedly showing Linville what he had said to the detective.
"Sir, I was not of a right mind at that moment," Linville said. "I gave the best answer I could, just like I am now."
Linville addressed the discrepancies again during Fanter's cross-examination.
"What I can say today is those aren't words I would use, number one, not to say that I couldn't have said them," he said of his conversation with Loydgren. "But at no time in the time that I knew John did he talk specifically about doing any harm to his family."
Reach John Woodrow Cox at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.