Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

Hernando rampage: With jury selected, attorneys give opening statements

BROOKSVILLE — Terrified and trembling, Amy Wilson's voice screamed through the courtroom's speakers. She and three other women, Wilson told a 911 operator, had been shot by a man she had never seen before.

"I don't want to die," Wilson yelled during that January 2010 phone call. "I'm going to die."

For seven and a half minutes, jurors in John Kalisz's capital murder trial listened to the recording in Hernando County Circuit Court Wednesday afternoon. Some of them stared at the floor, while others closed their eyes. One woman's mouth hung open, and her eyes fixated on the defense table. Another woman sobbed. Nearly a half hour after the tape ended, her glasses still sat folded in her lap as she wiped away tears.

His face pale and eyes empty, Kalisz slouched in his chair. He showed no emotion.

The defendant, convicted last year of killing a sheriff's deputy in Dixie County, is accused of murdering his sister, Kathryn "Kitty" Donovan, and her office manager, Deborah Tillotson, in Donovan's home on Wilhelm Road, west of Brooksville. He's also accused of shooting his niece, Manessa Donovan, and Amy Wilson, an employee at Donovan's home-based business.

In his opening argument, Kalisz's public defender, Alan Fanter, gave little indication of how he will defend his client.

He told jurors Kalisz had a difficult 2009. His mom had died, and he was forced to spend his small inheritance on a "legal issue" in Florida. Fanter didn't specify, but he was likely referring to accusations that Kalisz 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 the girl's 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.

Before he returned to Florida to deal with his legal troubles, Fanter explained to the court, Kalisz had a roofing career in Colorado. Kalisz learned after his conviction that he couldn't return home or even retrieve his tools.

In January 2010, just days before the shootings, Kalisz's mobile home burned down when he tried to change propane tanks.

"At that point, the frustration overcame John," his attorney said, "and he snapped."

Kalisz sat on the curb outside his smoldering home and considered what he could do with his life.

"Over the next couple of days," Fanter continued, "he did some things that weren't very nice."

Still, Fanter told jurors that if they considered the evidence and followed the law, they would find his client not guilty.

Moments before, prosecutor Pete Magrino presented a much different case in his opening statement.

Two days before the shootings, Magrino told jurors, Kalisz bought ammunition and magazines for a 9mm handgun. The next night, he drank Scotch at a friend's home. He told the man that his sister, Kitty Donovan, had ruined his life and that he intended to ruin hers.

Then, on the afternoon of Jan. 14, 2010, Kalisz drove his van to a lot in rural northern Hernando and took target practice with a 9mm pistol equipped with a laser sight. Minutes later, Magrino said, Kalisz coldly executed his sister and Tillotson and then attempted to murder the other two women.

Magrino didn't elaborate on what happened next.

Earlier this week, he and Fanter agreed that during the trial phase of the proceedings they would not discuss Kalisz's murder of Dixie County Capt. Chad Reed, who was shot attempting to arrest Kalisz in Cross City. The attorneys decided they would only refer to a "suspect shooting" in Dixie so witnesses could explain how the murder weapon was found.

As the trial reconvenes Thursday morning, Magrino will continue to present witnesses and evidence incriminating Kalisz. It's still unclear, though, how Fanter will defend his client when the State concludes its case.

His argument, in part, may center on Kalisz's alcoholism. 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 the state's legal limit of .08.

During jury selection, Fanter repeatedly asked jurors of their opinions on alcoholism, if they knew any alcoholics and if they believed it was a disease.

Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.

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