Judge hears memories of vicious rampage 24 years ago, but will she set attacker free?

TAMPA

Retired appellate judge E.J. Salcines turned around his wedding ring to show a set of scratches from a box-cutter knife attack a quarter-century ago. The ring saved his left hand from being slashed. He never takes it off. Ask what that ring means to him and he goes, "Ohhh," and kisses the gold band.

Salcines was in court this week with his wife whose purse was ripped from her hands one night in June 1988, his widowed friend whose life was saved when the pistol stuck in his face jammed and with a Texas mother of two who said she has never recovered from being raped at gunpoint in front of her husband.

All were reunited with their attacker 24 years later because of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that said juveniles who don't commit murder can't receive life sentences without a chance of parole.

They re-encountered Jere Walker, who was 17 when he committed the crimes that earned him five life sentences. He is now 41. He is asking a judge to release him.

Walker cried in court Thursday. He admitted to committing "life-shattering" and "soul-crushing" crimes during the spring of 1988, including robbing the Salcineses, then trying to shoot their friend, oral surgeon Antonio Castro, point blank in the face.

Walker called the rape of the 31-year-old Texas tourist later the same night "the worst thing you could do to a woman. I'm tortured by the fact that I'm the cause of so much pain and agony."

It was the first time any of the victims had heard remorse. Then Walker asked Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke for another chance.

Walker was the youngest of seven members of a gang that had preyed on Tampa neighborhoods for months, riding around in a pickup truck, looking for people to rob. Their spree culminated on June 29, when they accosted the Salcineses as they returned from a dinner with their friend, Castro, who was grieving over the recent loss of his wife.

In court this week, Castro described how E.J. Salcines saved his life. Walker, he said, had stuck a gun in his face and tried to fire. It jammed. Salcines grabbed Walker's wrist, pulling the gun away. Salcines then chased the others, trying to get back his wife's purse. He ended up in the back of their pickup truck. He was driven a block and dumped out, breaking his thumb trying to tear off the license plate.

Once Hillsborough County's state attorney and later a judge on Florida's Second District Court of Appeal, Salcines said he has the habit of always keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror. Danger comes with the territory. But for Castro, the trauma is more severe.

"I'm amazed I'm still alive," Castro said. "Life meant nothing to him. I still wake up in fear. We're all living a life sentence."

The gang later accosted a Texas couple with two children returning to their motel room on Busch Boulevard.

Their children were put in a bathroom. The woman's husband was held at gunpoint while Walker raped her.

"I'm haunted to this day," she testified this week. Their trip to Tampa 24 years ago was their first family vacation. They've taken only two vacations since. "Our home is my sanctuary," she said. "We keep the doors double-locked. I have so many feelings of rage and powerlessness."

Only recently, the woman's now-grown daughter admitted to her that she had seen the rape.

The gang members received a variety of sentences for their crimes. Two others got life sentences. But Walker, the only juvenile, received the heaviest punishment.

Defense attorney John Fernandez told the judge Thursday that Walker already has served the equivalent of a 47-year sentence, factoring in gain time. He said that was enough.

He asked Behnke to resentence Walker to two years of community control and 10 years of probation.

Walker would live with his family as a registered sex offender. They would provide him with a job as a pressure cleaner. He has never completed high school but got a certificate in prison for masonry. He also earned a certificate for "marriage enrichment."

Assistant State Attorney Douglas Covington asked Behnke to impose at least 20 more years of confinement. He said the judge could accomplish that by replacing the life terms with an 80-year sentence. If Walker behaved and earned gain time, he'd be eligible for release in his early 60s. Doctors estimate his life expectancy at 74 years.

Behnke wouldn't give a hint on what sentence she plans. She has a complete range of options — from releasing him immediately to piling on consecutive sentences that would keep him in prison virtually for life.

"I have an idea what I want to do," she said, "but I need to be sure I do it legally."

She set sentencing for Aug. 8.

Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Judge hears memories of vicious rampage 24 years ago, but will she set attacker free? 07/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 12:31am]

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