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Jury takes just 16 minutes to convict Tampa man of sexual assault

TAMPA — Shortly after hearing a 911 recording of a rape victim frantically pleading for her life as she was choked and assaulted, a jury took just 16 minutes Thursday to convict her attacker.

The jury of four men and two women found Tommy Lee Sailor, 38, guilty of armed sexual battery and armed false imprisonment. His victim was a 30-year-old single mother of two. The trial lasted two days before Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe.

Sailor, a thin man with a shaved head, did not react to the verdict. He was already a twice-convicted rapist. He had spent only three years outside prison since he was 16.

He now faces the rest of his life in prison. Tharpe will sentence him on May 5.

Before she was swept out of court by her mother and fiance, the victim was hugged by Je-Etta Bess, the 911 operator who fielded a furtive call from the victim on New Year's Day 2010 and sent rescuers.

As they hugged, Bess invited her to become a 911 operator.

Jurors declined to discuss their verdict as they left court, but an alternate on the jury said the 911 recording made the finding of guilt an easy one. "Once I heard the 911 tape," said Patrick Hoffman, 22, "I knew."

Sailor met the victim during a New Year's Eve celebration at Tillie's Place, a bar near his home in Port Tampa. He had broken probation by going to the bar after removing an ankle monitor. Although the removal triggered an alarm signal, authorities didn't act upon it until after the woman was rescued.

The victim had come to the bar in a cab. She had seven beers over four hours before last call at 3 a.m. Sailor told her he had a car and could give her a ride home.

At his house, she saw no car, but went inside, sitting on the foot of his bed.

"For the rest of her life she will call that the greatest misjudgment of her life," Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Hindman told the jury.

The victim said he attacked her on the bed, demanding sex. At one point, she said, he threw her cell phone across the room, then retrieved it for her. As he lay atop her and groped her chest, she said she managed to dial 911. She said she didn't know if the call went through.

But Bess, the operator, heard everything. Jurors heard what she heard — the victim hysterical and struggling to breathe. Her screams often drowned out her attacker's voice, but he could be heard clearly in two terrifying moments — when he told her he was a "serial killer and a serial rapist," and when he told her she would either submit to sex or he would kill her.

Jurors heard loud shrieks, apparently when Sailor held a flathead screwdriver to the victim's eye.

All the while, the operator worked to trace the call. After about 15 minutes the call ended abruptly — Sailor had discovered her phone. "Hello? Hello?" he said. He asked if it was 911. At that moment, Tampa police kicked in the front door.

As the recording went silent, prosecutor Hindman said:

"The state rests."

Sailor declined to testify, his attorney told the court. In closing arguments, Assistant Public Defender Maria Pavlidis told the jury that the victim could have exaggerated and overreacted when she screamed, aware that a 911 operator was listening.

She said the victim's injuries — bruises on her neck from choking and on her genitals from his fingers — could have been staged by the victim herself.

She said Sailor never removed his pants.

"There are parts that just don't make sense."

As Tampa police burst in, Sailor escaped out a window. Police searched by air and foot. He was captured late the next day.

Sailor waived his rights to an attorney and talked to detectives but denied attacking anyone, saying he couldn't even remember what the victim looked like, or her name.

After his conviction, the victim said she planned no celebration.

"I have my two kids to pick up and a night shift to work."

She said she'd think about that 911 job.

Jury takes just 16 minutes to convict Tampa man of sexual assault 04/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 12:52am]

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