TAMPA — Oscar Ray Bolin's ex-wife died years ago from diabetes complications, but she remains a key prosecution witness as Bolin stands trial a fourth time for the 1986 murder of 25-year-old Natalie Blanche Holley.
In opening statements Tuesday, prosecutors said jurors would hear a two-decade-old recording in which Bolin's ex-wife Cheryl described Bolin in blood-stained sneakers searching through a woman's purse he'd brought home at 2 in the morning.
Her testimony was used to convict Bolin in three previous trials that were later overturned on appeals. She hadn't come forward until four years after the killing, when she had remarried and told the story to her new husband in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Now jurors will hear it again this week. Assistant State Attorney Chris Jensen promised to transport them back to Jan. 25, 1986, when Holley never made it home from her night shift at Church's Chicken on Fowler Avenue.
The jury will not be told that Bolin has been sentenced to death twice for Holley's murder. In trial No. 3, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life. In this fourth trial, he is once again charged with second-degree murder.
Jurors also don't know that Bolin resides on Florida's death row for two other 1986 murders — those of Teri Lynn Matthews, 26, and Stephanie Collins, 17.
This week, they will hear Cheryl Jo Coby describe how her husband changed out of a bloody pair of Traxx sneakers the night of Holley's death and took cash from the purse he'd brought home. She testified that she went with him to a car parked at Smitter Road and Lake Magdalene Boulevard, where he wiped down the car, and dumped the purse.
The jury will also hear from the defense that Coby was legally blind from diabetes in 1986.
Other voices from the past are live ones, though many of the Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives and patrol officers who investigated the case have since retired. As they wait to testify, the graying cops have claimed a corner of the hall for a reunion of sorts, swapping old stories of nabbing bad guys.
One of them, former patrol officer Ron Valenti, now a patrol lieutenant, Tuesday described an odd encounter he had the night of the killing with Bolin and, possibly, Holley.
He said he found two cars parked on Smitter Road, one with emergency flashers on, at 2 a.m. That car was empty. It was registered to Oscar Ray and Cheryl Bolin.
In the other car, he found a man he said was Bolin and a young woman. He said Bolin claimed he'd run out of gas and she was helping him. Valenti said he asked the woman if she was okay. She said she was, so he left.
The prosecution said it will call on Bolin's cousin Frank, who waited until 2005 to tell investigators that Bolin confessed the crime to him. In the last trial, Frank Bolin said his cousin told him, "I did that girl," as they drove by Church's Chicken after the killing.
Frank Bolin said he thought his cousin was joking. He apologized to Holley's mother for not speaking out sooner.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand said he will focus on inconsistencies in testimony from past trials that add up to "snapshots of innocence" for Bolin. "No one deserves to die as Natalie Holley did," he said, "but the evidence does not establish that Oscar Ray Bolin committed the gruesome crime."
Jurors also will be told about a DNA match between Bolin and a strand of hair found clutched in Holley's hand. And they will be shown a 1991 suicide note that Bolin wrote in Hillsborough County Jail, in which he advised detectives to talk to his ex-wife about Holley's murder.
He wrote that she knew everything.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.