BRANDON — Two days after a jury acquitted Ralph Wald of second-degree murder in the killing his wife's lover, the 70-year-old ex-soldier is home and ready to move on with his life.
The first step for the decorated Army veteran: repair his marriage.
Wald forgave his wife, Johnna Lynn Flores, 41, before his trial even began. It's trust that he is struggling with now, he said.
"The main thing I want to do is see if we can work this marriage thing out," he said Saturday morning during a news conference in front of his home. "I really want it to work. It's going to take work on my part and it's going to be some work on Johnna's part."
After two days of testimony in Hillsborough Circuit Court last week, jurors decided Wald committed no crime when he fatally shot Walter Conley, a man less than half his age, on March 10. Wald woke around midnight in his Brandon home and found Conley and Flores having sex on the living room floor. He took a .38-caliber revolver from his bedroom and shot Conley in the stomach and head.
During the trial, Wald testified that he thought his wife was being raped. He said he was only defending himself and his wife. The prosecution told the jury there was no evidence the act was not consensual and that Flores had an on-again, off-again relationship with Conley for years.
On Saturday, with his attorney by his side and his military medals of honor displayed before him, Wald said he acted on instinct that night.
"I was in the infantry for over 20 years … part of my job was to go out and keep my people alive and stop other people from being alive and I did my job well," he said. "What happened here that night, I very much relate to close combat. The same sort of thing I've seen in the tunnels in Vietnam. I didn't know if he had a weapon or weapons with him, all I knew was somebody was fornicating with my wife."
Wald said he feared jurors may have thought him cold and calculating after hearing that night's 911 call played in court, in which he said he refused to offer aid to Conley. But they didn't know his military history, he said. Wald said he had directly or indirectly killed more than 150 people in his life.
"That, in part, in my mind at any rate, goes a long way as to why I feel the way I do about having to kill someone," he said.
The news conference, held in the driveway of the same Brandon house where the killing took place, went on for 20 minutes as Wald's attorney, Joe Episcopo, acted as interviewer, leading him with questions. Wald, with a pack of Pall Malls peeking from his shirt pocket and wearing moccasin house slippers, answered each one at length.
He even commended the prosecution's closing argument. Still, he said, he's glad the system worked in his favor.
Asked if he would have done anything different that night, Wald said he could never be sure.
"If I had known who it was, that person might not have died," he said. "I think it is a very sad situation. I'm sure the victim's family loves the person who I shot. I think that's sad. They have my sympathy."
Roger Conley, 62, father of victim Walter Conley, spoke briefly to a Tampa Bay Times reporter Friday. He said he was surprised and upset with the jury's acquittal of Ralph Wald.
"I don't think it was fair," Roger Conley said, speaking at the front door of his house on Lovers Lane in Riverview, the same street where Walter Conley lived. "He cold-blooded killed my son." He said he was particularly shocked by the jury's verdict in light of "all the evidence they had" to convict Wald.
Of Walter, Roger Conley said, "He was a good son. He would help anybody that he could help."
Conley declined to comment further, telling a reporter to come back later. No one answered his door Friday evening or Saturday morning.
During her testimony Wednesday, Flores said she was drunk and probably passed out that night. Her memory was hazy.
Since the incident, Flores has gone into counseling, Wald said.
"She is on pills and she has been diagnosed as having mental illness," he said. "She's had it for years."
He'll stay by her side, he said. He's in counseling, too.
"I don't think it would be honorable for me to bail on her," he said. "And I'm not planning on it."
They plan to take it day by day. That started Thursday night with a trip to Waffle House, which serves Flores' favorite meal, the patty melt platter.
"After 80-some days, I thought that would be nice," he said.
And for the first time in months, amid the waffle irons and plates heaping with hash browns, they danced.
Times staff writers Peter Jamison and Will Hobson contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.