NEW PORT RICHEY — Linda Roma had seen the black purse in a store window and admired it. Her daughter, eager to show her thanks for her mother's sacrifices, bought it as a Christmas gift, along with a matching wallet filled with gift cards.
Two years later, as mother and daughter were walking out of a TJ Maxx on U.S. 19 in Hudson just before closing, a man rushed up and grabbed the purse as it hung on Roma's wrist. She fought back, and in the struggle lost the purse and her life.
Steve Cruz, a 39-year-old with a history of felony arrests and drug addiction, was arrested a few days later after he and his girlfriend were captured on a Walmart surveillance camera trying to use a credit card that belonged to Roma. Authorities said that even though Cruz probably didn't intend to kill anyone on Nov. 12, 2008, he could be charged with first-degree felony murder because Roma, who was 62, died as he was committing a felony — strong arm robbery.
A jury heard three days of testimony this week and needed just 35 minutes to convict Cruz.
Circuit Judge Michael Andrews immediately sentenced him to life in prison.
"I cannot think of, sir … an occasion I've come across a more senseless waste of life," Andrews said Wednesday evening. "You've now wasted your life and taken the life of someone else, all so you could satisfy your drug habit.
"It just seems to me to be an awful waste."
Cruz had taken the stand earlier Wednesday and admitted yanking the handbag off Roma's wrist. But he told the 12 jurors there was no struggle.
"I ran right by, and it came off her hand. No problem," he said.
Jennifer Roma, the star witness for the state who provided a vivid play by play of the incident, contradicted that. She said her mother refused to let go of the bag, but Cruz snatched it away. Jennifer started screaming and chased Cruz as he jumped into a moving car. As Jennifer ran toward the car, she said, she saw her mother begin to fall.
Linda Roma struck her head, suffered a skull fracture with bleeding and swelling in her brain, and died the next morning. A retired nurse, Roma had doted on her family and had been a full-time caretaker for her ailing husband, Ralph.
Cruz admitted that he and his longtime girlfriend, Lisa Dillard, along with their friend Heather Fox, were driving around that night high on drugs. Cruz said they went to TJ Maxx planning to steal jewelry from the store so that he could trade it for crack cocaine.
Cruz said he decided at the last moment to grab Roma's purse instead because that seemed easier.
"It occurred to me, there were cameras in there. There were no cameras out there," he said.
They fled the parking lot, ditched the bag and then went to a Walmart to try to buy jewelry with Roma's credit card.
The transaction was declined, as family members had already canceled the card, but it gave authorities a lead on the suspects. The Walmart security camera images were distributed to news media. Cruz's sister recognized him and called authorities.
Cruz said he learned of Roma's death the next day on television and thought it was "some kind of sick prank."
"I thought, 'They're really messing with me now.' I would never do something like that to hurt someone," he testified.
Dillard, 41, pleaded no contest to an accessory charge last year and is serving three years in prison. She was listed as a witness in Cruz's case but never called to the stand.
After the verdict was announced Wednesday evening, one of the jurors walked up and hugged Jennifer Roma, 34.
"God bless you and your family," the woman said. "I hope this brings you some closure."
Jennifer told reporters that she'd like to have her mother's purse back. Cruz had left it in a Dumpster.
"That purse represented my mother's dignity," she said. "That's what I wanted back. And that's why I fought as hard as I could."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.