BROOKSVILLE — Jaime Angel Marquez looked confused.
The 19-year-old Spring Hill man took the witness stand Tuesday to tell jurors his story of what happened the night of Aug. 31, when authorities say he robbed a teenage couple at gunpoint atop the observation tower in Hernando Beach.
But Marquez stumbled and paused as he tried to explain how he ran when he saw the robbers.
Even with gentle prodding from his attorney, he seemed unsure about what to say. Then he admitted, "I don't really recall what happened that night, sir."
It didn't take long for the jury to find his story unbelievable. The four women and two men on the panel considered the case for just 40 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty of armed robbery and grand theft.
They found him not guilty of a second count of armed robbery.
Marquez, who was on house arrest for another armed robbery at the time of the incident and violated his probation, faces life in prison. Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing set his sentencing for Feb. 5.
The daylong trial attracted an extraordinary amount of security from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. In addition to the metal detectors and screening at the building's entrance, a deputy with a hand-held wand searched people at the courtroom entrance. At least two plain-clothed deputies also sat in the courtroom and escorted the victims during a lunch break.
Lt. Melissa Ciucci, who oversaw courthouse security, declined to explain the reasons for the security measures, but prosecutors said Marquez and his father are alleged gang members. A number of associates apparently attended a pretrial hearing last week but only Marquez's parents supported him in court during the trial.
Jurors never learned about Marquez's alleged gang ties because investigators determined the robbery was not related to gang activity.
The case jurors did hear hinged on the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses and Marquez's alibi. But a last-minute theory proposed by the defense complicated the matter.
The victims, Sonny Mylle, 19, and Brittany Birrell, 17, could not positively identify the two men who approached them on the deck of the 40-foot tower before the robbers left in Mylle's 1992 BMW. Mylle yelled to nearby fishermen, who chased the car down Shoal Line Boulevard until it crashed at Wimberly Court.
Authorities said Marquez and co-defendant Jerae Crussell, 25, ran away, taking the victims' wallets and cell phones. Deputies caught Marquez that night and Crussell days later.
Yet investigators produced little physical evidence to place Marquez or Crussell at the scene. "Is my case perfect? Nope," said Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee in his closing statement. "This isn't CSI. This is more like Cops than CSI."
Barbee relied on the testimony of Detective Jeff Kraft, Crussell and two witnesses who drove Marquez to the towers that night. Those in the car explained how Marquez hatched a plan to "do a lick" — a slang term for robbery, driver Carlos Perez Jr. said —to get rent money.
Perez and Crussell took plea deals exchanging lighter sentences for their testimony against Marquez. And the third witness, Omaira Pomales, 19, initially lied to investigators.
Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter highlighted these points in his closing.
"They chose to rely on people who lie for convenience," he argued. "We have no independent evidence. This is all from people with an ax to grind."
Fanter then presented an alternative theory. He said deputies failed to investigate the possible involvement of Crussell's brother Ace, who did not testify and was barely mentioned at trial. "There's one three-letter word — Ace — there's reasonable doubt.
Barbee countered that Marquez had the motive and the criminal record. "Everything fits except one thing — his story," Barbee said.
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.