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Onstott jurors resume today

TAMPA — Just before 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, after more than five hours of deliberating, jurors in the first-degree murder case against David Lee Onstott sent the judge a note.

"It might be a long night," it read.

Instead, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta instructed the 12 jurors to break for the evening and resume their deliberations today.

Attorneys gave them plenty to consider during four hours of closing arguments Wednesday.

Prosecutors say Onstott went to 13-year-old Sarah Lunde's home in Ruskin in April 2005 looking to have a "booty call" with her mother. They say he ended up in a struggle with Sarah and killed her. He also faces a charge of attempted sexual battery.

No physical or forensic evidence and no eyewitnesses tie Onstott, 40, to the crime. But Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner said the registered sex offender incriminated himself several times in the days and months after she died.

The day searchers found Sarah's decomposed body at an abandoned fish farm near her home, Onstott told his mother in a secretly recorded conversation at the jail that he felt "possessed." Prosecutors claim he whispered, "I killed her."

Later that night, Onstott demonstrated how he had put Sarah in a fatal choke hold, according to the deputy assigned to monitor him on suicide watch.

During a June 2005 jail phone call with his estranged wife, Rhonda Crouse, Onstott said, "You know, I've broken every commandment now."

"Yes. Every single one," Crouse answered.

"Every single one," he said.

"There was only one left, and then you did it," Crouse said.

Assistant Public Defender John Skye spent a good deal of time trying to debunk the notion that those statements had the significance prosecutors gave them.

Skye called the so-called confession to Onstott's mother "wishful thinking" by the state. Many parts of the secretly recorded conversation were unintelligible — including that part, Skye said.

"You can't hear that, I submit," he said.

Skye said Onstott's Ten Commandments remark was "cryptic." He could have been talking about the abortion that a former girlfriend had, Skye said.

The defense attorney took aim at former Deputy Brian Herndon, who did not tell anyone that Onstott had made a confession until 11 months later and did not record the statements in his notes. Skye said Herndon, who resigned in lieu of being fired for steroid use, was not telling the truth.

Skye said sheriff's investigators relied on inconsistent statements and ignored other potential leads, all the while focusing on the wrong man.

"Bottom line is, they didn't do the sort of investigation that should have been done," he said.

But Pruner argued that Onstott was "uniquely capable" of the killing. He knew Sarah through her mother, knew the fish pond dumping area through his construction job and was seen in wet clothes at the girl's Ruskin home hours after her disappearance, the prosecutor said.

Richard Bulick, an alternate juror from Ruskin who was released from duty Wednesday, said he would have convicted Onstott of first-degree murder.

The state's case, he said, "was pretty strong, considering there was no physical evidence."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Onstott jurors resume today 08/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:06pm]
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