TAMPA — Murder suspect David Lee Onstott had been sitting stone-faced through his trial, listening stoically as the state built a case that he had strangled a 13-year-old girl named Sarah Lunde.
But he was finally moved to tears Friday as prosecutors played a recording of a jailhouse phone call where Onstott talked of having broken all Ten Commandments.
First, his ex-wife Rhonda Crouse was called to the witness stand. She'd been married to Onstott from 2003 to 2004 but had separated from him by April 2005, when Sarah was killed. After Onstott was charged with murder, he called Crouse from the Hillsborough County Jail. Like all such calls, it was recorded.
Throughout much of the 10-minute call, Onstott was sobbing and rambling. Crouse told him not to lapse into self-pity: "Don't struggle with the Lord. … The most important thing right now is your salvation."
Their conversation was dotted with biblical references as Onstott mourned his lot in life, and Crouse offered spiritual guidance.
Finally, 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.
"Every single one," Onstott repeated.
In the courtroom Friday, jurors listened intently. Onstott started looking upset. His ex-wife sat motionless with her eyes shut.
On the recording, a computerized voice warned, "You have one minute left." A sobbing Onstott told his wife, "I'll always love you. I'm sorry."
The call ended.
In court, Onstott wiped tears from his eyes.
Prosecutor Jay Pruner asked Crouse just one more question: "Is one of the Ten Commandments 'Thou shalt not kill'?"
"Yes," she answered.
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Former Hillsborough jail Deputy Brian Herndon, who monitored Onstott while he was on suicide watch, testified that Onstott said he choked a girl to death.
"He said he went to his ex-girlfriend's house for a booty call. Once he was inside the house, he was involved in an argument with a little girl. They got into a physical fight and he choked her," Herndon said.
Herndon put an arm across his own neck, showing how Onstott had demonstrated a choke hold.
"He said the last thing he remembers hearing is her breathing … her gasping for air … and then he just blacked out," Herndon said.
Onstott's attorney, Assistant Public Defender John Skye, sharply questioned Herndon about why he didn't tell anyone about this for nearly a year.
"I actually thought it was common knowledge," Herndon said. "He told me he just came back from talking to the detectives." A judge has thrown out a confession Onstott made to detectives because they had ignored his request for an attorney.
Other testimony Friday focused on the crime scene where Sarah's body was found facedown in a pond. It's an abandoned tropical fish farm off 30th Street SE in Ruskin where contractors have been dumping construction debris for years. Its owner, Chris Proctor, said about 85 pools on 10 acres can't be seen from the street because the property is overgrown.
Prosecutors are making the point to the jury that Onstott, who worked in construction, was one of the few people who visited the ponds or even knew they were there. Proctor said only Onstott, Onstott's father and one other contractor had permission to dump debris there.
The trial resumes Monday.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.