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Onstott murder trial set to start

TAMPA — Sarah Michelle Lunde, 13, came home early from a church outing on April 9, 2005. Just before midnight, her older brother went to Taco Bell to get her some food. He says he came back four hours later. The front door was open. Sarah was gone.

She had run away before. But this time seemed different.

On April 16, after days of desperate searching, a grim discovery. Half a mile down the road from the Lunde home in Ruskin, a search dog found a decomposed body weighted down by concrete blocks in water on an abandoned fish farm. A girl with a green wrist cast, a red shirt, a bra pushed up around her neck.

Sarah.

Her name became synonymous with Carlie Brucia and Jessica Lunsford, two other young girls who died violently in west central Florida in just more than a year's time. Their killers now sit on death row.

The man accused of killing Sarah, a registered sex offender who had dated her mother, is set to go to trial on Monday, more than three years after her murder. David Lee Onstott, 40, won't face the death penalty. Prosecutors took it off the table after a series of hits to their case, most notably a judge's decision to throw out Onstott's confession.

What's left is a first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery case built largely on circumstantial evidence. If convicted, Onstott will go to prison for life.

Here's a look at what to expect during the trial:

The prosecution

Jay Pruner, a no-frills, methodical prosecutor who handles the lion's share of murder cases for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, is leading the case against Onstott.

Pruner has won on circumstantial evidence before. Just last month, without the benefit of eyewitnesses or a confession, he helped convict former church youth leader Joshua Rosa of killing a neighboring teen.

But authorities in that case found the victim's blood on the defendant. None of the DNA in Onstott's case linked him to the crime. Prosecutors don't have any physical evidence either.

They do have a series of potentially incriminating statements and behavior by Onstott:

• Onstott showed up at the Lunde house between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. on the day of her disappearance April 10 and asked for Sarah's mother, according to Andrew Lunde, Sarah's then 17-year-old brother. After Andrew said she wasn't there, Onstott took one step inside the house, picked up a beer bottle and left. Andrew said the bottle wasn't there when he left to get food for Sarah.

• While in custody, Onstott told his mother, Refugia Whitten, that he sometimes felt "possessed" and "cold inside."

"It's like my soul is just angry," he said. "It's like a volcano. It just erupts and then it goes away."

• In a recorded jail call with his ex-wife, Onstott said, "You know I've broken every commandment now. Every single one."

• A cell mate of Onstott — who was jailed on other charges before Sarah's body was found — said Onstott turned white as a ghost when the missing girl's name came up. "Did they find her body?" Onstott asked, according to Robert Pollay.

The prosecution's success could turn on self-incriminating statements Onstott made to a detention deputy assigned to guard him after he was placed on suicide watch.

At a hearing last year, Cpl. Bryan Herndon recalled how Onstott kept interrupting him as he tried to study. Onstott spoke in English and Spanish. The details of his chatter have not been made public. But Herndon testified that Onstott told him how he killed Sarah.

"This might be the glue that holds the whole case together," said defense lawyer John Fitzgibbons, who is not involved in the case.

The defense

This trial is likely to be defense attorney John Skye's last. The longtime public defender retired a year ago but vowed to complete Onstott's case.

In addition to the lack of physical and forensic evidence, the defense will benefit from all the things prosecutors aren't allowed to say.

Skye scored a major victory last year when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta threw out Onstott's main confession on the grounds that detectives who interrogated him for five days after Sarah's disappearance ignored his multiple requests for an attorney. An appeals court upheld Ficarrotta's ruling.

That confession also has not been revealed in its entirety, but authorities said Onstott admitted choking Sarah until she became unconscious and that he raised his handcuffed arms in the air during the interrogation and said, "I did it." The choking admission was at odds with the autopsy, which said Sarah died from crushing blows to the head.

Ficarrotta also excluded other incriminating statements Onstott made to his mother and his cell mate. Prosecutors can't tell jurors about Onstott's 1995 sexual battery conviction.

A point of concern for Onstott's attorneys is whether he can get a fair trial in Hillsborough County, given the deluge of publicity the case received. Skye failed to win a change of venue.

But Brian Gonzalez, a veteran defense lawyer, doesn't think finding suitable jurors will be a problem. In his experience, even the people who have heard of a case usually haven't formed a strong opinion about it.

"More often than not," he said, "you're gonna find 12 people who don't know what's going on."

• • •

One fact could prove insurmountable for the defense. A girl is dead, and human nature calls for someone to pay.

Attorneys for both sides would not comment on the case last week. Worried about tainting the jury pool, Sarah's mother, Kelly May, also declined.

The mobile home where Sarah lived with her mother and siblings on 30th Street is gone, removed by the landlord after her death.

But Sarah's memory remains on the street where she died.

Less than a mile north, in the opposite direction of the fish farm, a stone marker commemorates her life and death. The marker sits in the shade of a live oak, part of a small memorial garden just beyond the parking lot of the First Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

Sarah went to church there, and felt safe.

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

>>TIME LINE

April 10, 2005: Sarah Lunde last seen at her home.

April 16, 2005: Searchers find Sarah's body, naked below the waist. That night, Onstott confesses to killing her, authorities said. He is arrested on charges of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery.

March 5, 2007: Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta throws out Onstott's confession.

April 23, 2008: The 2nd District Court of Appeal upholds the judge's ruling.

May 2008: The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office says it will no longer seek the death penalty.

Monday: Jury selection for Onstott's trial is set to begin.

Onstott murder trial set to start 08/09/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2008 3:14pm]
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