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Opening statements begin former USAF sergeant's trial in death of ex-lover, baby

Ralph “Ron” Wright Jr., 44, left, listens during opening statements in his murder trial on Wednesday. He is accused of killing his former lover and their 15-month-old son.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Ralph “Ron” Wright Jr., 44, left, listens during opening statements in his murder trial on Wednesday. He is accused of killing his former lover and their 15-month-old son.

LARGO — Early one morning in July 2007, someone attacked Paula O'Conner in her St. Petersburg home.

Strangled, she died on the floor of her 15-month-old son's bedroom. Her attacker turned to the boy, pressing his face into the bottom of his crib until he too stopped breathing.

That person then locked the home's doors, moved her car a few blocks away and left.

Investigators quickly zeroed in on Ralph "Ron" Wright Jr., then an Air Force sergeant, but he wasn't arrested until two years later. His first-degree murder trial began this week.

Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, say Wright's motive was clear.

Three weeks before the killings, O'Conner had Wright served with papers in the MacDill Air Force Base parking lot informing him that she was suing for child support. Wright wanted to maintain his bachelor lifestyle and avoid thousands of dollars in child care costs, according to Assistant State Attorney Jim Hellickson.

During his opening statement Wednesday, the prosecutor described Wright, now 44, as a habitual liar who maintained multiple relationships despite being married.

"One person in the world — one person — had a motive to kill Alijah," the prosecutor said. "One person had a motive to kill Paula."

But Wright's attorney, William Bennett, offered an alternate theory. He told jurors that at least one other person had a clear motive to murder Paula and her son.

O'Conner had, among multiple policies, $540,000 in life insurance, $400,000 of which would have gone into a trust for Alijah. Because both she and Alijah died, the money went to O'Conner's then-teenage daughter, Victoria "Tori" Goodin, now 24.

"The facts will show that the baby had to die for Tori to get the $400,000," Bennett said. "Period."

Goodin, he continued, spent all of it in less than a year and a half.

Hellickson told jurors Goodin knew nothing of the policies before her mother's death. Bennett told them she did.

"The only suspect they looked at in this case," Bennett said, "was Ralph Wright."

Mother and daughter had a tenuous relationship, he said. Months before the killings, O'Conner had kicked her daughter out of the house.

The defense attorney said detectives neglected to thoroughly examine O'Conner's daughter, her boyfriend at the time or a number of her friends who could have been involved.

Though she has no convictions, Goodin has been arrested in recent years on charges of drug possession and battery.

Reached Wednesday evening, Goodin, who is now married and uses the last name Christopher, called the defense attorney's assertion that she was the murderer "crazy."

"My mother and my brother were everything to me," she said. "Like any mother and daughter, my mom and I had our disagreements … we were so much alike."

Christopher said she didn't know about the insurance money before her mom's death and said she used part of it to buy a house.

She will be one of as many as 70 witnesses prosecutors will call over the next two weeks to make their case that Wright was the killer.

O'Conner was single and working as an insurance underwriter when she met Wright in January 2004. He said he was divorced with a 10-year-old son. She never met his family, and he often left her to go on what he called "secret assignment," a fabrication that Hellickson said Wright also told multiple girlfriends.

When she became pregnant in 2005, O'Conner later wrote, Wright disappeared.

Alijah was born on April 9, 2006. He suffered from numerous medical problems that O'Conner couldn't afford to treat on her own.

O'Conner, who later detailed her problems with Wright on a website, hired a private investigator to find him. She learned Wright was married and soon after served him with papers.

After the killings, authorities believe Wright put on a pair of gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. Police found a left-hand glove on the arm of a couch near O'Conner's front door.

Forensic tests offered differing results. Hellickson said at least one analysis found DNA inside the glove that matched Alijah and Paula, and also was "consistent" with Wright's.

Although the findings weren't concrete, the glove's origin provided another clue. The glove is identical to those that had been issued to Wright's military police unit, Hellickson said. Those gloves, made of a flame-resistant material called Nomex, were kept in a locked storeroom at the base.

Wright was among a small group with access to that storeroom, the prosecutor said. No records show him checking anything out, but authorities say a security video showed him visit that area about 2 a.m. on July 6, 2007, three to four hours before the slayings.

When questioned by police, Wright denied fathering the boy and said O'Conner had long been "a thorn in my side."

DNA eventually confirmed that Alijah was his son.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Opening statements begin former USAF sergeant's trial in death of ex-lover, baby 01/16/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 9:54pm]
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