NEW PORT RICHEY — James Christian Cregger is on trial charged with rape. Authorities say that last year, late the night of July 3, he met a woman at a party and later took her behind a house in downtown New Port Richey and sexually battered her on a lawn chair.
Prosecutors have eyewitness testimony from people who saw Cregger and the woman immediately after the alleged attack who described her as frantic and shaking, claiming Cregger had just raped her.
They have DNA evidence showing Cregger, 38, and the woman had sex.
What they don't have is the woman. She died on May 15 of "multiple drug toxicity" — an overdose — according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.
That means the State Attorney's Office is trying to convict Cregger of rape without the victim.
Cregger has pleaded not guilty. Originally, he was also charged with kidnapping and tampering with a witness, but those charges were dropped after the woman died.
His attorney, Dennis Watson, told jurors Tuesday that the sex between Cregger and the woman was consensual.
"Yes, there was a sexual encounter. There's no arguing with that," Watson said.
"There is a reasonable doubt," he said.
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Deena LaRossa was married to Cregger for 10 years. They have three children together.
Early on July 4 last year, she testified Tuesday, she was on the way home from dancing at a club with three friends and her new husband. Heading north on U.S. 19, they decided to detour into New Port Richey to look for Cregger. LaRossa said she had been talking to him about him getting "clean and sober" and reuniting with his children.
The group went to his apartment but he wasn't there, so they drove around looking for him. They spotted him walking down Adams Street, a woman next to him.
"Her eyeballs were humongous," LaRossa said. "She looked very frantic, very nervous, visibly shaken."
Then, something strange happened, LaRossa said. The woman, whom LaRossa had never seen or met, called out to her, "Is that you? I haven't seen you in a long time. Let me come give you a hug."
The woman walked around the van and LaRossa got out to meet her. As they hugged, LaRossa said, "She said into my ear, 'please don't leave me, he just raped me.' "
Others in the van gave similar testimony, that the woman was panicked, begging the group to get her away from Cregger.
"She was hysterical, begging for us to go," said Stacy Davis, who was with the group.
But Watson questioned why they decided to pay a visit to Cregger in the middle of the night.
LaRossa acknowledged that she'd had disputes with him over delinquent child support payments, and that her new husband had had fist fights with Cregger.
New Port Richey Detective Randy Murphy responded to the scene, and the woman showed him where she had been attacked. The house, on Illinois Avenue, was a couple of blocks from where she and Cregger were seen walking. It belonged to Joe Catania, the well-known former owner of the Cafe Grand restaurant downtown. Catania is the godfather to one of Cregger's children, and Cregger worked for him at one time.
When Murphy questioned Cregger about the night's incidents, he testified that Cregger first denied even being with the woman. Then, Murphy said, Cregger said they were together but didn't have sex.
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Assistant State Attorney Chris Jensen called two analysts from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who looked at fluid samples taken from the woman in a gynecological exam.
One sample from her vagina was determined to be seminal fluid, but it did not contain any sperm cells with which to make a DNA match. There was also semen found on her underwear, but not enough to obtain a sample.
A mixture of saliva and semen found on the woman's neck, an analyst said, did match Cregger's DNA. The trial is expected to wrap up today. Cregger, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, plans to testify.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.