A jury took about five hours Thursday to find a Durango Steakhouse prep cook guilty of murdering the restaurant's assistant manager.
Jurors convicted Wilson Saintil, 54, of first-degree murder in the Dec. 12, 2005, slaying of Stephen Holmes, 29. Jurors will return to court today to determine whether Saintil should get the death penalty or life in prison without the chance of parole — the only two punishments possible for first-degree murder.
Holmes's wife, Jennifer, said she was pleased with the guilty verdict but that it did not feel as good as she had thought it might. She was joined at the trial by more than a dozen family members and friends.
"It doesn't change the end result," she said. "We're still here, and we're missing someone very, very much."
Holmes was a popular St. Petersburg native who left behind an 8-year-old son. He recently had been promoted to assistant manager at the restaurant and had started a band. Hundreds attended his funeral.
Prosecutors said Saintil used his key to enter the steak house at 3901 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg after the restaurant had closed. He found Holmes in the office and attacked him with a knife. An exterminator found Holmes' body later that night.
His face and neck had been cut more than 20 times, including at least six deep cuts to his throat. He also had more than 20 defensive wounds to his arms and hands.
"Stephen fought for his life," prosecutor Doneene Dresback told jurors in closing arguments.
The restaurant's safe and petty cash had been emptied of about $5,000, much of it $100 bills. The restaurant's surveillance VCR also had been taken.
"The evidence showed it was an inside job," Dresback said.
The neighborhood surrounding the restaurant was on edge for days while the case was unsolved.
But police soon began focusing on Saintil. A bloody fingerprint found on a file folder in the office was matched to him. Drops of blood that contained his DNA also were found on a prep table near a sink where it appeared that the killer had washed up.
Police also determined that just hours after Holmes was murdered, Saintil began paying off bills and debts. He paid off a furniture rental bill with 12 $100 bills and paid a traffic ticket with two more. He also deposited more than $400 into his bank account, which had a negative balance, and gave $200 to his sister.
He was suddenly able to pay these bills even though he hadn't received a paycheck in at least 10 days.
"The circumstantial evidence in this case only points to one person," Dresback told the jury.
Saintil took the stand in his defense Thursday morning and denied killing Holmes. Saintil said he called Holmes "Mr. Steve" and considered him a friend.
But when questioned by prosecutor Bill Loughery, Saintil could not explain how his bloody fingerprint and blood wound up in the restaurant. Jennifer Holmes said after the verdict that she feels bad for Saintil's family members, several of whom attended the trial.
"I know what it's like to be on the other side of losing a family member," she said. She said the family wanted to keep its opinion about Saintil's potential punishment private for now.
Mrs. Holmes said she didn't want to believe that Saintil could have murdered her husband, but she was convinced by the evidence.
"It's sad to think a friend could do it to another friend," she said. "Stephen really cared about Wilson."