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Prep cook on trial in St. Petersburg steakhouse murder

On a cold Sunday night in December 2005, someone murdered the assistant manager of the Durango Steakhouse in St. Petersburg, leaving his nearly decapitated body in a pool of blood.

The neighborhood was on edge for a week as the slaying went unsolved. The next Friday afternoon, police arrested a restaurant employee as he pulled into the parking lot. The motive for murder, they said, was money.

The assistant manager's name was Stephen Holmes, a 29-year-old married man and father of an 8-year-old boy. He was a well-liked St. Petersburg native whose funeral drew hundreds on a gray and rainy morning.

Police said his killer was Wilson Saintil, a prep cook who also cleaned the restaurant after hours.

Saintil, 54, was arrested for robbery in 1982, but he also was a churchgoing man trusted enough by his bosses to sometimes carry deposits to the bank.

Testimony in Saintil's trial began Tuesday. If he's convicted, prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

Prosecutors say there is compelling evidence of Saintil's guilt, including his bloody fingerprint and droplets of his blood in the restaurant, 3901 Fourth St. N.

But defense attorney Dudley Clapp told jurors that detectives "leapt to conclusions" and "basically stopped their investigation" once they targeted Saintil as a suspect.

The night of the murder, Holmes called his wife, Jennifer, to say he was finishing some paperwork.

Waiter Michael Cook testified that he worked until about 10:15 p.m. and was the last employee to leave. Holmes walked Cook to the back door and locked it.

Because of the cold, Cook sat in his Mustang for about five minutes to let the windows defrost. That's when he saw Saintil's white Dodge van pull into the parking lot. Cook drove away.

About a half-hour later, another employee returned to retrieve her car, which she had left in the parking lot. She noted Saintil's van was there.

Saintil had a key to the restaurant.

As the hours passed, Jennifer Holmes waited at home for her husband. She worried about the late hour and kept calling the restaurant, to no avail.

Just after midnight, an exterminator, Gary Knuth, arrived at the restaurant to do some work. He also had a key and let himself in.

He found Holmes dead on the office floor in a pool of blood. Holmes' bent eyeglasses had skidded down the hallway, along with a button from his Durango shirt.

Gouges from a knife marked the office wall. Blood was spattered across the small office. Knuth backed out of the building as he dialed 911 on his cell phone.

Within the previous two hours, prosecutors say, Saintil had attacked Holmes with a knife or razor and struggled with him in the office. Holmes had at least 22 slice wounds to his neck and face and another 24 defensive wounds to his arms and hands.

Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin said a knife was dragged along Holmes' neck at least six times, resulting in 70 percent of the neck's circumference being cut. He said it was about as deep as a killer could go without decapitating the victim.

Holmes' family left the courtroom during his testimony.

Inside, police found the safe open. The petty cash and night deposit money — about $5,000 in all — was gone. Much of that money would have been in $100 bills because the restaurant had sold a lot of $100 gift cards.

The killer also ripped out the restaurant's surveillance system VCR. Police asked all employees to submit fingerprints. Saintil complied.

Police found a fingerprint on a manila folder in the office and droplets of blood on a prep table. The fingerprint matched Saintil's. The blood on the prep table matched his DNA.

Clapp, the defense lawyer, said investigators cannot tell to whom the blood in the fingerprint belongs. They can't even say for sure it's animal or human, he said.

He also suggested the blood on the prep table could have been left at another time. He said police never found any injuries on Saintil or blood in his van.

Saintil owed $1,240 to Aaron's Rentals for bedroom furniture. The money was due that week. Just hours after Holmes's murder, Saintil arrived at Aaron's with 12 $100 bills and two $20 bills. He paid off the debt.

A manager noticed Saintil fall asleep in a chair while waiting.

Testimony continues today.

Prep cook on trial in St. Petersburg steakhouse murder 04/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 4:31pm]

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