NEW PORT RICHEY — Wearing a court-provided hearing aid and speaking in a hoarse voice damaged by a stroke, 84-year-old John Croft took the witness stand Thursday to defend himself against a manslaughter charge for shooting his neighbor three years ago.
"He's big," Croft said of 29-year-old Seth Sigmon. "He could have hurt me."
A jury of three men and three women didn't buy it. After deliberating for an hour and a half, they found Croft guilty of manslaughter. The offense carries a maximum of 30 years.
"We are elated," said Sue Austin, Sigmon's aunt. "We still have to go home without Seth and that hurts."
Croft, who was taken into custody after the verdict, will be sentenced later. Nick Michailos, Croft's attorney, will ask for a lesser sentence than called for within state guidelines.
Croft was convicted of shooting Sigmon three times on April 25, 2009 — first causing Sigmon to fall to one knee, then shooting him twice more on the ground. The shooting took place in front of their homes on Connie Court in the Shady Hills community.
The trial began this week with testimony from neighbors who said they saw Croft shoot Sigmon after the men began arguing. On Thursday, it was Croft's turn to have his say. Sigmon's mother cried in the audience, eventually leaving the courtroom as Croft gave his account of what happened that afternoon.
Croft said he had just returned from buying takeout food from Chili's when his longtime girlfriend told him that a neighbor's kid, 9-year-old Anthony Grimsley, had been climbing on the Dumpster in front of Croft's home. Croft said he took a .22-caliber pistol from the table and put it in his pocket. He had planned to put it away but went out to check the mail.
Croft said he went outside and saw the boy on the Dumpster.
"I went up to tell him to get off the Dumpsters or he might fall in or get hurt," he said. "I may have been a little rude to him."
The boy ran inside his home next door. His mother, Sigmon's girlfriend, said Wednesday that the boy ran inside crying and said "the old man had yelled at him."
That prompted Sigmon to go outside and confront Croft, who was still outside.
Croft said the two were standing on a county right of way near the Dumpster.
He said Sigmon was waving his hands and gave Croft a "belly push" and called Croft a "shriveled-up son of a b----" and threatened to throw him in the Dumpster.
"I backed up from him and told him why don't you go back home where you came from? And he turned around and came at me real fast. I pulled the gun out. He said what are you going to do you old son of a b----, are you going to shoot me?"
"I told him damn right if he didn't go home."
Croft fired the gun. He said Sigmon turned around and fell down on one knee and then turned around and fell back down. Croft said he stood there with the gun in his hand.
He said he didn't remember firing but once. As for shooting his neighbor, "I didn't like it then and I don't like it now."
He said he had never had a problem with Sigmon or the boy, until "he was messing around the Dumpster."
Prosecutors painted a different picture during cross-examination. Instead of a neighbor looking out for a child's safety, they showed the jury a curmudgeon who disliked the child.
"You didn't like Anthony," said assistant state attorney Ryan McGee. "You called him a little pain in the a--, didn't you?"
"It's possible," Croft replied.
"He angered you, didn't he?" McGee said.
"I was a little upset, yes," Croft said.
"And you yelled at him for getting on your Dumpster," McGee said.
McGee asked Croft whether he had a telephone in the house and why he didn't use it if he felt threatened by Sigmon.
"You took that firearm and you aimed it," he said, "You pointed it at Seth Sigmon and told him you'd better back up, correct? You told him not to mess with you. You fired at him, right at the center of his chest."
McGee then asked why Croft fired two more times after Sigmon was down.
"You executed him, didn't you?" he said. "He was on the ground defenseless, wasn't he? After you shot him three times, you waited over his body, didn't you?"
If Croft was so concerned about Sigmon, he asked, why instead of running inside and calling 911 did he go to his bedroom, change clothes, open the refrigerator and get a beer?
"You went outside and waited for (police) to come, didn't you?" he said.
Croft admitted to waiting on the porch. He said he knew someone else had called authorities.