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Slaying suspect's tape conversation with his mother lacks direct confession

David Onstott, left, and his attorney John Skye listen Monday to a recording of a jailhouse conversation Onstott had with his mother while he was being held for questioning in 2005. Onstott is accused in the slaying of Sarah Lunde, 13, in 2005.

KEN HELLE | Times

David Onstott, left, and his attorney John Skye listen Monday to a recording of a jailhouse conversation Onstott had with his mother while he was being held for questioning in 2005. Onstott is accused in the slaying of Sarah Lunde, 13, in 2005.

TAMPA — The day searchers found 13-year-old Sarah Lunde's body, Hillsborough sheriff's detectives put their chief suspect in a jailhouse interview room with his mother.

They had questioned David Onstott for five days without breaking the case. Now, they secretly listened in and hoped for a confession.

As the first-degree murder case against Onstott resumed Monday, jurors also listened to that conversation. They heard Refugia Whitten beg her son to tell the truth, and Onstott sob and complain of exhaustion.

"Mom, there's something wrong with me," Onstott said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm possessed."

But whether Onstott actually confessed to his mother is up for debate. Prosecutors claim he whispered "I killed her" to his mother. Given the many inaudible moments on the recording, the defense called that contention "wishful thinking."

The incriminating statement could not be heard from the courtroom gallery Monday. Jurors, however, were given transcripts; the media were not.

Cpl. Steve Lewis, who helped investigate the case, said he stepped outside with Onstott after the April 16, 2005, conversation to let him smoke.

At that point, Lewis testified, Onstott said he wanted the state to help him die.

"He told me that he wanted to die as soon as possible," Lewis said.

Both the state and defense rested their cases Monday. Attorneys won't make closing arguments until Wednesday due to the courthouse being closed today because of the potential threat of Tropical Storm Fay.

Onstott's attorneys presented 14 witnesses to jurors, a large number for a defense case. They pointed out inconsistencies in the statements made by Sarah Lunde's brother, Andrew, and elicited testimony about how often Sarah wandered away from her Ruskin home late at night.

The defense argues that's what she did the night she died at the hands of someone other than Onstott.

Dr. Ronald Wright, a former medical examiner in South Florida, said he thinks Sarah was still alive when she suffered crushing blows to the head. Those wounds would have bled a lot, Wright said.

No blood was found in Sarah's mobile home. Prosecutors suggest that Onstott choked Sarah there, then delivered the blows to her head somewhere else.

Wright also said Sarah's bra likely ended up around her neck because her body swelled as it decomposed, rather than being pushed up during an attempted sexual assault, as prosecutors contend.

Jurors won't hear from Onstott himself. He told Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta that he will not testify.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Slaying suspect's tape conversation with his mother lacks direct confession 08/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 8:08pm]

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