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'Spit guard' rape defendant in St. Petersburg hospital because of hunger strike

LARGO — This week's trial of Anthony Edward Watson is a tale of rape, robbery, mental illness, the oddities of the legal system and 19 years of anguish.

It's a week in which Watson has spit on his own attorney, been ordered to wear a "spit guard," declared a hunger strike and been hospitalized.

But, prosecutors say, the story also has a hero. And he testified on Thursday.

Watson pleaded guilty to rape, robbery and kidnapping in 1992 and was sentenced to 160 years in prison. But a federal judge ordered that he be given the right to a trial, based on evidence that he was mentally incompetent when he pleaded guilty 19 years ago.

Thursday, the key witness in the trial was Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy John Hubbard, a 23-year veteran who says he was just doing his job in March 1992, patrolling northern Pinellas County and searching for a yellow, wood-paneled station wagon driven by a tall man with scraggly hair and rotting teeth.

Hubbard knew the car had been at the scene of an Oldsmar dry cleaners, where a young pregnant woman had been raped at knifepoint. He knew it also had been spotted at the scene of a robbery.

But, cruising through his patrol zone early in the morning of March 26, 1992, he did not know about the secret inside the car.

Considering the description of a suspect with shaggy hair and bad teeth, Hubbard thought the man might be homeless, living in his car. So he drove past vacant businesses to see if he could find the car parked somewhere, in case the man was taking a snooze.

He found nothing after two hours, so he and another deputy decided to look for speeders instead. They set up in the median of McMullen-Booth Road, near Curlew Road.

And then a yellow station wagon drove by.

Hubbard followed and pulled the car over. He looked in back of the car without seeing anything unusual, and asked the driver for identification.

"He smiled at me and when he did, I could see his decayed teeth," Hubbard said in court Thursday. "My hair stood up on end. To me there was no doubt this was the suspect."

Then, a blanket in back of the station wagon came alive. "Those blankets popped up and somebody jumped out from the passenger side of that station wagon and ran behind my cruiser. I didn't know if I was being ambushed."

It was a 19-year-old woman who said the man had kidnapped her at gunpoint from a Pick Kwik on U.S. 19, just minutes earlier. According to court records, the driver had told her he would shoot her if police stopped the car.

"She was hysterical," Hubbard said.

After that, the car sped off. Hubbard put the woman in his cruiser, and followed as the station wagon zoomed over 80 mph. The man later ran from the car and was found hiding in a boat.

Hubbard testified that he had noticed a wound on Watson's face, and had noted it in a written report. It was an important observation, because it matches previous testimony from the rape victim.

But Watson's lawyers said Thursday that they never saw that report — it had been apparently provided to Watson himself, at a time when he was representing himself. Assistant Public Defender Jonathan Saunders asked for a mistrial, but Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard Luce denied the motion.

The discussion was complicated by the fact that Watson was admitted to Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg on Thursday, because he has been on a hunger strike. However he was eating later Thursday, officials said, and was expected to be taken back to the Pinellas County Jail.

'Spit guard' rape defendant in St. Petersburg hospital because of hunger strike 03/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 1:03am]

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