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Tarpon Springs Publix worker to go on trial in 2010 fatal shooting

TARPON SPRINGS — Arunya Rouch didn't seem to understand.

It was early morning on March 30, 2010. She sat on a chair in a small, second-story office at the Publix on U.S. 19. A slight woman at 5-foot-1 and 120 pounds, she had black hair and brown eyes and a serious face. Rouch, who worked in the seafood department of the supermarket, had just admitted to her boss and her boss' boss that, three days earlier, she had threatened to kill a co-worker.

"You cannot do that," said store manager Mickey McPhee. "I'm going to have to let you go."

"I won't do it again," she said.

"No, I'm going to have to release you," McPhee repeated. "I'm going to have to let you go."

Rouch cried. She apologized. She begged for another chance. McPhee told her it was too late, and when at last Rouch understood, she got up, stripped off her apron and walked out.

She said nothing as she was escorted from the building.

Five hours later, she came back armed with a pistol and did just what she had promised, according to authorities: She shot co-worker Gregory Janowski to death as he sat in his car outside the store.

As a jury this week considers whether Rouch should spend the rest of her life in prison, those five hours between the firing and the killing may matter more than any that preceded or followed.

Rouch's attorney, George Tragos, says his client was insane at the time of the slaying. For months, Tragos has said, Janowski harassed Rouch until, finally, she snapped. In those five hours, Rouch later told doctors, a voice she had never heard before told her to get a gun. To do bad things. To hurt someone.

Prosecutors likely will tell jurors that's all nonsense. In those five hours, authorities say, Rouch planned a calculated execution, then carried it out. Two psychologists and a psychiatrist hired by the state determined Rouch never suffered a mental break. They say she always knew right from wrong.

• • •

In the back room behind piles of apples and onions and watermelons, the argument grew louder.

Janowski and Rouch had never gotten along. He was a meat cutter. She was a seafood specialist. Born and raised in the South, he liked to hunt and fish and talk about his orange Ford Mustang. Born and raised in Thailand, she liked to work and talk about work. Co-workers affectionately called him "Redneck." They affectionately called her "a perfectionist."

Janowski enjoyed teasing co-workers. Rouch hated it.

Two fellow employees, according to court records, said Janowski sometimes went too far. He used racial slurs for Rouch and others, they said. He once told her to "get back in her hole," referring to the space behind the seafood display.

Their mutual disdain boiled over on March 27, 2010, documents indicate. Rouch often worked "off the clock," coming in before her shift began to get ahead on her duties. The company prohibited the practice and, on that morning, Janowski told Rouch to quit doing it.

"It's none of your business," a co-worker, Donald Frevold, overheard her tell him.

"It is my business," Janowski said, "if you're working off the clock."

"I will kill you," said Rouch, before she stepped away.

"Oh," he said, "now you're threatening me."

Rouch turned and walked back to him.

"Where I come from, this is what we do to people like you," she said, sliding her finger across her throat. "I will kill you."

It didn't end there.

Sometime later, on a sheet displaying employees' schedules, Rouch drew an "X" through Janowski's name. Pamela Tatum, who also worked in seafood, asked Rouch about it over the phone. Tatum told authorities Rouch didn't deny it.

"I kill Greg," Rouch said to her. "I kill Greg. I kill Greg."

• • •

It might have been a voice or a noise or just her own thoughts. Maybe a woman or a man. Or one voice or many voices. It sounded like a walkie-talkie.

At least four psychological experts have evaluated Rouch, and none of them seemed to exactly agree on what she heard, or didn't hear, in that time before the shooting. At least in part, it seems, because she never exactly explained it the same way.

"I just listen to it," she told Dr. Michael Gamache, a psychologist hired by prosecutors. "I just a hear a voice, another voice tells me to do things."

It told her to get a gun.

"I can feel another side of me tell me, 'Don't do it,' " she said. "At that moment, I feel cold."

• • •

Arunya Rouch wore slacks, a dark sweatshirt and sunglasses to the killing of Gregory Janowski. Witnesses saw her point a gun into the driver's side window of the car. They heard four pops.

She tucked the gun into a lime green Publix shopping bag slung over her shoulder like a purse.

Rouch passed customers as she entered the store. She then wandered the building, authorities say, looking for other targets.

Ericka Taylor, who was working in the seafood department, saw Rouch go by her.

"Hey," Taylor said.

Rouch shook her head. Her face looked blank. Then, Taylor said, she saw the silhouette of a gun in the Publix bag

Virginia Wahler, a clerk, had heard that Rouch was in the store with a gun. Wahler spotted her walking up Aisle 15. Wahler didn't know that Janowski had been shot.

"How you doing, baby?" Wahler said, putting her arm around Rouch. "You don't want to do this. Don't be stupid."

Wahler suddenly wrapped her left arm around Rouch's neck and went for the gun.

Rouch pulled her arm out, Wahler said, and pressed the firearm against her stomach.

"Virginia," she said, "let me go or I'll kill you."

Ronald Chmielorz, Rouch's old boss, noticed the struggle. He walked over to help, but Rouch broke free. With both hands, he said, she pointed the gun at him.

He saw a live round discharge from the pistol.

"At that point, I figured she pulled the trigger," he told authorities. "It didn't go off."

Within minutes, officers from the Tarpon Springs Police Department had descended on the store. Sgt. Michael Trill spotted Rouch emerge from Aisle 10.

He yelled for her to show her hands. Instead, he said, she pulled a gun and fired two shots, striking another officer's belt. Rouch ducked behind the end of the aisle.

Trill fired back through shelves of Triscuits stacked on the aisle's end. He saw her slumped to the ground behind a garbage can. As he approached her, she fired another round at him. He shot her twice more, then kicked her gun away.

Rouch survived her four gunshot wounds. Janowski did not.

Some who saw Rouch that day said she looked out of her mind. Insane. But investigators discovered at least one piece of evidence that implied the killing was not the work of a madwoman: the Publix bag.

A slit was cut into the material that, one doctor believed, was meant to give Rouch easier access to the gun.

"Insane implies that they didn't know what they're doing. It just happened," said Emily Lazarou, a psychiatrist hired by prosecutors. "But this was planned."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

Tarpon Springs Publix worker to go on trial in 2010 fatal shooting 06/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 6:49am]
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