Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

Three men get long prison sentences for deadly home-invasion robbery in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — Sitting at the witness stand, Cliff Kearney turned to the men guilty of his friend's murder and took them back to the night that Michael Pfeifer was killed.

Kearney was staying with Pfeifer at his house on Grand Avenue in Masaryktown when three armed men barged in on the night of Aug. 16, 2011, and demanded drugs and money.

"You left me in a real horror show, you know that?" Kearney told Richard D. Harris Jr., Nicholas J. Trammell and Robert H. Willoughby. "I had to try to stop the bleeding. I had to stay with my boy as he clutched onto life. We told you, 'We had kids. Don't kill us.' You laughed and turned off the lights and counted backwards from five. Remember that?"

Gunshots rang out. A bullet pierced Pfeifer's leg, and the 27-year-old father bled to death before paramedics arrived.

On Monday, after two hours of emotional testimony, Hernando Circuit Judge Stephen E. Toner Jr. sentenced Trammell, 23, and Harris, 27, to three concurrent life prison terms, the maximum penalty. Toner punished Willoughby, 26, with 30 years in prison.

"You will have the ability through your life to have contact with your family," Toner told Trammell, "something that Mr. Pfeifer's not going to be able to do."

Initially, all three men were charged with first-degree murder, armed burglary and home invasion armed robbery. Willoughby agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, armed robbery and armed burglary. In exchange, his prison sentence was capped at 40 years.

According to Willoughby's account, the three men went to Pfeifer's house that night to rob him of marijuana, prescription pills and cash. The men were armed with a handgun, a shotgun and an assault-style rifle. Harris and Trammell held Kearney and Pfeifer at gunpoint in a bedroom. Willoughby said he was in another room when he heard shots. The men fled with cash and other valuables.

After Willoughby struck his deal, Harris and Trammell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder with a firearm and the other two charges. They faced a minimum sentence of 25 years.

On Monday, family members of all four men packed the courtroom.

Pfeifer's loved ones described him as a happy man and a good father. The mother of his son, Jodi Dunwoodie, said the boy begs God to bring his father back and often plays videos of Pfeifer. The boy, now 7, thinks his dad died in a car accident.

"I fear the day I have to somehow explain what really happened," Dunwoodie said.

Family members of the three defendants took the stand and told Toner that what happened that night was an aberration. Harris has a 7-year-old daughter. Willoughby has two children, ages 3 and 6. None of the defendants had prior convictions for violent crimes.

One by one, the three men took the stand, apologized to Pfeifer's family and asked for mercy.

"I have no excuses for what happened, and the mistakes ultimately cost me everything, my family everything and, most importantly, the Pfeifer family everything," Trammell said.

Harris said he carried the AK-47 rifle into the house to intimidate Pfeifer, and the gun went off when Pfeifer grabbed the weapon during a struggle.

"I didn't have a good feeling that night, but Mr. Willoughby insisted that we go in," he said. "I'm just … I'm just sorry."

Willoughby said he felt shame.

"That's not the person I am. That's not the person I want to be," he said. "My kids are everything to me, and I want to make things right for them."

After the testimony, Toner took a 45-minute recess. Then bailiffs brought in each man one at a time. Toner said they'd already been shown mercy in the form of a reduced charge. Each time he said "life in prison," family members on both sides of the courtroom began to sob. Trammell looked at his family with tears in his eyes. Harris looked angry.

Afterward, Debbie Pfeifer said justice had been served and that she long ago forgave the men who killed her son.

"God judges people," she said. "This is a worldly punishment. They have a long way to go."

   
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