BROOKSVILLE — From the moment he pulled into the winding, dirt-paved driveway, Joseph Evans knew something was amiss at Uncle Pat and Aunt Evelyn's home in rural southern Hernando County.
They didn't open the garage door and come out to greet him. They didn't answer knocks on the front door or several rings of the doorbell. Their vehicle wasn't in the garage or the driveway.
Growing worried, Evans and his fiancée went around the back of the house and found shed doors had been pried open.
"I was getting a little nervous about the situation," Evans said Tuesday. "They always answered the door. They were expecting us."
But someone had been to the DePalmas' home first: Evans had unwittingly stumbled into a crime scene.
Evans retold the story of his grisly discovery Tuesday afternoon, the first day of testimony in the trial of a 35-year-old Brooksville man accused in the stabbing deaths of a Masaryktown couple.
Robert Jardin is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, armed burglary and grand theft in the Oct. 28, 2006, stabbing deaths of Patrick DePalma, 84, and Evelyn DePalma, 79, in their home.
Jury selection in the trial started Monday morning, and prosecutors and defense attorneys steadily whittled down a pool of about 50 potential jurors over the next day and a half.
Many of the questions Assistant District Attorney Pete Magrino had for prospective jurors involved their prior knowledge of the case, particularly if they had read or seen recent media accounts.
Magrino and public defender Alan Fanter took great pains to weed out people who kept close tabs on the case, noting that few criminal cases in Hernando County have generated as much interest or as many headlines as the deaths of the DePalmas.
Ultimately, Magrino and Fanter settled on a 12-person jury and two alternates — eight of them men. Of the 14 people on the panel, seven are in their 60s. Only one is younger than 40. None are from Masaryktown.
Not long after the jury was seated, Magrino launched into a nearly 40-minute opening statement that laid out the prosecution's case.
Magrino told jurors that authorities had DNA evidence that placed Jardin in the DePalmas' home; that detectives found several items from the DePalmas' home in his trailer, motor home and Chevy pickup truck; and that Jardin stole a watch from the home that he later asked a co-worker at a Brooksville jewelry shop to fix for him, among other things.
"The DePalmas came here to enjoy the golden years of their life," Magrino said, looking back at Jardin. "But ultimately, the individual who committed the murders and the other crimes is that defendant right there."
Fanter countered with a short, three-minute statement, telling jurors that the prosecution would be unable to meet the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard to convict Jardin.
Evans was one of four witnesses to take the stand, including one of the DePalmas' grandsons, their Catholic priest and the first deputy to respond to the crime scene at the couple's home.
Evans told jurors that he made plans earlier that week with "Uncle Pat" to meet for lunch Sunday. They would have met Saturday, Evans said, but Patrick DePalma told him they planned to go to church and then do some grocery shopping.
"We want to spend the whole day with you," Evans said DePalma told him earlier that week. "Come Sunday."
But the lunch never happened. According to court documents, the DePalmas were last seen attending Mass at the Catholic Church of St. Mary on U.S. 41, a short drive from their home.
Detectives were able to retrace the couple's movements, determining they had gone to Mass, the grocery store and then back home. Authorities believe the DePalmas were killed sometime between Saturday evening and when their bodies were found Sunday afternoon.
Evans said when he and his fiancée arrived at the DePalmas' home at 333 Korbus Road about 1 p.m. Sunday, it soon became clear something was wrong.
"I knew they were expecting us," Evans said, noting that the garage door stayed shut when they pulled into the driveway. "I was kind of surprised."
Also Monday, Judge Springstead denied Magrino's motion to prohibit Jardin's attorneys from questioning witnesses about statements and confessions made previously by David Bostick, who was the first suspect arrested in the case in April 2008.
But the case against Bostick, an 18-year-old distant relative from Tampa, fell apart because of a lack of evidence and he was released within a month.
The trial is expected to last about a week.
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.