ST. PETERSBURG — The gifted local actor Jeff Norton was renowned for "stage combat" — the art of choreographing brawls and swordfights that look realistic to audiences, even though no one really gets hurt.
But Norton was killed in 2010, possibly by slashes from a sword, in a confrontation that had nothing to do with theater, art, or bringing an audience to laughter or tears.
A handyman named Thomas J. Lafoe was arrested shortly after the killing. On Tuesday, Lafoe's murder trial is set to begin.
The murder was a tragedy for Norton's family and friends, and also for the Tampa Bay theater community, which admired him so much that local performers now compete for "Jeff Norton Awards."
Now comes the murder trial, which could add to the pain of people who knew Norton. In addition to reopening the memory of his death, the trial may include the testimony of witnesses who say Norton used crack cocaine. At least one painted a picture of a man in decline.
This was not well known to friends of the man who taught theater at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, or who awed audiences from Lakewood High School to New York City in roles from Shakespeare, Chekhov and local playwrights.
Norton's friends and admirers are bracing for difficult testimony at trial. One friend, Stephen Blanton, said in a pretrial interview with lawyers that the crack use was "a dark secret" that shocked him and Norton's other friends, who didn't learn of it until after Norton died.
Dianna Cass-Demarest, a 49-year-old woman with arrests for drugs and prostitution, met Norton a year before he died, and had visited him at home with a friend. She is a potential witness in the case, and spoke with attorneys last year in a deposition.
She said Norton smoked crack, and apparently let a friend use his truck and bank card to go buy drugs. She described Norton this way:
He had told me that he was a teacher and that he used to be an actor. … He didn't feel good about himself. I felt really bad. It was like a big waste of his life, that he was just sitting in this chair in the middle of the room with ashes and cigarette butts and pieces of broken crack pipe. He was a really nice guy.
In July 2010, friends who came to visit Norton at 4201 Third St. N, discovered that he had been brutally killed, struck by something that sliced into his skull.
A few days later, Lafoe, a neighbor who lived around the corner at 333 43rd Ave. N and mowed Norton's grass, was arrested. Police said he became a suspect after using Norton's credit card after the killing.
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Friends say they hope that after the trial is done, Tampa Bay remembers Norton for other things, such as his performances in St. Petersburg's Shakespeare in the Park, or his teaching.
"As far as I was concerned, he's the greatest actor I've ever seen in Tampa Bay, and he was a thrill to watch," said accountant Bob Burke, 58, who acted with Norton at St. Petersburg's Lakewood High School and saw him perform about 45 times.
In addition to the Jeff Norton Awards that have been created, Burke said he would like to create a Norton scholarship for Lakewood theater students, "To give some young star a dream … and bring back his spirit."
Todd Olson, producing artistic director at American Stage, said: "His talent impressed me immediately. You couldn't take your eyes off the guy. He was just so quick and so smart and so unpredictable."
Olson said Norton "was one of those artists who worked everywhere in Tampa Bay. … People remember him for work at many, many theaters and as a teacher as well."
That made him a good choice for his namesake awards, which honor and bring together stage artists on both sides of Tampa Bay, Olson said.
Norton earned degrees in theater and acting from the University of South Florida and Southern Methodist University, and also taught at USF. Unlike some who move on after their high school and college theater days, Norton clung to the craft.
Burke said this summer, Lakewood's Class of '72 will have its 40th reunion. He's sure he and classmates will take time to remember their friend who "was always kind and giving to people who loved drama, to people who loved to act."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.