MASARYKTOWN — The night started with plans to score some crack cocaine, and Robert Jardin said he decided to tag along for the ride.
Jardin told authorities he left a friend's home in Spring Hill with a guy named Rick, and the pair headed into the darkness of a quiet rural neighborhood. Soon, they pulled up to a beige stucco house sitting on 10 secluded acres near Masaryktown.
What Jardin found inside the home made him sick to his stomach, he said.
"I saw two old people laying on the floor with blood everywhere," he said. "My world … turned upside down the moment I walked in the house."
But it was something else Jardin did on that night in late October 2006 — a seemingly trivial moment — that landed him behind bars two years later, accused of stabbing and killing the elderly couple: He opened the refrigerator, found a carton of milk and took a drink to settle his stomach.
In the summer of 2008, a state computer found a DNA match back to that open milk container, giving authorities their first solid break in a case that had nearly grown cold and allaying the fears of residents in this quiet community of 920 people.
Jardin, 35, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, armed burglary and grand theft for his alleged role in the stabbing deaths of Patrick and Evelyn DePalma in their home in rural southern Hernando County.
His trial is set to start Monday and is expected to last nearly a week. If convicted, Jardin could be sentenced to death.
Though authorities have identified only Jardin publicly, court affidavits and hundreds of pages of documents reveal that other suspects still remain at large in the deaths.
Jardin's indictment from August 2008 alleges that he stabbed Evelyn DePalma "multiple times with a knife or other sharp bladed instrument," but later mentions "others whose identity is currently unknown."
Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino, the county's chief homicide prosecutor, said the investigation into the case is still ongoing, but declined to comment further.
Over the past several years, few criminal cases in Hernando County have generated as much interest or as many headlines as the stabbing deaths of Patrick and Evelyn DePalma.
Patrick DePalma was 84, and his wife was 79. They had been married 62 years and moved to Masaryktown in 1985, mostly living a simple life that included large family dinners on Sunday afternoons.
They were last seen attending Mass at the Catholic Church of St. Mary along U.S. 41 — a short drive from their home — on Oct. 31, 2006. Detectives were later able to retrace the couple's movements, figuring out that they had gone to Mass, the grocery store and then home.
Detectives believe the DePalmas were murdered sometime between Saturday evening and when their bodies were found Sunday afternoon.
A shocking scene in a quiet neighborhood
One of their nephews, a regular guest, was the first to realize something was wrong when he showed up at 1:30 p.m. Sunday for dinner.
He knocked on the door and waited for an answer that never came. He then went around to the back of the house and found the shed doors pried open. He called 911.
When deputies finally got inside the home, they found a crime scene that was something out of a horror film: The walls, doors and carpet were splattered with blood; Patrick and Evelyn DePalma had been stabbed to death with a long-bladed knife, and the house had been virtually turned upside down, as if someone had been looking for something.
Five items had been stolen: a Sanyo VCR, a Bissell vacuum, an RCA stereo, a wooden knife block with its knives and a rifle.
Authorities wrapped the house with yellow crime scene tape. Then, for two years, they got virtually nothing.
Detectives canvassed the small area near the Hernando-Pasco county line, interviewed hundreds of people, collected reams of evidence from the home and even asked national experts to see if they could come up with a profile of the killer.
The Sheriff's Office thought it finally had gotten its big break with the arrest of David Alexander Bostick, an 18-year-old distant relative from Tampa. But that case fell apart because of a lack of evidence, and Bostick was released within a month.
Suspect says others were at the home, too
A former Marine and divorced father of three who goes by the nickname "Jarhead," Jardin emerged as a suspect three months after Bostick's arrest. Investigators had been looking into information that Jardin might have been involved in the DePalma murders when they received a tip connecting Jardin to a bar fight.
When Jardin went to the Sheriff's Office for a pair of interviews in July 2008, questioning soon shifted to the murder case.
After a lie-detector test and more than 20 hours of questions, Jardin eventually admitted that he was at the DePalmas' home the night of the murders and saw the couple lying dead in a hallway.
"It was like a big bad … dream," Jardin told detectives. "My life has been in an uncontrollable tailspin since that night."
However, Jardin refused to give up the identities of any other people who might have been inside the home. He made mention of "Rick," a man in his early 40s who was driving a nearly 30-year-old white Plymouth Valiant that night as they went looking for crack.
But Jardin never gave a last name or provided much explanation for how they knew each other. And his description of the man changed over the course of the interview.
"I've been told … I ever open my mouth, my kids will be dead," Jardin said. "All I'm … guilty of is keeping my mouth shut. … I'm stuck."
The jurors, however, will not hear that testimony in this week's trial.
In a pair of court hearings over the past couple of weeks, Public Defender Alan Fanter successfully petitioned Circuit Judge Jack Springstead to suppress statements that Jardin made to detectives in those interviews. Springstead ruled that the detectives should have advised Jardin of his Miranda rights.
Fanter didn't return a message left at his office Friday.
But prosecutors will still have some compelling evidence to present to the jury. Springstead will allow some testimony from Jardin related to his drug use. Also, authorities found several items from the DePalmas' home in his trailer, motor home and Chevy pickup truck. And, of course, there's the DNA match that places him at the scene of the crime.
Acquaintances offer different opinions
People who knew Jardin previously have given mixed responses when asked whether he is capable of such savagery.
"I couldn't believe what (detectives) were telling me," said friend James Beam, who was allowing Jardin to live on his property at the time of his arrest, " 'cause I had never seen him to be that kind of person."
On the other hand, Jesse Rivers, a former co-worker at Jewels 'n Time Pawn Shop, said Jardin was a dangerous and arrogant man, a braggart and a thief. Rivers told the Times that Jardin sometimes joked about gunning down elderly people.
"He was not a very nice guy and wasn't a very good employee," Rivers said shortly after Jardin's arrest.
Jury selection starts Monday morning in Springstead's court.
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.