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Trial starts Wednesday in beating, robbery of Hernando's 'walker'

John Kelly, center, leaves HealthSouth Rehabilitation in January with charge nurse Rose Nutt, left, brother George Kelly, and therapists Robert Guzman and Heather Cline.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

John Kelly, center, leaves HealthSouth Rehabilitation in January with charge nurse Rose Nutt, left, brother George Kelly, and therapists Robert Guzman and Heather Cline.

WEEKI WACHEE — Left for dead in a ditch along Cortez Boulevard near U.S. 19, John Kelly somehow summoned the power to stand.

His legs, after all, made him a familiar figure in Hernando County. Motorists and neighbors referred to the 49-year-old as "the walker" because he made daily treks along county roads from his meager trailer in Weeki Wachee.

But this time was different. With wavering consciousness and blood streaming down his face, his legs propelled him to survive.

The nearest building was the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative office. He went to the locked door and shook the handles, leaving smears of his blood. He pressed his face to the glass, peering inside. It was just after 11 p.m. — no one in sight.

He kept going, staggering to Hernando County Fire Rescue Station 12 nearby on Ovenbird Road. Sean Moulton was in the captain's office.

"Through the front door," Moulton told investigators, "walked a middle-aged, very bloody male. He states, 'Help me. I have just been jumped. They took my wallet.' "

Kelly didn't recall much before he was flown to a Tampa hospital, but the ensuing investigation determined that an ex-convict and two teenagers targeted, robbed and viciously beat Kelly the night of Sept. 19, 2007. All for $100 cash.

Jamie Lynn Tyson, now 18, and Michael Vann, 24, are scheduled to stand trial this week on charges of attempted murder, robbery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery with a deadly weapon and tampering with evidence for their roles in the attack. The third defendant, Anthony Hawkins, now 18, took a plea deal in which prosecutors dropped the attempted murder charge in exchange for his testimony. He pleaded guilty to two lesser charges and is serving a juvenile sentence in Citrus County.

Tyson will go on trial first, starting Wednesday. He faces life in prison on the attempted murder and robbery with a deadly weapon charges.

A conviction will open the way for a subsequent trial against Vann, who has a lengthy criminal record and served time in prison. If found guilty, he will receive a mandatory life sentence as a habitual offender.

Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee believes Vann is the main perpetrator. He hopes a conviction against Tyson will lead to his testimony against his friend. At present, Hawkins is the only witness putting Vann at the scene.

The cases are by no means a sure thing. Hernando County sheriff's investigators discovered hardly any material evidence. The prosecution will rely almost entirely on circumspect witnesses with a penchant for dishonesty and questionable motives.

The defense team for Tyson, meanwhile, came forward with an eleventh-hour alibi. In a deposition nine days ago, his mother, Becky Tyson, now claims her son was home eating meatballs and spaghetti the night of the attack.

Tyson's court-appointed attorney, Frank Bankowitz of Orlando, said he had no comment about the case.

In presenting the case, Barbee will put Hawkins on the stand to describe what occurred that night. According to court documents, he will explain how the three saw Kelly go to Bank of America and withdraw large sums of money most nights.

The Wednesday night in question, Hawkins said they approached Kelly on bicycles, wearing black ski masks.

Vann asked him if he had money, and Kelly said no. Then, Vann grabbed him and threw him in the ditch, where they beat him with metal bars, court documents indicate. They took his black backpack, which held Kelly's wallet, and fled back to Tyson's residence on Lake Drive.

Hawkins' testimony is questionable because he initially lied to investigators, saying he wasn't there before acknowledging he acted as the lookout.

"I wasn't there, I swear on my life," Hawkins told a detective numerous times in an interview a few days after the attack.

He received $10 for his role, he later admitted.

Hawkins said they ditched the evidence in Whitehurst Pond, then he changed his story to say they weighted it with a cinder block and tossed it in deep twin sink holes off Cortez Boulevard. Authorities found nothing at either location.

Investigators now believe Tyson and Vann put the sticks, masks, backpack and bloody clothes in a trash bag that was picked up the next morning during trash service.

This account came from Nicholas Lombardi, an inmate housed near Tyson's cell in December 2007. He made his statement in a Jan. 14 interview, too late for investigators to recover the evidence, Barbee said.

Lombardi, who has an extensive criminal record, including a guilty charge for making a false report to law enforcement, said Tyson confessed to the Kelly attack and described how it happened.

Lombardi said Tyson told him that they thought they killed Kelly. He also knew a few details not released to the public, which investigators said helps support the story.

The prosecution also will put John Hull before jurors. The day after the attack, Hull attended a party and overheard Tyson bragging about robbing "the old man." Yet Hull didn't come forward with the story until after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge.

In Tyson's interview with authorities the week after the attack, he maintained his innocence, saying he didn't have any direct knowledge.

"I don't know nothing about it," he told detectives. "I wasn't there."

At various points, he told authorities that he was at his mother's house or his girlfriend's place the night of the attack. His girlfriend said he could have been with her, but she couldn't remember for sure. But now his mother, in the last-minute meeting with attorneys, provided a different account. She claims Tyson was home with her. She even remembers what they ate for dinner that night.

A jury will decide whom to believe.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Trial starts Wednesday in beating, robbery of Hernando's 'walker' 11/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 7:51pm]
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