LARGO — Two men were convicted of first-degree murder Friday in the death of a woman who was found in the waters of St. Petersburg's Lake Maggiore on Christmas Day 2011.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Timothy Peters sentenced Letrell McKnight and Santonio Smith to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the only sentence allowed because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.
Jurors took less than two hours to reach the verdict. McKnight showed no reaction as the verdict was read. Smith began nodding his head slowly and later appeared to laugh.
"This was as brutal a crime as I have ever seen," Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub said after the verdict and sentencing.
The victim was Stacia Berman, 42, a former real estate broker who had been addicted to cocaine for several years.
She visited an apartment at 527 Eighth St. N, where people came to use crack cocaine. At some point, Smith came to believe Berman had stolen shoes he was planning to give his children the next morning as Christmas presents.
This set off a horrible attack.
According to testimony at trial, Berman was stripped, beaten and burned with an iron. Bleach was poured on her body and in her mouth.
The next day, her body was found in Lake Maggiore. Her head had been wrapped in plastic bags, and one of them contained an important clue — a receipt for bottles of bleach and cleaner purchased just before midnight Christmas Eve. A store video showed McKnight buying the bottles at a Walgreens.
A third man, Darryl "Rico" Williams, also was charged in the killing and originally was scheduled to be on trial this week. He had planned to act as his own attorney but decided at the last minute he wanted the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office to represent him. That didn't give the attorneys enough time to prepare, so Williams will be tried at a later date. He is being held without bail in the Pinellas County Jail.