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What we'll remember: John Kalisz sentenced to death

John Kalisz arrives March 6 for his sentencing in the murders of two Hernando County women in Brooksville. On Jan. 14, 2010, Kalisz killed his sister, Kathryn “Kitty” Donovan, and her office manager, Deborah Tillotson.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

John Kalisz arrives March 6 for his sentencing in the murders of two Hernando County women in Brooksville. On Jan. 14, 2010, Kalisz killed his sister, Kathryn “Kitty” Donovan, and her office manager, Deborah Tillotson.

BROOKSVILLE

CIRCUIT JUDGE Daniel B. Merritt Sr. condemned John Kalisz to death, then invoked a higher power.

"May God have mercy on your soul," Merritt said near the end of the March 7 sentencing hearing.

With that, Kalisz became the first Hernando County convict sent to death row since 1994. The hearing marked the end — at least on the local level — of one of the county's most notorious murder cases.

On Jan. 14, 2010, Kalisz walked through the front door of his sister's home in a quiet neighborhood west of Brooksville. Wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap, he pointed a 9mm pistol at his sister, 61-year-old Kathryn "Kitty" Donovan. She begged him not to kill her, but he shot her three times.

Amy Wilson, a 33-year-old employee in Donovan's home-based business, heard the screams. She peered through a sliding-glass door and saw her boss collapse. As Wilson turned to run, the glass door exploded. A round burned into her stomach, and she crumpled to the ground.

After shooting Wilson, Kalisz walked to the back porch and shot a third woman, Deborah Tillotson, four times. Next, he turned to his own niece, then-18-year-old Manessa Donovan, Kitty Donovan's daughter, and shot her three times.

"I eventually decided that he wasn't going to stop until he thought that I was dead," Manessa testified during Kalisz's trial in January, "so I closed my eyes and put my head down."

Kalisz then returned to Wilson, who tried to run but couldn't.

Kitty Donovan and Tillotson died that day. The other two women survived, though Manessa later lost the fetus she was carrying.

Kalisz got back in his van, fled north on U.S. 19, and fatally shot Dixie County sheriff's Capt. Chad Reed during a gunfight at a Cross City gas station. Kalisz was also shot, then arrested.

Before his Hernando trial, Kalisz took a plea deal in Reed's death and was sentenced to life in prison.

After five days of testimony, a Hernando jury deliberated for about 90 minutes before convicting Kalisz on two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. Three days later, 12 jurors took less than an hour to reach a unanimous decision to recommend the death penalty.

"The sooner, the better," Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino, who prosecuted the case, said this week.

• • •

There was never any doubt before the trial that Kalisz, now 58, committed the murders. In interviews with investigators, he described how he walked into his sister's house and fired "till the bullets ran out." He referred to the day's events as an "operation" and said he intended to erase his sister's bloodline.

Magrino convinced jurors that Kalisz's calculated planning warranted the first-degree murder charges.

The night before the attack, a friend told investigators, Kalisz said he would exact revenge on his sister with his 9 mm pistol and seven clips of hollow-point rounds.

The seeds of contempt for his family were planted months before the murders, after Kalisz exposed himself and masturbated in front of Manessa, then 17, in his sister's home, authorities said. He was also accused of giving her nude photos and threatening the girl's boyfriend with a knife.

After accepting a deal from prosecutors, Kalisz was convicted in October 2009 of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He got six years of probation.

Kalisz's defense in that case cost him the inheritance he had received from his recently deceased mother. The probation also prevented him from returning to Colorado, where he had lived previously, to retrieve his work tools.

The sexual accusations, he told friends, ruined him.

Then, two days before the murders, his mobile home burned when he tried to change propane tanks.

Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter told jurors that Kalisz quit thinking in that moment. He killed out of "blind rage," Fanter said, and should be convicted of second-degree murder instead.

In the months before the shootings, Kalisz claimed to have been sober for 20 years, but he drank Scotch the night before he went to his sister's house. A toxicology report indicated that, in the hours after the crime, his blood-alcohol level just exceeded 0.08, the threshold at which Florida law presumes someone is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle.

During the penalty phase of the trial, Assistant Public Defender Devon Sharkey offered a host of reasons why jurors should not suggest a death sentence for Kalisz. Among them: his difficult childhood, his recovery from alcoholism, his years spent helping other addicts and his troubled mental state.

Kalisz showed no emotion during the trial or when Merritt sentenced him.

At one point, a reporter approached the defense table and asked Kalisz if he was sorry for what he had done.

He turned and nodded yes.

• • •

Unless his health fails him, Kalisz likely has years of life ahead of him.

Death penalty convictions are automatically appealed to the Florida Supreme Court and can reach the U.S. Supreme Court. It's a lengthy process. According to state corrections officials, the average number of years an inmate stays on death row before execution is 13.

"Every aspect of the case will be scrutinized," Sharkey said this week. "You can't undo death. Everybody has to be very careful."

Kalisz is being held at Florida State Prison in Starke, one of 406 inmates on death row as of Friday, according to the state Department of Corrections. He joins three others convicted of first-degree murder in Hernando: Paul Hildwin, in 1986; Richard E. Shere, Jr., in 1989, and Alfred Fennie, in 1992.

Edwin "Mike" Kaprat III, who became known as the "granny killer," was sentenced to death in 1995 for raping and murdering two Hernando County women. He admitted to three additional killings. Less than two months later, however, Kaprat was fatally stabbed by another inmate in the death-row exercise yard.

Of the 73 inmates executed since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1976, just one was convicted in Hernando County.

Robert Dale Henderson, a drifter from Ohio, went on a multi-state killing spree in 1982. Three of Henderson's victims — hitchhikers he picked up near Panama City while driving the truck of a Louisiana man he had killed the month before — were bound and gagged, then shot to death in Hernando.

Henderson's appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court, to no avail. He was executed in the electric chair in 1993 after nearly 11 years on death row.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.

John Kalisz was sentenced to death for the 2010 murder of his sister and her co-worker.

What we'll remember: John Kalisz sentenced to death 12/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 8:11pm]

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