TAMPA — To escape the death sentence, Benjamin Wibben decided to plead guilty Thursday to shooting a Plant City couple execution-style in their home office in 2005, then stealing a car and two laptops.
Wibben, 29, knew that admitting to first-degree murder would bring him no less than life in prison without parole. Judge William Fuente reminded him this meant the rest of his natural life — that he would never get a trial by jury, never see the light of day.
"Is this what you want to do, sir?" Fuente asked. "Do you want to plead guilty?"
The high school dropout with a GED had attended motorcycle mechanics school and enlisted in the Army, but was discharged after a shoulder injury in boot camp. He had previous arrests for traffic violations and burglary, but never for anything violent.
He was about to declare himself a double-murderer.
"Yes, your honor."
The family members of victims Heather and Darren Kaiser didn't hear much else from the admitted murderer.
But they had plenty to say.
• • •
As he drove north from Fort Myers with a gun, all Wibben knew about the Kaisers was that they were selling a 10-year-old Mitsubishi 3000GT through their Internet auto brokerage.
He had promised his girlfriend the car.
She has since committed suicide.
In jail, Wibben told an inmate he tried to pay for the car with a bad check and had almost gotten away. But the couple found out about his ploy. The Kaisers were sitting at their desks when the bullets went into their heads.
Thursday, their families made sure Wibben didn't begin his life in prison without knowing who he killed.
"You didn't know them, Benjamin. You would've been a friend," said Mike Kaiser, Darren's brother. "They dedicated their lives to helping less fortunate people — people like you."
Wibben faced forward, without expression.
"They didn't care about the car," Kaiser continued.
"They would've cared about you."
• • •
Darren was 37. Heather was 26. They were in love.
After they married, they laminated their wedding vows and carried them everywhere:
I promise to appreciate you and not take you for granted, to focus on your strengths and overlook your shortcomings while working on my own …
To savor every minute of life.
At their funeral, six different couples approached Darren's brother, saying counseling from the Kaisers helped saved their marriages.
"Maybe they could have helped save mine," said Mike Kaiser. Such questions haunt the surviving family.
Darren's mother is depressed beyond recognition, said his sister, Dr. Laurie Sund.
His 18-year-old son Joshua is "quietly depressed" and "simmering with rage."
His sister trusts no one, carrying pepper spray and a cell phone on her daily runs.
"Every patient I saw in the clinic was suspect," Sund told him, "every skinny 25-year-old guy resembling Ben Wibben is scary."
And the couple's 7-year-old nephew, Benjamin, wants to change his name.
• • •
Wibben listened as eight relatives read poems, uttered prayers, shed tears and asked why.
But when the judged asked him if he had anything to say, Wibben simply answered:
"No, your honor."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.