NEW PORT RICHEY — Steve Cruz knew he was being hunted, but he didn't yet know the stakes. It was Nov. 13, 2008, the morning after authorities say he grabbed a woman's purse outside a T.J. Maxx, struggled with her and took off.
He and girlfriend Lisa Dillard showed up at a friend's house carrying bags of clothes. Heather Fox had just seen their faces on television and learned this stunning news: The purse snatching had become a homicide.
Linda Roma, a 62-year-old wife, mother and retired nurse, had fallen during the attack. She hit her head and died from bleeding in her brain.
"Steve dropped to his hands and knees and cried," Fox said Tuesday, choking up on the witness stand as she recalled telling Cruz the news.
Cruz, 39, is on trial this week charged with first-degree felony murder. Though he likely didn't intend to kill Roma that night, he can be charged with her murder because she died while Cruz was allegedly committing another felony — strong-arm robbery. He could face life in prison if convicted.
His attorneys acknowledge he took the purse, but they say the state's murder case is built on the faulty memories of witnesses who were traumatized by what they saw.
The jury heard Tuesday from the medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Roma and determined she died of bleeding and swelling in her brain sustained after striking her head. The manner of death, the doctor said, was homicide.
Dr. Laura Hair said she made that determination based on an investigator's report, which recounted the attack outside T.J. Maxx on U.S. 19 in Hudson just before 9 p.m. Nov. 12, 2008. Roma was with her daughter, Jennifer, when a man tried to grab her purse. Roma fought back but fell in the struggle.
Assistant Public Defender Violet Assaid asked if the homicide determination was based on anything else, such as signs on the body, wounds or injuries.
"Not being present at the time she fell, that's the information I had," Hair said.
"Is the head injury consistent with someone falling during running?" Assaid asked.
"It can be," Hair said.
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Fox, 35, told jurors Tuesday she was with Cruz and his girlfriend the day of the attack. Groggy on prescription drugs, Fox was sleeping in the backseat of a Buick when the car blew a tire and pulled into the T.J. Maxx parking lot off U.S. 19, north of State Road 52.
Then Fox woke up to someone screaming and banging on the window.
That was Jennifer Roma, chasing after the man who had snatched her mother's purse. Cruz yelled out "Open the door, b----," jumped in, and the Buick sped off, Fox testified.
From there, as they headed north on U.S. 19, an angry Dillard threw Cruz out of the car. He caught up a few moments later, though, and got back in. Dillard drove behind a Winn-Dixie shopping center and Cruz climbed into a Dumpster.
When he got back in the car, Fox testified, he no longer had Linda Roma's black purse with him.
The three then drove to a nearby Walmart, and Cruz and Dillard went inside. Fox said she fell asleep again.
A Walmart security employee testified that he obtained a record of a failed transaction in which Dillard and Cruz tried to purchase about $460 worth of jewelry. Roma's family, with her at the hospital, were already cancelling her credit cards. Walmart also gave sheriff's detectives images taken from surveillance videos, which were distributed to news media in the following days.
Patricia Sours saw the images and immediately called a sheriff's detective. She recognized Cruz. He's her younger brother.
On the witness stand Tuesday, Sours recalled an incident a few days prior to the purse-snatching, when she ran into Cruz and Dillard at her parents' house. He was asking for money. His parents said no.
Sours told them to leave.
She said Cruz replied, "I'm going to knock an old lady in the head."
It was how he often talked, Sours said, and she never took him seriously. But after she heard of the attack outside T.J. Maxx, the words haunted her.
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Cruz and Dillard were arrested on Nov. 15, 2008, at a 7-Eleven near the Hernando County line. Dillard later pleaded to an accessory charge and is serving a three-year prison sentence.
Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis played a tape of a phone call Cruz made after his arrest. He was seeking help from a bail bondswoman named Lisa Stout.
"Please do me a favor, Lisa," Cruz said on the tape. "I'm in so much trouble. I think I'm in for murder one."
Stout didn't know what Cruz was talking about.
"I'm the T.J. Maxx guy," Cruz told her. "I'm the guy that's all over the news."
"What happened?" Stout asked.
"I snatched a lady's purse," Cruz said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.