Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

Ralph Wright found guilty of killing ex-lover and their 15-month-old son in 2007

LARGO — Early one morning in July 2007, Victoria Christopher's mother and brother were murdered in their St. Petersburg home.

Christopher waited 18 months for the arrest of her mother's ex-boyfriend, Ralph "Ron" Wright Jr. Four years passed. She quit believing a trial would happen. When it did, she expected to face him from the stand on the first day of testimony. She didn't until the sixth. She endured a four-week trial that featured more than 60 witnesses.

Worst of all, the defense said she was the murderer.

Attorneys rested their cases Tuesday. She wandered the courthouse for 12 hours Wednesday as a dozen jurors struggled to reach a decision. She lingered through four hours more on Thursday until word came: a verdict.

When at last the clerk announced that Wright was guilty of first-degree murder, Christopher pressed both hands over her mouth to stifle her cries.

"Oh, my gosh," said the 24-year-old, trembling in a Pepto-pink sweatshirt from the courtroom's third row. "Oh, my gosh."

Family and friends whispered thanks to the jury and to God. Later, in the hallway, they sobbed on the shoulders of the prosecutors.

On the courtroom benches across from Christopher, behind Wright, faces collapsed into hands. The killer's supporters quietly withdrew from the courtroom moments after the announcement.

Wright didn't flinch. His head remained still and his eyes appeared dry.

The eight women and four men of the jury, one of whom dabbed tears as the verdict was read, will now decide whether to recommend that a judge sentence Wright to death. The jury struggled with its decision to convict. After 10 hours of discussion Thursday, they had told the judge the vote was stuck at 10-2.

"I think they proved motive and lies," Wright's attorney Bjorn Brunvand said of prosecutors. "But I don't think they proved he committed these murders."

Paula O'Conner was single and working as an insurance underwriter when she met Wright, then an Air Force sergeant, in January 2004. He often left her to travel abroad on what he called "secret assignment," a fabrication that Wright told multiple girlfriends.

When she became pregnant in 2005, Wright disappeared.

Alijah was born in April 2006. He suffered from numerous medical problems that O'Conner couldn't afford to treat on her own, so she hired a private investigator to find Wright. She soon learned he was married.

Three weeks before the killings, she had him served with papers at MacDill Air Force Base, informing him that she was suing for child support.

"One person in the world — one person — had a motive to kill Alijah," prosecutor Jim Hellickson said in his opening statement. "One person had a motive to kill Paula."

For much of the case, attorneys and a handful of forensic experts debated the DNA found — and not found — inside a black glove retrieved on the arm of a couch near O'Conner's front door.

Two analysts couldn't find any DNA that matched Wright's. Another couldn't "exclude" him, but she acknowledged that he was among thousands of people whose DNA would have been consistent with what she found.

Still, the glove's origin provided the most compelling clue.

It is identical to those that had been issued to Wright's military police unit. The gloves were kept in a locked storeroom at the base, and Wright was among a small group with access.

Defense attorney William Bennett tried to divert the jury's attention from Wright and the glove to Christopher.

Mother and daughter had a tumultuous relationship. O'Conner had kicked her out of the house and taken away her key months before the attacks. They often argued.

Christopher received $540,000 in life insurance after the killings. That, Bennett insisted, was incentive enough for Christopher to kill.

"That was very hard," she said after the trial, standing outside the courthouse. "It was the longest month of my life."

O'Conner's father, William Dillon, said he doesn't want Wright to be executed. He wants him to sit in prison and think about the murders for the rest of his life.

But Christopher hadn't thought much about it. What happened Thursday, that verdict, mattered most to her. His death won't change anything.

"When they died, a part of me died with them," she said. "That's something I'll never get back."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]

 
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