Safety Harbor barroom death ends with acquittal

The fight went down three years ago this June in a Safety Harbor barroom.

James Elrod, then 40, rode away from Trotti's Lounge that night on his bicycle.

Bob McCullen, 53, left in an ambulance. Ten days later, he was dead.

Like a lot of tussles that start around beer and bar stools, the fight was over a woman.

But this fight was hardly knock-down, drag-out.

Witnesses said Elrod hit McCullen in the upper torso with an open palm after McCullen grabbed him by the shoulder. Then he headed for the door.

And that was it.

But, prosecutors said, that the blow proved fatal was enough to charge Elrod with manslaughter.

Elrod faced a jury Monday and Tuesday.

Assistant state attorney Frank Migliore marched out witnesses, one by one.

They all attested to Elrod's foul mouth.

"I heard him call her a whore," said Kevin Watson, a truck driver who was sipping a soda at the time of the fight.

Watson was talking about Timmie Sue McKenzie.

She was the woman who was the source of the scuffle between the men.

McCullen died standing up for her.

She wasn't anyone he knew, just a girl in a bar whom he thought deserved better.

McKenzie, a school bus driver, had known Elrod for years. She said they never got along.

When Elrod saw her that night, she said, he began flinging insults at her from across the bar, and oinking.

In return, she flipped him a bird.

Bartender Amy Kendall overheard what happened next.

"Bob asked him in a very nice fashion, 'we don't speak to women in the bar like this, and you have to leave,' " Kendall said.

Elrod told McCullen to mind his own business. He didn't.

He put his hand on Elrod's shoulder. Elrod, who is mostly blind in his right eye, said he didn't know what was coming. He spun and hit McCullen. Some witnesses said in the chest, others, the neck.

Regardless of where, they all agreed on the outcome shortly thereafter.

"Next I know, I look at him and he turns pale white," said Watson, the truck driver. "He turned into a big bowl of jelly."

After McCullen collapsed, he never fully came to. He was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

Hillsborough County medical examiner Jeszek Chrostowski performed the autopsy on McCullen's body. A blood clot, he discovered, had been dislodged from one of the 53-year-old's arteries and cut off the blood supply to part of his brain.

"That was the cause of death in this person. That's what happened," Chrostowski said.

Elrod, who has been charged with numerous crimes in the past, including resisting arrest, aggravated assault and drug charges, testified in his own defense.

The jury of six, plus an alternate, however, did not get a chance to judge him.

The judge had heard enough.

He was acquitted by Circuit Judge Richard A. Luce after a psychologist testified that Elrod could have simply been reacting in self-defense, and a medical examiner admitted that anything, in theory, could have dislodged McCullen's blood clot.

"In this case, there are two reasonable hypotheses of innocence," Luce said. "Under the immunity theory, the court is required to issue a judgment of acquittal."

Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or dtao@sptimes.com.

Safety Harbor barroom death ends with acquittal 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 9:08pm]

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