Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Teen gets life for murder of retired Gulf High principal

Gulf High School remembered former principal James "Ed" Campbell on Oct. 27 with a service and the dedication of what will soon become an alumni plaza named in his honor at the school football stadium.

The celebration capped off a week that began with the sentencing of Campbell's murderer, 18-year-old Gary Givens, to life in prison.

Prosecutors in North Florida initially announced they would seek the death penalty for the March shooting death of Campbell, who served as principal of Gulf Junior High and then Gulf High in the 1970s before retiring to Madison County. They backed away from that strategy when the defense offered to give up its right to a 12-person jury trial.

The defense came back two days before trial and offered a guilty plea to second-degree homicide, said Craig C. Jacobsen, a prosecutor in the Third Judicial Circuit.

"This was a close call," Jacobsen said. "I think the right decision was made. He will suffer just as much as if he were on death row. … He will die in prison one way or the other."

Cathy Sleeth, one of Campbell's nieces, said her uncle's siblings were satisfied with the outcome.

"That was good for them to have some closure, so they could go on and grieve and miss him," she said.

The family's acceptance of the penalty made it easier for friends in Pasco County.

Bill Phillips, who was one of Campbell's students from 1970-72, said he initially wanted to see a more severe punishment. But after talking with the family during the weekend celebration, he said, he saw that the end of the case without trial sat well with them.

"For their sake, I was pleased," he said.

School Board member Steve Luikart, who received his first teaching job from Campbell, said Givens deserved nothing less than life in prison.

Campbell "was a great guy," Luikart said. "He was killed because he was helping people and they took advantage of him. … I don't like people who take advantage of other people."

Jacobsen explained that Givens had a grandmother who lived near Campbell in rural Madison County and often talked with him about gardening. Campbell had a large pond on his property, and told Givens he could fish there.

Givens also did odd jobs for Campbell.

In the months before Campbell's death, Jacobsen said, his home was burglarized several times. So he installed a camera where he kept his computers and other valuables, concealing it near the back door. Within a half an hour, Jacobsen said, "Givens is seen attempting to break in."

Givens, who turned 18 two weeks before the shooting, maintained that he was not the trigger man who shot Campbell twice at close range, the prosecutor said. But he was captured on the camera entering the house and carrying out a computer and other loot after the death. He even covered the body with a blanket. Detectives later determined Givens used Campbell's credit cards at a Walmart in Live Oak and at a shopping mall in Lake City.

Ten days after the killing, Jacobsen said, a family friend called deputies after being unable to reach Campbell. A deputy found the retired principal's body.

Within a week, Givens was arrested on several charges including first degree murder, grand theft, burglary and credit card fraud. A second man, Jeremiah Gillyard, 21, was arrested on related grand theft charges but was not connected directly to the murder, Jacobsen said.

Givens entered a plea of guilty to second-degree murder and related charges on Oct. 19. After hearing testimony from Campbell family members, a judge handed down life sentences for the murder and armed burglary charges, as well as maximum additional sentences for the other crimes, Jacobsen said.

"He'll do the rest of his life" in prison, Jacobsen said.

Gillyard has pleaded guilty to grand theft but has not been sentenced.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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