NEW PORT RICHEY — Donna Young wanted a baby more than anything else. Her doctor warned of dire consequences.
"You could become disabled,'' Dr. Carlos Zubillaga said. "There is risk.''
Donna's multiple sclerosis had already forced her to use a metal walker. She suffered back pain and spasms. Zubillaga, a New Port Richey neurologist, worried that pregnancy might exacerbate her condition, especially postpartum.
But the call to motherhood overrode any concern Donna Young had for her own health. She proceeded with a determination that her friends would later say defined her.
Ryan Young entered the world on Dec. 16, 1982, healthy and normal.
On Jan. 20, the state of Florida will put him on trial. Detectives and prosecutors say Ryan, 26, put a pillow over his mother's face and smothered her.
Donna Young gave her son life. His own words could ensure he spends the rest of it in prison.
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Mike Halkitis is assistant state attorney in Pasco County. In 31 years of prosecuting criminals, he has seen only one other matricide case. A son shot his mother in the head and tossed her body into a pond near the Pasco-Pinellas line, hoping alligators would dispose of the body.
"In that case,'' Halkitis said, "there was lots of friction. They fought. And the mother had a ton of money. Ryan Young is a different situation. There are mothers who abuse their children. This kid got everything. She paid his bills, gave him a car, sent him to a good school. What went wrong? You'd need a team of psychiatrists.''
They could begin their examination, perhaps, during the Christmas season of 2004. As neighbors in the attractive, tree-lined River Ridge community watched through their window across from Hathaway Drive, Ryan surprised his girlfriend, Lauren Schob, by flipping the switch for twinkling lights on the roof that spelled "MARRY ME.''
At Ryan and Lauren's outdoor wedding at the Seven Springs Golf & Country Club almost a year later, Donna fulfilled a promise she had made to herself — to walk down the aisle at her son's ceremony.
She had raised the boy on her own since divorcing her husband, Craig, in 1994. She had worked consistently at a medical supply company to pay the bills. She had impressed everyone who knew her for her gritty resolve, even refusing help bringing in garbage cans or lifting her wheelchair into her vehicle. Now, on this special day, she stood up from her wheelchair and, with the help of Ryan's groomsmen, walked to her son's side.
"I cried my eyes out,'' said Donna's younger sister, Janet Crouse, who lives near Ocala. "And then again when Donna stood in place with Ryan for the first dance.''
Within months, the couple split up.
Ryan declared he was homosexual.
Donna was a devout Catholic. She loved Lauren. She was upset over the divorce and the sudden announcement of his sexual orientation.
"Still, even with that, she didn't disown Ryan,'' Halkitis said. "She didn't fight with him. She still gave him money because he was behind in his bills.''
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Shortly before noon on April 17, 2007, Ryan Young called 911 to report his mother's death. Detectives found Donna, 52, in her bed, dressed in a nightgown, a pillow pressed against her face. By the next day, detectives had concluded that Ryan had staged a burglary, cutting a screen with an X-acto blade. They recorded their conversations, including Ryan's rambling, tearful admission that he had held a pillow against Donna's face for as long as two minutes.
And this: "I was happy she was dead … ''
Ryan was charged with first-degree murder. His court-appointed lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Dean Livermore, tried to get the confessions thrown out, but Circuit Judge Thane Covert ruled they were legally obtained.
Once Halkitis knew he could play Ryan's own damning words to a jury, he didn't worry much about some other oddities. For instance, on the Friday before the murder, Donna's housekeeper and best friend for 18 years, Catherine Muckler, went to the house to clean. She was surprised to find a large pool of cooking oil on the tile near the entrance from the garage. Donna was running errands. Ryan, who lived a few miles away with a friend but had a key to the house, came out of the computer room.
"I was down there wiping it when he came around the corner,'' Muckler said in a deposition taken by Livermore. "He didn't know I was coming to clean. And I was wiping it. I said, 'Ryan, what's this oil all over the floor?' He says, 'I don't know. I didn't notice it.' And I remember saying, 'How can you not notice it? It's dripping off my fingers here. It's all over.' So he says, 'I don't know.' "
Crouse, the younger sister, has no doubt how the oil got there.
"Ryan put it there,'' she said. "Donna would have come into the house with her walker, slipped on the oil and fallen backward into the garage. She would have cracked her head open on the concrete floor.''
Crouse said the incident illustrates Ryan's "evil premeditation.''
Donna was disappointed in Ryan, Crouse said. It bothered her that he had spent much of 2006 in bankruptcy. He worked as a clerk at a 7-Eleven and never seemed to have money unless his mother gave it to him. But Donna was heartsick about the divorce and his homosexuality.
"He told her he decided he had been gay since he was 14 but maybe he thought it would go away,'' Crouse said.
Muckler mentioned one occasion about a year before the killing when she witnessed Ryan in a rage over a cell phone bill. "I never saw him like that before,'' she said. She had known Ryan since he was 5 and offered this observation: "My respect for him deteriorated as he got older. … I think Donna wanted to make up for being a handicapped only parent. … I never heard the word 'no' too much from her. She never raised her voice.''
In the deposition taken by Livermore, the assistant public defender, she was asked if Ryan had mistreated his mother: "Physically, no. Mentally, we saw, you know, he wasn't the best son.''
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Dr. Zubillaga has practiced medicine in New Port Richey for more than 30 years. He has treated thousands of patients.
"Nobody inspired me like Donna,'' he said. "When you have MS, you have an excuse, but I never heard any complaints from Donna. She worked out and got extremely muscular, very strong and independent. That's just so unusual because MS patients get fatigued so easily. But she had great resolve, great focus.
"You could not feel sorry for Donna.''
And, the doctor said, "She loved that baby.''
Bill Stevens is the Times' North Suncoast editor. You can reach him at email@example.com or by calling (727) 869-6250.