CLEARWATER — When firefighters found the burned body of 33-year-old Robert Scott Greaves, charred and unrecognizable, his feet were almost out the door.
What stopped him, prosecutors said Wednesday, were 20 fatal blows from a hammer.
Those fatal blows were delivered by 61-year-old Daniel Thomas Papaleo, the stepfather of Greaves' ex-girlfriend, Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub said.
To cover up the crime, he said, Papaleo then set fire to his bungalow in St. Petersburg's Euclid-St. Paul neighborhood.
During opening statements of Papaleo's trial on first-degree murder and arson charges at the courthouse on 49th Street, Schaub described the state's version of what happened May 1, 2013.
Greaves had the day off from his restaurant job and decided to hang out at home, drink beer and play video games.
In the afternoon, Greaves exchanged one text message and three phone calls with Papaleo, who had invited him to his home at 1030 13th St. N to discuss job opportunities. Greaves told a roommate he was excited but apprehensive because he didn't think he and Papaleo "got along all that well," Schaub said.
Papaleo's wife and adult stepdaughter were in Orlando for a business trip. The stepdaughter and Greaves had a child together.
About 6 p.m., Papaleo's neighbor Michael Higbee heard a faint, distressed male voice inside the home crying, "Help me, help me, help me."
He walked to Papaleo's home to investigate but got no reply when he rapped on the front door. He circled around to the back, calling out to his neighbors while peeking through the windows of Papaleo's Florida room. Papaleo's upper body, in a blue shirt, appeared from behind the door separating the Florida room and the kitchen. Higbee said he seemed out of breath, as if he had just run a marathon.
Papaleo reassured his neighbor that everything was okay.
Higbee returned home and minutes later saw flames spitting from the front of Papaleo's home. He grabbed a garden hose to tame the fire and called 911. Then the back of the house erupted in flames. They found Papaleo in the back yard, with a cut on his upper lip and a knee scrape, but no burn injuries.
Papaleo was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg for an evaluation. Two days later, he was charged with arson and first-degree murder.
Investigators determined that gasoline had been poured and lit in the front room and the Florida room.
Schaub said the defendant's recollection of the night weaves a wholly different narrative, one that he said seems extracted from a crime novel and contradicts the facts. He noted that Papaleo has been writing crime novels while in jail.
Papaleo told police the night of the fire that Greaves came to the house unannounced and brought a friend, a "dirty, scrubby, pathetically skinny man" named Joe — or maybe Yo. Greaves and the friend got in a dispute over money, Papaleo said, which led to the man beating Greaves with the hammer.
Papaleo said the man threatened him and placed three knives on the kitchen counter and said, "We're gonna play quick-draw, cowboy."
When the neighbor came to help, Papaleo told police during the investigation he couldn't reveal what was happening because the man was holding a knife to his crotch.
Police never found any such knives in the kitchen or evidence of a mystery man.
Adrian Burden, one of Papaleo's defense attorneys, delivered a brief opening statement that challenged the jury to "listen and scrutinize all the evidence," but offered no hint of a defense.
She also told the jury to consider that Papaleo was stressed when he gave his statement to police.
Katie Mettler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.