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Execution-style slaying of Tarpon Springs martial arts instructor mystifies

TARPON SPRINGS — Moments after martial arts teacher Joseph Brignoli was gunned down in his driveway on Super Bowl Sunday, a neighbor saw a boy in a hooded sweat shirt running from the blood-spattered townhome.

Police were pretty sure the boy was a 13-year-old who often stayed with Brignoli. He was there so much that some in the gated community assumed the boy was Brignoli's son. Some of the boy's friends thought that, too.

At first, police believed the boy might have played a role in the execution-style killing of Brignoli, 33. They questioned him, took a DNA sample and seized some of his clothes.

But two days after the Feb. 6 shooting, police arrested Christopher Kubiak, 20, a friend of Brignoli's. Kubiak's family members called him troubled, but they still couldn't understand why he would have ordered Brignoli to his knees and fired multiple rounds into his head and torso, as police said he did.

Motive is only one of the mysteries surrounding the events of that Sunday. When police searched Brignoli's home, what they found seemed to conflict with the neighborhood's reputation as peaceful and safe: two rifles, a submachine gun and computer equipment and tapes they labeled "porno."

They soon had an announcement that raised still more questions: Brignoli's killing was tied to another shooting the same night.

Four hours earlier, a 40-year-old man watching TV in his Palm Harbor condo was struck in the face by a bullet intended for someone else. Eight days later, Jim Freeman was dead, but authorities said he apparently didn't die from the bullet wound but from some other cause.

The errant shot that hit Freeman came from an apartment complex across the street from Freeman's home — a complex where the 13-year-old's real father lived.

• • •

Hours before Brignoli was killed, he called Tarpon Springs police to report his 13-year-old son missing.

But the missing boy wasn't his son at all.

The boy's father, who lives in Palm Harbor, said Brignoli, his son's martial arts coach, had grown obsessed with the boy.

The St. Petersburg Times is not naming the boy because he is a juvenile and not charged with a crime. The father is not being named to protect the identity of the boy.

The father told the Times that a couple of years ago, he asked Brignoli to keep an eye on his son. The father, who is 69, said he was busy working a security job and the boy's mother, from whom he was divorced, was in New York then.

The father had heard that Brignoli, who taught at a Clearwater martial arts school and owned a mixed martial arts system, was "famous" in martial arts circles. He was happy to have a man like Brignoli in his son's life. The boy spent a lot of time with his coach, often staying at his Tarpon Springs home.

But recently, the father said, he had begun to feel uncomfortable about Brignoli's preoccupation with his son. The lines of authority had started to blur. Brignoli tried to give his son a strict curfew. When Brignoli didn't know where the boy was, he would call around to ask about the boy's whereabouts.

"He had some obsession," said the father, who speaks with a thick foreign accent.

He asked Brignoli to back off.

"I'm his father," he said he told Brignoli. "I take care of it. Don't worry."

Another time, he told Brignoli he would not report his behavior to police if the man would stop meddling in his son's life.

The boy's father won't talk about his impressions of Brignoli now, except to say he thought positively of Brignoli until he recently got information from police.

Tight-lipped authorities have released few details about the events of Feb. 6. The Sheriff's Office made several reports that day, including one described as "juvenile trouble" and another that was information for the crimes against children unit.

• • •

The boy's dad told the Times he lives in an apartment complex on the corner of Belcher and Cypress Pond roads in Palm Harbor.

At 6:40 p.m. Feb. 6, someone was seen driving a white pickup with chrome rims through a lot on the west end of that complex. Shots fired from the lot struck a sport utility vehicle and a truck cab parked close by.

One shot also flew about 600 feet across Belcher Road, through the wall of a condo and into Jim Freeman's cheek. He had surgery and seemed to be recovering. His death was unexpected, and authorities are waiting for toxicology reports to help them determine the cause.

Authorities won't say who the shooter or the target was.

All they will say is that the intended victim, who was not Freeman, lives nearby.

And that the white pickup witnesses reported matches the description of one they found parked in Brignoli's garage the night he was killed.

• • •

With both investigations ongoing, it may take weeks to find out exactly how and why the shootings in Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor are related, or to figure out how the 13-year-old fits into the puzzle.

The teenager told police he was at Brignoli's house until about 10:30 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday — right around the time Brignoli was shot. The boy likely saw or heard the brutal slaying and glimpsed his coach's lifeless body in the driveway as he ran away.

Police found the teen at his mother's home in Palm Harbor a few hours later. Before officers told him Brignoli was dead, the boy had something to tell them: "I did not kill that man."

Times staff writers Demorris A. Lee and Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs shootings

Feb. 6

3:01 a.m.: Joseph Brignoli

calls police, saying his

13-year-old son is

missing.

6:40 p.m.: Jim Freeman is shot in his home while watching TV. Witnesses provide a description of a white pickup truck leaving the apartment complex across Belcher Road.

10:30 p.m.: Brignoli is gunned down in the driveway of his home.

Feb. 7

Tarpon Springs police execute search warrants at Brignoli's home and the Palm Harbor home of the mother of the 13-year-old.

Feb. 8

8 a.m.: Christopher Kubiak is arrested on a charge of first-degree murder in Brignoli's death.

Feb. 9

Without elaborating, sheriff's officials say there is a link between the Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor cases.

Feb. 14

Freeman dies. Authorities say his death does not appear to be related to the gunshot wound.

Execution-style slaying of Tarpon Springs martial arts instructor mystifies 02/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 3:29pm]
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