Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

Fence started neighbor's vendetta in Spring Hill, report shows

SPRING HILL — As Bill Stelling lay bleeding on his living room floor, a 911 dispatcher asked why his neighbor shot him.

Did they have an argument?

"No!" Stelling replied between moans of pain. "I don't even pay attention to him. Nobody in the neighborhood talks to him."

Two months after the Sept. 10 shooting, the 67-year-old retired widower had finally recovered enough to speak at length with a detective, but he still could not come up with a specific slight that might have sparked Thomas Brocato's wrath.

With that, the Sheriff's Office closed one of its most bizarre cases during a year that has been marked by gun violence. An investigative report released to the Times last week offers more details about what happened that day and the tension between the neighbors, which had begun years earlier.

• • •

The morning of the shooting, Stelling was watching television and drinking coffee when he heard a knock at the door. He usually looks through the window to see who's there, he later told a detective, but didn't that day.

He opened the door and through the closed storm store saw Brocato's dog, a black Dachshund named Dolly, standing on the sidewalk and shaking. Then Brocato, stocky, bespectacled and balding 58-year-old with salt and pepper hair and beard, appeared.

"He jumped over the dog, had a grin on his face, and fired a weapon at me," Stelling told Detective George Loydgren in a Nov. 13 interview.

Stelling tried to kick the door shut and heard at least two more shots. Brocato disappeared, and Stelling called 911.

A few minutes later, at 9:33 a.m., he called his sister, Sue Landon.

She could hear deputies and paramedics in the background.

"He shot me in the stomach," Stelling said, then hung up.

• • •

Detectives who interviewed residents along Siam Drive said Brocato was a mean and confrontational man who rarely went anywhere without Dolly. The neighbor who bore the brunt of his irrational ire, they said, was Stelling, a father of four who bought the ranch home with his wife, Rhoda, in 1997.

Brocato, who didn't have a criminal record in Florida, built his two-story home next door in 2004. Landon told investigators that the harassment started after Brocato hired a company to install a fence at the rear of his lot. Stelling pointed out that a fence post was on his property. The company confirmed Stelling was right.

Brocato, according to Stelling's account, told him he was going to make his life hell.

Landon said Brocato would ring Stelling's doorbell and knock on his bedroom window at all hours. A neighbor told detectives that Stelling put up a privacy fence that Brocato knocked down at least three times, the last occasion about a month before the shooting.

Stelling told Landon and her husband, Jim, who visited once a week, to avoid eye contact with Brocato.

"William had advised Sue and Jim that he was scared of Thomas and didn't want any conflict with him," the report said.

• • •

Deputies who swarmed the quiet street of tidy homes that morning suspected Brocato had fled to his house. That was alarming because a neighbor said Brocato owned a lot of guns and recently tried to sell him 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

Brocato didn't answer when a deputy tried to hail him with a portable loudspeaker. His cellphone wasn't in service. The agency's crisis team arrived and tossed a phone into the house, but Brocato never picked it up.

About 2:30 p.m., SWAT members shot gas canisters through the windows and stormed the house. The place reeked of gasoline.

A partially filled gasoline can sat just outside the door of an upstairs bedroom. In that room, deputies found another gas can and Brocato's body sitting in an office chair, clad in a blue and green flowered shirt.

On the floor between his legs was a six-shot .44-caliber Taurus revolver with one spent round. He had a gun holster in his right pocket and a concealed-weapons permit in his left. Investigators say he had put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Stacked on nearby shelves and a table were boxes of ammunition and several more guns, including three rifles and the gun detectives say Brocato fired at Stelling: a five-shot .45-caliber Taurus revolver with three spent rounds, one misfire and one live round. Investigators found a chest full of ammunition and several other guns throughout the house.

They didn't find a note.

• • •

Beth Stanke found about her brother's death from a news report. The day after the shooting, she met with a detective.

Stanke, who lives in Hernando County, said she hadn't been in touch with her brother for about four years. She said she and Brocato's father, who lives in a nursing home in New Jersey, were his only surviving family members.

She said Brocato had bipolar disorder and had "caused problems in the past with family members." She said she wasn't aware of any disputes with neighbors.

Stanke, who couldn't be reached by the Times, took custody of Dolly.

• • •

Stelling underwent surgery at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point and drifted in and out of consciousness for weeks, unable to breathe on his own.

One of the bullets entered through his chest and exited through his back. The second remained lodged in his abdomen. A projectile chipped the urn that contained his wife's ashes.

Stelling was transferred to a rehabilitation center last month and started speech therapy.

Stelling answered his door last week but quickly closed it when a Times reporter introduced himself. One of his sons, Bill Jr., told the Times recently that his father wants to put the episode behind him.

Plywood remains over the first-floor windows of Brocato's house. Duct tape covers holes in windows on the second floor.

A weathered wooden privacy fence runs the length of the property line between the houses. Someone recently had attached fresh latticework along the top.

Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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