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Friend of Jeff Norton testifies about finding theater actor's body

LARGO — The front door to community actor Jeff Norton's home was unlocked when his longtime friend went to check on him.

He had not returned her calls for several days. He failed to attend a birthday party for a mutual friend. It was dark and raining when Rosemary Orlando and another friend entered the living room to a grisly scene.

Norton, 55, was shirtless, kneeling on the floor, his head planted face first on the seat of a blue easy chair. A maroon towel covered his head, tied in place by an extension cord. His skin "was pale, like alabaster, like the Pieta or a statue,'' Orlando said, testifying Wednesday in the trial of the man accused of Norton's murder.

Under the towel, Norton's head was slashed and bashed in. The chair and floor nearby were bloody, but splatters were not confined to just that area, St. Petersburg homicide detective Brian Taylor said. Blood spots showed up on all four living room walls, high and low, and on the ceiling.

No obvious murder weapon was found, but Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner Jon Thogmartin testified that a sword found in a closet might match the unusual "crow's feet'' pattern of Norton's skull wounds.

Norton was an expert in "stage combat'' and had numerous foils and daggers sprinkled around the house. The rapier in the closet might have suited Shakespearian duelists, with a solid handle and a hand shield at its base.

If someone had held it by the blade and used it like a club, the blunt handle could have produced the severe blows and distinctive marks, Thogmartin said. The sword contained no blood or flesh, nor signs that anyone had cleaned it, Thogmartin said. But another sword just like it could have matched the wounds.

Norton lived at 4201 Third St. N in St. Petersburg. Suspicion quickly fell on handyman Thomas J. Lafoe, 59, who lived around the corner and sometimes mowed Norton's lawn.

Norton's wallet was missing and detectives found a bag inside Lafoe's house that contained a wallet plus Norton's voter, credit union and insurance cards. The day before the body was found, Lafoe was captured on several store security cameras buying things with Norton's credit card, homicide detective Pamela Marland testified.

In opening arguments, Assistant State Attorney Kristin Carpenter also told the jury that Lafoe changed his story during interviews with police. First, he denied being present at the killing, she said, then he said he was a middleman between Norton and a crack cocaine dealer he knew only as "Fresh'' and that Fresh killed Norton.

Finally, Carpenter said, Lafoe, who is charged with first-degree murder, confessed to the killing, then discussed some details with a fellow inmate after his arrest.

Testimony about an alleged confession could come today, when the trial resumes at 9:30 a.m.

The defense's theory of events was not clear because Lafoe's lawyer, John White, did not give an opening argument, had not presented any witnesses and asked only cursory questions on cross-examination.

Norton was a popular member of the theater community for decades, performing in plays in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota. He also worked in the theater program at Shorecrest Preparatory School and taught at the University of South Florida. After his death, local theaters initiated the Jeff Norton Awards to honor best performances and work in local theater, much like a Tampa Bay version of the Tony awards.

Several dozen of Norton's friends packed the courtroom Wednesday.

Actor Lisa Powers said she was ambivalent about coming at first. "I knew I would feel bad if I came and would feel bad if I didn't come,'' she said.

But a story about the trial in Monday's Tampa Bay Times changed that because it touched on allegations in trial depositions that Norton had started using crack cocaine, a dark side that his friends didn't know about.

The story seemed to blame the victim, Powers said.

"It was important to show up and be part of a voice that (Norton) had friends, family, students and a whole community of people who loved him dearly,'' she said.

Friend of Jeff Norton testifies about finding theater actor's body 06/13/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 10:55pm]
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