Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Trial begins in death of 78-year-old St. Petersburg woman

ST. PETERSBURG — The prosecutor explained the murder case like a set of tumbling dominoes.

It began, Fred Schaub told the jurors, with the rape of a 78-year-old woman six years ago. The attack was so violent it broke her hip and pelvis. The breaks sent her to the hospital. In the hospital, she contracted a vicious infection. The infection killed her.

Virgil DeBose, Schaub said, was the rapist — which also makes him the killer.

"But for the hospital stay, she wouldn't have gotten these infections and died," he explained during his opening statement at DeBose's trial Tuesday morning. "But for his actions, she wouldn't have needed to go to the hospital."

On March 12, 2007, investigators say, a man knocked on Audrey Mulligan's Paradise Shores condo. He asked for a glass of water. She let him in, believing he was one of the roofers working at the complex. Once inside, he attacked her.

She screamed and tried to knee him in the groin. Amid the struggle, he landed on top of her.

"Will you forgive me?'' he asked. "Please forgive me."

Mulligan told him she never would.

"Go straight to hell," she said.

As he fled, she called 911.

With her attack, investigators suspected a serial rapist was preying on older, single women around St. Petersburg. In the weeks prior, a 58-year-old disabled woman had been raped and an 85-year-old had been the victim of an assault with "sexual overtones," police said.

One of Mulligan's friends distributed a composite of her attacker. That quickly led investigators to DeBose.

He was charged with the attacks on Mulligan and one of the other women.

The evidence soon mounted, investigators say: a newspaper discovered in Mulligan's condo was covered with DeBose's fingerprints; the DNA found on her body matched his; he told a fellow inmate at the Pinellas County Jail that he had molested a 78-year-old woman.

He already had a lengthy criminal record, including a previous sexual battery. He had moved from Sanford to St. Petersburg and was staying part time at a house for recovering addicts and alcoholics.

He refused to speak to investigators after his arrest.

On Tuesday, Schaub acknowledged to jurors that — despite the murder charge — he didn't believe DeBose intended to kill.

But that, he said, doesn't matter.

Under state law, if someone is committing one of several crimes, including sexual battery, and another person dies as a result, the criminal is guilty of felony first-degree murder.

In a brief opening statement, DeBose's attorney, Keith Hammond, insisted the charge shouldn't apply to his client.

Prosecutors, he said, would not be able to prove that Mulligan caught the infection while in the hospital or as a direct result of the rape.

"They're going to ask you to find, beyond a reasonable doubt based on an assumption, that this is a murder case," he said. "If you use your common sense and you follow the law I submit that you will find him not guilty of felony murder."

Hammond offered few specifics to jurors. That could be because the defense attorney may eventually concede DeBose did in fact rape Mulligan. He notified the judge of the possibility before Tuesday's proceedings.

Even if Mulligan is convicted of sexual battery, and not murder, he could still face life in prison. He is also awaiting trial on charges that he assaulted the other woman.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected]

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Published: 01/17/18