Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Deputies: Avila couple's killer was accused of stealing from them days earlier

TAMPA

Surrounded by wealth, Julian Ospina-Florez faced financial problems.

Each workday, he would leave a townhouse facing foreclosure and head to one of Hillsborough County's most exclusive neighborhoods. He would exchange a beat-up Saturn for his employer's Cadillac Escalade.

Then he would drive 55-year-old Debra Rivera to functions and boutiques, helping her sell upscale costume jewelry and purses.

Several days ago, she accused him and others of stealing $30,000 worth of her merchandise, authorities said.

Deputies think that may have pushed Ospina-Florez to murder.

On Monday night as the two returned to the mansion from a trade show, authorities said, he shot Debra Rivera several times in a bathroom, then chased her husband — who had just arrived home with food — down the driveway, firing even after Hector Rivera had been hit.

It didn't take long for deputies to suspect the driver.

He was the only one home with Debra Rivera at the time, the Sheriff's Office reported. And even though he had called 911 claiming to also be a victim, his story had holes.

In a court motion Wednesday afternoon spurred by a judge's request, prosecutors laid out several discrepancies in more detail, providing their most complete account yet of the case.

At Ospina-Florez's first court appearance that morning, Circuit Judge Walter Heinrich had said the case appeared largely circumstantial. He wasn't sure he could hold the suspect without setting a bail for his release.

Within hours, authorities presented a seven-page petition they hope will persuade the judge during a hearing set for Friday.

In the motion, they say Ospina-Florez told detectives at the scene Monday that an unknown man had attacked him in the house, striking his head with a gun. The attacker then zip-tied Ospina-Florez's hands together and put him in a bathroom, he reported.

But Ospina-Florez, 31, didn't appear harmed, the motion states. And the zip-ties were too loose to have restrained him, as he had asserted.

Deputies say they found a receipt for 9mm ammunition — the caliber used in the killings — and a box of 9mm bullets in his car. The stamping on them matched those used in the killings, the motions states. Ten were missing.

Ballistics tests could determine as early as next week whether the bullets used in the shooting came from the suspect's gun — a semiautomatic pistol found in a kitchenette drawer.

Deputies found that quickly, too. A bloody footprint, the motion states, pointed toward the drawer.

The footprint appeared to have been made by someone wearing only a sock, a forensics examiner noted, so deputies told Ospina-Florez to take off his shoes.

The bottom of each sock, deputies say, was stained with blood.

When asked how that happened, Ospina-Florez said he couldn't remember, according to the court record. The events, he said, had been too traumatic.

• • •

Debra Rivera was known for her elegant parties, as classy as the immaculate white carpet spanning her Avila mansion.

She was supposed to cohost a bridal shower today for a friend's daughter, a typical act of generosity, friends say.

She had been that way as long as her friends of 25-plus years remember. She volunteered at University Community Health and donated proceeds from her accessories to the National Humane Society.

Debra and her husband, a retired physician, were the types to not only ask how you were, but how your kids were, friend Sherri McClendon said.

"They sincerely wanted to know," she said.

When McClendon's adult daughter was about to move to Italy, Hector Rivera, 76, wrote a list of all the medications she had ever needed and gave her his cell phone number. He signed the letter, "with much love."

"He certainly wasn't your typical doctor," McClendon said.

Debra Rivera grew up in Tampa and attended Tampa Catholic High School. She met Hector in the 1970s at his clinic, and they married and had a son. "Little Hector" everyone called him. She adored the boy, who is now a Tampa lawyer, and lived for her two grandchildren, friends say.

She started the jewelry and accessories business about a decade ago as a hobby, but it grew over time.

A year ago, she hired Ospina-Florez at the recommendation of a household employee. He would drive her to events and help her set up the items.

At the time, he had one arrest on his record: burglary and battery charges from 2004. He was a cashier at a Farm Stores location at the time and didn't like a customer's comment to a female employee, court records state. He started screaming about "showing respect," the records state, and he hit the customer's car and reached into it to try to grab him.

The victim stopped returning prosecutor's calls, and the charges were dropped.

• • •

When Ospina-Florez made his first court appearance early Wednesday, authorities expected Judge Heinrich to deny the suspect bail. But the judge didn't decide.

There was no confession or eyewitnesses, he said, and Ospina-Florez's gun is known to be only the same caliber as the gun used in the double slaying.

"I don't think at this point the case rises to the level where I can order him held without bond," Heinrich said.

Deputies had more evidence, they said later. They just hadn't presented it.

That afternoon, they provided seven more pages in a motion for pretrial detention.

On Friday, a judge will decide if Ospina-Florez will remain in jail without bail pending trial.

Times staff writers Sue Carlton and Jamal Thalji and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected]

   
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