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Onstott trial digs through sordid situations

The courtroom benches were only about half full when the murder trial began, mostly local lawyers there to watch top-notch veterans duking it out. There was a handful of regular folk, a couple of reporters bent over laptops, a few news photographers at parade rest.

Someone's stomach growled. Someone stifled a yawn.

As the prosecution and defense took turns laying out their versions of what happened that night in Ruskin, jurors sometimes looked over at the defense table and into the face of the hollow-cheeked man who sat looking back at them.

Did you do this to her?

Was it you?

Sarah Lunde was 13. She was not a doll-like JonBenet of blond hair and glittery child-model perfection. She lived in a trailer, went to school, went to church. Sometimes, she ran away from home. The jury learned that she was sexually active, a detail that would become relevant to the defense.

On the stand, her mother said the accused — a man who had met her for sexual trysts at her trailer — commented on the size of her barely teenage daughter's breasts. It was a detail difficult to digest.

Circumstantial, they call the evidence against David Onstott, the man accused of attacking Sarah when her mother wasn't home, then weighting her body with concrete blocks in a pond at an abandoned fish farm.

No DNA, no fingerprints, no blood and no physical evidence point squarely at him.

The jury is not being told he was already a registered sex offender or, more important, that he confessed.

Detectives who questioned Onstott and ignored his requests for a lawyer sealed that deal. A judge tossed it as evidence.

So the jury is hearing pieces of the puzzle: incriminating statements Onstott made to his mother and a jail deputy — though that deputy didn't mention it for nearly a year.

A Bud Light bottle witnesses saw him take from the trailer, presumably so it couldn't be used as evidence against him.

His knowledge of the middle-of-nowhere place her body was found. The sound of his shoes squishing with water below his wet jeans that night.

Will the pieces build a case beyond a reasonable doubt?

Or will jurors look at Sarah's life and think someone else could well have done this to her?

Her mother was gone that weekend; Sarah, off on a church trip. But when the sixth-grader still wasn't home Sunday night, her mother assumed she was staying with a friend. No one started looking until Monday. In the search that followed, the sheriff noted that some 24 sex offenders lived nearby.

So Sarah apparently was not shrouded by vigilant, by-the-minute adult supervision. She had run away before. Some predators know how to find their victims.

And she was a kid. She liked Taco Bell. She once wrote in her diary: I'm going out with Chucky. He is so cute. When she disappeared, she was wearing a green cast on her arm that her friends had signed.

She was 13.

In the somber and formal courtroom, with its high ceilings and impassive faces of long-ago judges watching from portraits on the walls, there is a sense of purpose. There is also an echo of sadness, and waste, because of the loss of a girl named Sarah.

Onstott trial digs through sordid situations 08/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 7:28pm]
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