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His wounds healed, but his heart didn't

Images from the night he was shot haunted James Webster: the man with the gun in the convenience store, trying to hide, running away. He remembered feeling powerless and overcome with fear.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm a coward and I despise cowards."

Ten months after the robbery, Webster emptied a bottle of tranquilizers prescribed for depression. In his final hour, as he drifted away from life, he poured his anguish onto a tape.

"Why can't I just die like a man?"

The suicide and the tape are at the heart of a court case: Webster's heirs want more than $100,000 in workers' compensation benefits from Circle K. The convenience store says the heirs are not entitled because Webster killed himself.

A judge has ruled in favor of the heirs. He said the tape proves Webster had become so distraught, feeling he had acted like a coward, that he couldn't have made a rational decision to take his own life.

Webster, 39, was working at an Orange County Circle K on Feb. 17, 1991, when a robber attacked him. He had been robbed before, twice, but this time was different.

"I should have died that night of February the 17th. I have no business living."

The robber shot Webster in the shoulder. A witness said the robber then stood over Webster and leveled the gun at him again, hesitated and ran away, leaving the wounded man lying in the parking lot, bleeding.

The robber was caught. He got 12 years in prison. He could be out by 1996.

"That man took something out of me that night."

Webster's shoulder healed, but his heart did not. He returned to the store but worked only one day. He said he couldn't conquer his fear.

He lost his job and was evicted from his home. He had to give up his sons, 11 and 7, to a relative. He sought help and spent two weeks in a hospital. His car was repossessed as it sat in the parking lot.

Ten months after the robbery, he took the drugs and turned on the tape recorder.

"I really don't want to die. But I don't have a choice now."

Webster's sister, a waitress in a Winter Park barbecue restaurant, is paying $20 a month to the funeral home that buried him.

His family has filed for workers' compensation, mostly for money for his sons. Each boy would get $50,000 in installments paid until he reached 18, and $2,500 would pay for their father's burial.

Gallagher Bassett Insurance Service of Clearwater insures Circle K for workers' compensation.

The Websters' attorney, Monte Shoemaker, said the insurance company wouldn't have to pay if Webster had a "willful intent" to commit suicide.

A judge ruled the shooting and Webster's mental state had robbed him of the ability to form such an intent.

Circle K disagreed and appealed.

"The bottom line," said Circle K attorney Michael Broussard, "is we feel he made an unfortunate decision to end his life."

Webster's mental state, his inability to live with what he saw as his cowardice, is the crux of his family's case. But was he a coward? Did he cower and flee, stumble, fall against a car? Was that reality?

A witness says it is not.

Willie Eugene Huggins was a security guard in a business across the street from the Circle K. He says he heard a popping noise and turned to see a man running from the store.

It was Webster, but he was chasing, not fleeing, the robber.

The men fought. The gun went off and Webster went down. The gunman stood over him, taking aim. Then he lowered the pistol and ran.

There was not the frantic flight Webster recalled, no nightmarish tripping and falling, Huggins says.

Huggins says he couldn't believe Webster hated himself for his behavior that night.

Answers Huggins:

"Coward! Mr. Webster wasn't no coward. He was no coward to me."

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