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3 of 4 guilty of Culbreath Isles rape

Sitting in the front row of the courtroom Friday, the woman trembled, fighting off tears as she awaited verdicts against the men charged with breaking into her Culbreath Isles home and raping her.

As the first of four defendants was pronounced guilty of burglary, robbery and kidnapping, the woman laid her head on her husband's shoulder.

"The defendant is guilty of sexual battery . . ."

Spectators let out a collective sigh of relief, with several murmuring thanks to God.

Across the courtroom, defendant Kevin Thomas stood straight and still, betraying no emotion.

The verdicts against Thomas were read just after noon. By day's end, Thomas and co-defendants Michael R. Long, Rudy Barrientos and Dennis W. Gonzalez had been found guilty of enough charges to send each to prison for life. Sentencing was set for Oct. 30.

"I'm going to seek as much time as I can on every one of them," said prosecutor Cass Castillo. "I think this incident warrants life sentences."

The four defendants each faced nine charges: two counts of sexual battery, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of theft, and one count each of robbery, burglary and conspiracy.

Thomas and Gonzalez were found guilty of all nine. Barrientos also received nine convictions, but those included a reduced conspiracy charge and the lesser crime of false imprisonment instead of kidnapping.

Only Long was not convicted of the sexual battery charges. On one, he was found innocent. On the other, he was convicted of a lesser crime: aggravated assault. Jurors found him guilty of the other seven charges.

Testimony in the seven-day trial outlined a real-life nightmare within the victim's home in an exclusive, walled-off south Tampa neighborhood.

The rape victim and her son were asleep early on the morning of April 21 when the four defendants broke in. They woke the son at gunpoint and took him to his mother's room. Mother and son huddled in terror under the covers of her bed while their home was ransacked.

When the robbery was over, the invaders returned to the room, bound mother and son with duct tape and carried the son off to another room, putting him on the floor and shutting the door. The mother was then repeatedly raped and sodomized in her own bed, with tape over her mouth and a sheet covering her head.

At one point in the attack, the woman testified, she feared she would suffocate.

Each of the defendants admitted participating in the robbery, and each acknowledged that the woman was repeatedly raped. But each denied raping her.

When the single innocent verdict was announced Friday, it drew grumbles from spectators. But after the trial, jurors said they were by no means convinced of Long's innocence. The charge simply hadn't been proved, they said.

In particular, the jurors mentioned a lack of physical evidence, such as semen or hair, that could tie Long to one or more of the sexual attacks. They also found fault with Tampa police detectives' interrogation of Long. The defendant gave a taped statement that was played in court, and the jurors listened to the tape a second time after beginning deliberations.

On the tape, Long acknowledges climbing into the victim's bed. But he said he only simulated intercourse with her, and then only because his co-defendants had ordered him to have sex with the woman. A detective asked Long whether his penis ever touched the woman. Long said it had.

"Where? Where did he touch her?" demanded juror Pamela Morse. "The detective didn't ask the next question."

The jurors said they felt pressure to convict because of the intense attention this case has drawn.

"It was a hard decision to make, but the evidence just wasn't there," said Deloris Taylor.

The rape victim declined to comment after the verdicts. But prosecutor Castillo said she expressed satisfaction with the verdicts.

"I won't tell you she's not disappointed with a couple of their verdicts, but all in all, she's very satisfied," Castillo said.

Separate juries ruled on each of the defendants, and the first three verdicts were read between noon and 12:30 p.m. Friday.

The fourth jury, which heard the case against Barrientos, reached its verdict just after 3:30 p.m.

In the hours between, the victim's friends and supporters waited outside the courtroom. One expressed admiration for the victim, who visited with and hugged friends while waiting for the last verdict.

"She has such courage, and her courage has only been partially rewarded. But we're all thankful for the justice we did receive," said the friend, who asked that her name not be used because it could help identify the victim.