Terry-Jo Howard repeatedly declared her love for her former boyfriend, James Randall, charged with killing two prostitutes.
She said he was the only man who had ever cared for her, the man who had helped free her from a life of drugs and prostitution. Sitting in the witness box Thursday, she couldn't keep her eyes off him.
But when prosecutor Doug Crow asked why she allowed Randall to choke her during sex, her reply made courtroom spectators gasp.
"I didn't want him to not get what he needed and then kill me two years down the road," Howard said. "I wanted him to have control over it."
Prosecutors contend the Palm Harbor window installer had a compulsion to choke women. They say he made a habit of picking up prostitutes in Clearwater, beating and strangling them, then dumping their nude bodies in industrial areas.
Randall, 42, is on trial, charged with first-degree murder of two women: Wendy Evans, 42, found Oct. 20, 1995, by a road in Oldsmar; and Cynthia Pugh, 27, found Jan. 18, 1996, near a warehouse in Palm Harbor. He has been accused of killing two other prostitutes but not indicted in those slayings.
Like the dead women, Howard once cruised for men along N Fort Harrison Avenue. That's where she met Randall three years ago today. As anniversaries go, their reunion Thursday was far from romantic. Howard was called as a witness by the prosecutors who want to put Randall on death row.
Now a motel clerk, Howard entered the courtroom slowly, wearing a black dress that emphasized her pale, slender neck. She gave Randall a lingering look over her shoulder as she passed the defense table. At one point in her testimony, while the lawyers argued at the bench, the couple's eyes locked until she grimaced and he turned away.
The couple lived together for more than two years. She said when she learned Randall liked to choke his sexual partners she suggested he try it with her. She let him put his hands around her neck and squeeze, she said, and as he achieved orgasm he pounded a pillow with his fist.
She said when she stopped showing fear, Randall lost interest and stopped choking her. Defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg reminded Howard she had once said she avoided showing any reaction to being choked, suggesting she was now changing her story.
"I tried not to show any fear but I'm sure I did," she said. "You would too, if somebody had their hands around your neck."
Once, she said, she had a fight with Randall, and he slammed her against a wall and choked her until she passed out. When she came to, she said, he was having sex with her. For days her neck was sore, and for weeks her eyes were thoroughly bloodshot.
Howard was not the only woman from Randall's past who talked about her sex life Thursday. Randall's ex-wife, Linda, briefly testified about three incidents in which he choked her. Once, she said, he used her shoelaces to tie her hands.
What Randall's ex-wife was not allowed to tell jurors is that those incidents all occurred while Randall was raping her, crimes for which he served time in a Massachusetts prison.
Howard, too, was familiar with the inside of a prison. She said she had been arrested 57 times before she changed her life with Randall's help.
Howard said after Randall's arrest she visited him in jail. As they faced each other, a glass partition in between, she asked why he had not strangled her.
She said he was worried detectives were listening in, so he used his finger to write his answer backward on the glass : "I hurt others so that I would not hurt you."
Schwartzberg challenged that story, noting she once told prosecutors she was confused about Randall's message on the glass.
"I was lying," she said.
"You were lying then, but you're not lying now?" Schwartzberg said, his voice thick with sarcasm.
Howard blurted that she had lied then because she feared Randall would hire someone to kill her.
Howard also told the jury about her dog and its unusual nicotine habit. She said the pug, which she called Princess Penny Pickles, frequently picked up Howard's cigarette butts and chewed on them, looking as if it were smoking.
Investigators found a chewed piece of cigarette paper on Pugh's body. Saliva in the paper yielded DNA that prosecutors say came from Howard.
Later, in the hall outside the courtroom, Howard approached a gray-haired couple who had been sitting near the victim's families. They were not related to Pugh or Evans but Howard thought they were. She shook the man's hand and gave the woman a hug.
"I'm sorry," she told them.