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Spurned love leads to teen's murder conviction

Jose Zelaya-Riego exploded with teen angst when his 15-year-old girlfriend Lauren Cowles dumped him for another boy on Feb. 1, 2003. Jose and Lauren were both students at Chamberlain High School when they started dating a year earlier.

Suicide threats were nothing new for Zelaya-Riego, then 18 - he'd held a knife to himself in front of his grandmother one month earlier - but they rained down on Lauren in several computer messages over the next two days as he tried to get her to talk to him in person.

"I can't live without you," he wrote.

As his depression turned to anger, his threats turned to Lauren. He told her he'd cut her throat, but then begged to be allowed into her Carrollwood home.

"I'm not letting you in after you threatened to hurt me," she said.

"I'm just going to kill myself," he responded. "My life is useless."

The defense attorney at Zelaya-Riego's trial this week said the kitchen knife he brought to her home the night of Feb. 3, 2003 was meant for himself. The prosecutor said Zelaya-Riego planned to kill Lauren. But it was Sean Cowles, her 18-year-old brother, who died that night.

Zelaya-Riego was convicted of second-degree murder Thursday for stabbing Sean Cowles seven times. Cowles had confronted Zelaya-Riego in the yard after Zelaya-Riego removed a screen from Lauren's bedroom window in an attempt to see her.

The defense said a struggle ensued between the young men. The prosecution said Zelaya-Riego was poised for attack. Neither denied that Zelaya-Riego stabbed Cowles seven times.

Cowles ran in through the front door, bloody, screaming for help. Zelaya-Riego stumbled in holding the weapon.

"I'm sorry," Zelaya-Riego mouthed to Lauren.

She and her mother pushed him out of the house, and he ran away.

Cowles was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died shortly after midnight. Zelaya-Riego was arrested at his apartment a mile away.

Thursday, he was also convicted of attempted burglary for removing the screen from the window and attempted trespass for walking into the home after the stabbing.

Throughout the hearing, Zelaya-Riego kept his head down, occasionally adjusting his glasses. His movements were sluggish and he exchanged nervous glances with his aunt and grandmother.

He could receive life in prison.

"We want to see justice served for what was done," said Linda Patterson, Cowles' mother.

But there will be no closure for her family, she said. She still drives her son's 1999 Honda, which he souped up with gadgets. Cowles was fascinated by cars and pored over magazines with his stepfather at a cafe in Borders every Sunday.

Cowles was also an artist, his mom said. A tribal butterfly he once drew is tattooed on his sister's arm. When he took his girlfriend a bouquet of roses, he'd bring one for her mother, too. He visited his grandparents in Dade City on weekends, and attended a Baptist youth group. He was a born-again Christian.

"That's probably what's given me the most strength to get through this," Patterson said, in tears. "Because I do know I'll see him again."

Lauren, now studying environmental science at Hillsborough Community College, was not at Thursday's hearing. While she testified during the trial, she preferred to put the tragedy behind her. "She's just trying to move on with her life," Patterson said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813-226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

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