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Slaying suspect pleads not guilty

James Ray Booth was arraigned Tuesday morning in a mostly empty courtroom on charges that include first-degree murder.

The whole hearing took no more than five minutes and was standard procedure for the beginning of pretty much any criminal case: Circuit Judge Jack Springstead appointed public defender J. Ray Shaw. Shaw entered a not-guilty plea for his newest client, and the case was continued to the Jan. 12 pretrial docket.

But it was the first time in a long time anybody in Hernando County had been arraigned for charges of this serious sort.

Booth, 57, of 21247 Snow Hill Road, north of Brooksville, is accused of shooting Kenneth LaPointe Sr. in the chest at the kitchen table in a trailer one afternoon in late October. The incident was the middle murder in the county's recent deadly stretch after almost 2 -1/2 years of no murders at all.

"Why haven't we had them?" assistant state attorney Pete Magrino said earlier this week. "The only thing I can say is we've been lucky.

"I can't give you a reasonable explanation."

Neither could sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Black. "Nothing that I can base on facts," she said.

The facts:

Two twentysomethings from Pasco County were shot dead in the cab of a Ford F-150 one early morning in August 2004 in a drug deal gone bad on a desolate stretch of road on Hernando's sparse east side. Three people were sentenced. One of them got life.

But Hernando had no murders in 2005 - the county's first full year with no murders since 1990 - and then still no murders in the first nine months of 2006.

People died here, of course, and unnatural deaths, too. There were vehicular homicides and aggravated manslaughters - just no first-degree murders.

On Oct. 1, though, an elderly couple were found dead in their home in Brookridge, west of Brooksville. Investigators discovered that Anthony X. Viola Sr., 91, shot Athena P. Howell, 82, his live-in companion, and then killed himself.

Not quite a month later, Evelyn and Patrick DePalma Sr., a quiet retired couple from Masaryktown, left Saturday afternoon Mass. They were found the next day, stabbed to death in their home.

And on Oct. 21, just after 3 p.m., Booth allegedly came to a trailer on Canal Drive, north of Brooksville, to settle an argument stemming from a cocaine debt he had with a man staying with LaPointe. Folks in the neighborhood said LaPointe was a friendly mechanic who collected disability and kept a dog and a few pigs in his yard.

Booth was brought to court on Thursday in handcuffs and a red jumpsuit from the Hernando County Jail. He has glasses and white hair and big biceps for a man his age.

Magrino was across the room. He's a no-nonsense prosecutor. The cases he takes are those that involve people who are dead.

Springstead read the charges:

Armed burglary.

Aggravated battery and aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a felon.

First-degree murder.

A woman seated in the second row gasped.

Times staff writer Thomas Lake contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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