Kenneth Hoover helped build houses for the homeless and worked in a Red Cross soup kitchen. He said he wants to make a difference in society.
"I'm not the same person I was 13 years ago," he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
But in 1998, Hoover wasn't helping homeless men turn around their lives. Instead, he helped kill two of them in a hate-driven attack he and his friends called "bum rolling."
A federal judge on Thursday sentenced Hoover, 38, to 121/2years in prison and two of his former friends, Cory Hulse, 38, and Charles Marovskis, 33, to 20 years each in the random killings of two homeless men in Tampa in the fall of 1998.
The defendants were all members of a hate group called "Blood and Honour," where the senseless beatings of people they considered inferior were badges of honor, prosecutors said.
The three, who could have been sentenced to life, received lesser sentences because they pleaded guilty to their part in the deaths and testified against a fourth member of the group, James Robertson, 32.
Robertson, whom prosecutors considered the most culpable of the four, was convicted last year and sentenced to life in prison in the deaths of Alfred Williams, 62, and Richard Arseneau, 44.
There may never have been a murder case at all but for Hoover's early cooperation, defense attorney Tim Fitzgerald told U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich.
"He solved this crime for them," Fitzgerald said.
Unlike the others, Hoover cooperated at a time when the case was nonexistent. Prosecutor Laurel Moore Lee told Kovachevich that the case had "a critical lack of evidence" before Hoover agreed to help.
Hoover has been in custody for five years as prosecutors built their case on two counts of committing murder in a racketeering enterprise. That time, Hoover said, changed him.
"I'm really sorry for everything I've done," Hoover told the judge. "I have nothing to say to excuse me for what I did. ... I just know that if I am given a second chance ... I can make a difference in society."
Kovachevich said remorse and forgiveness have their place. But so does justice, she said, refusing a defense request for a sentence of less than 12 years.
The judge said Arseneau and Williams "may have been aimless in their lives, but you four defendants were aimless in your lives. ... You were miserable human beings."
The four men beat Williams so savagely with a tire iron and their fists that police would find teeth scattered around his body. Arseneau took an ax to the back of the head.
The cases went for years. Police found no evidence at the scenes to link anyone to the deaths. But in 2003, an inmate facing 10 years in prison forbank robbery offered information in hopes of leniency.
The informer was Robertson.
Prosecutors say Robertson expressed horror at the killings and portrayed himself as a passive witness, instead pointing to Marovskis as the group's leader.
During the next four years, Robertson continued providing damaging information.
But his efforts backfired. As the FBI and prosecutors investigated, prosecutors say they determined Robertson played a "principal role" in the killings.
Kovachevich told Hoover that he had to live with the murders.
She told him to think of those two homeless men every time he looked in the mirror. In it, she said, "you are going to see the faces of those two victims the rest of you life."
Hoover answered in a voice almost too soft to hear, "Yes, your honor."
Reach William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org.