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Jury awards man and son more than $500 million in infamous 1999 Pasco attempted murder-suicide

Kristina Gaime, 52, killed her 6-year-old son in a murder-suicide attempt in 1999.
Kristina Gaime, 52, killed her 6-year-old son in a murder-suicide attempt in 1999.
Published Nov. 22, 2016

Kristina Gaime, the Pasco County mother who went to prison for killing her youngest son and attempting to kill her oldest, was recently ordered by a jury to pay more than half a billion dollars to her surviving child and his father for the infamous 1999 crime.

The judgment ended the long lawsuit against Gaime filed by her ex-husband, Stephen Rotell; her surviving son, Adam Rotell, now 25; and the estate of her son Mathew Rotell, killed at age 6.

Even 17 years after the crime — even after his wife took a plea deal and was released from prison earlier this year — Stephen Rotell still wanted his day in court against his ex-wife.

While the judgment is astonishing, the father's attorney, Thomas Cope, said that wasn't the point of pursuing the lawsuit for so long.

"The point of this lawsuit was to try to move past this tragedy and let Adam know that the system hadn't completely failed him," said Cope.

"Closure is nothing that really happens in a case like this. Let's be honest: This is a step in the right direction that a jury says 'I understand that you've been injured in a catastrophic, unfathomable fashion.' "

And the Rotells aren't done suing. Father and son, Cope said, cannot let what happened in 1999 fade away.

"That is your entire life, that is the rest of your life," the attorney said. "So this doesn't ever stop."

• • •

It was a crime that captivated the Tampa Bay area: Gaime tried to kill her children and herself. She drugged the boys, then ages 6 and 8, with morphine, placed them inside her running GMC minivan and ran a hose from the tailpipe through a car window. She and Adam survived; her youngest son didn't.

The murder-suicide attempt took place while the couple was engaged in a bitter custody dispute, during which Gaime made unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse against her ex-husband. When the third investigation cleared Stephen Rotell in February 1999, he was free to pursue custody of the children — an outcome Gaime could not accept.

"There's no hope left," Gaime wrote to her mother in a suicide letter investigators found after the incident. "I can't give Mathew back to that man."

Gaime once faced a charge of first-degree murder and a life sentence in prison. She took a plea deal in October 2005 to spare her surviving son from having to testify against her in court. Gaime pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

She later unsuccessfully challenged her own plea deal. With time served, Gaime was released in April after serving 17 years.

The Rotells sued Gaime in 2001, but a Hillsborough judge held up the trial until Gaime was out of prison, Cope said.

The civil trial took place in August. The attorney said the jury took up to three hours to come up with the judgment. Adam Rotell was awarded $252,500,000, Stephen Rotell $250,302,368 and Mathew Rotell's estate received $2,000,000. Damages awarded to estates are guided by statute.

"By going through the two-day jury trial process, they received vindication, if you will, that a jury of their peers understood the gravity of the tragedy that they went through," Cope said.

Both Stephen and Adam Rotell testified at the trial, Cope said, though neither transcripts nor recordings of their testimony exist, the attorney said. There were jurors in tears when Adam Rotell was on the stand, according to Cope.

"It's amazing how he's persevered through this attack on him and the survivor guilt of being unable to save his little brother," Cope said.

• • •

Cope said he recommended the jury award no less than $200 million but no more than $700 million. That was an appropriate range, Cope said, considering the pain his clients suffered.

"If Hulk Hogan can get $140 million for a nudie video online, don't tell me that a half a billion is unreasonable for the death of a child and the attempted murder of another," Cope said, referring to a court case earlier this year in which the gossip website Gawker was ordered to pay wrestler Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea a $140.1 million judgment. Bollea sued the media company for posting online a clip of a sex tape. Both sides recently settled for a reported $31 million.

The Rotells probably won't be able to collect much, if any, from Gaime. She has no assets that Cope is aware of.

But the Rotells aren't done suing yet. Cope said they've retained another attorney to pursue a bad faith claim against State Farm Insurance, Gaime's homeowner's insurer. If they win, the jury could force State Farm to pay Gaime's half billion judgment to the Rotells.

Through Cope, both Stephen and Adam Rotell declined to comment on the judgment.

Gaime's father, Gary McDuffie, said his daughter wouldn't comment, either.

"She's enjoying her privacy and that's where we're at," he said.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.