Tom Sawyer breathed easy on Thursday for the first time in nearly 30 years.
He was in the front row of a Pinellas County courtroom when an Alabama man pleaded guilty to the 1986 murder of Janet Staschak, a woman whom Sawyer was once erroneously accused of killing.
Sawyer silently pumped his fists, chest high, after Stephen Manning Lamont, 58, admitted to murdering Staschak and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years.
Sawyer had wondered through the years if detectives might return and accuse him of murder again. Now the case is officially closed.
Sawyer said he never expected the real killer would be found.
"I'm not happy with the first investigation," said Sawyer, who flew down from Illinois for the hearing. "But the cold case (unit) did a terrific job. I think it's a miracle they even opened it up … and found the perpetrator. I give them a lot of credit."
Staschak, 25, was murdered in her Clearwater apartment on Greenwood Avenue. Sawyer, now 62, was a next-door neighbor at the time. He was interrogated for 16 hours by Clearwater detectives, and he ultimately confessed. He spent more than a year in the Pinellas County Jail and was freed only after a successful legal challenge. The courts ruled the confession was coerced and threw it out in 1990. They said Sawyer was deprived of food, sleep and a lawyer, and made a confession that was inconsistent.
On Thursday, Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger said in court that DNA samples from Staschak's body were matched to Lamont using technology that was not available in the 1980s. A necklace found in her apartment also contained DNA belonging to Lamont, he said.
Lamont at the time had escaped from an Alabama prison, and detectives later determined he was in the Clearwater area. He eventually admitted to killing Staschak in a videotaped interview, Ripplinger said.
So is this case an example of the system working, or not working?
"Interestingly enough, it's an example off both," said Sawyer's lawyer, Joseph Donahey, who fought in the 1980s to get the confession thrown out. He, too, showed up for Thursday's court hearing.
In the original case, authorities "permitted themselves to jump to conclusions," Donahey said in a brief interview before the hearing began. But he said the new developments amount to a vindication for Sawyer.
Sawyer acknowledged lingering resentment, but also praised the Clearwater detectives whose investigation ultimately vindicated him.
And what would Sawyer say to Lamont if he had the chance?
"I would ask him, 'How could you take a person's life?' " he said. "I just can't imagine how somebody could kill somebody. It just blows my mind."
Although he worried over the years about being rearrested, Sawyer built a good life, he said, getting married and getting a good job. He works as a janitor, and said most of his co-workers know nothing about this case, which once dominated local news in the 1980s.
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"Once in a while, something would come up and remind me of what happened, and I'd get angry and then it'd go away," Sawyer said. "Because you've got to get on with your life."
Contact Curtis Krueger at email@example.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.