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Tom Sawyer, once wrongfully accused of murder, hopes to see a killer's guilty plea

Tom Franklin Sawyer was wrongfully accused of a Clearwater murder nearly 30 years ago, and even confessed during an intense 16-hour interrogation that was later thrown out by the courts.

Now Sawyer is so eager to walk into a Pinellas courtroom that on Tuesday he flew from Illinois to Tampa just to do so. The reason: He has heard the real killer may plead guilty.

He said if that happens as scheduled on Thursday, "I'll just be elated, I'll just be happy. I'll just be free."

Sawyer, 62, a janitor, said it's hard to fully describe how he would feel if the murder case officially ends.

"It would just take a load off my mind, and I'm just overwhelmed. I really don't know what to say. I want to see this guy that has caused me pain and suffering."

He said he also would like to speak to the original prosecutor who pursued the case against him.

"I'd like to say that he and the Clearwater Police Department completely bungled this case," Sawyer said. "They did a sloppy job, they were ignorant, they were arrogant, they were closed-minded."

He said the case against him caused deep pain to many. "It just tore my mom and dad apart," he said. And he added, "I just can't imagine what Janet's family went through. It had to be horrible."

The case dates to November 1986, when Janet Staschak was found strangled at her apartment on Greenwood Avenue in Clearwater, after she failed to show up for her job decorating cakes at a Kash n' Karry grocery store.

Clearwater detectives focused on Sawyer, a neighbor at the York apartments. His interview started one afternoon and lasted into daylight the next morning.

By the time it was over, he had confessed. But the case was not finished.

Sawyer's lawyers attacked the confession, saying it was coerced. After a six-week hearing, a judge, and later an appeals court, agreed.

Judges from the 2nd District Court of Appeal said detectives had asked "grossly leading questions" to produce a confession, based on a possible crime scenario. Some details of that scenario later proved to be false.

Sawyer, a recovering alcoholic, was deprived of food, drink and sleep during the interrogation. He was harangued, threatened and cajoled, the judges said.

And detectives continued to question Sawyer even after he asked for a lawyer. The way police gave him his Miranda warning was "a pathetic episode," the judge said.

Prosecutors eventually dropped the murder charge, but that didn't mean Sawyer ever felt free of it. Because the case had not gone to trial, it was possible for him to be charged again.

"I've lived in fear all these years that I could be arrested again," said Sawyer, who has lived in Illinois for more than 15 years. "I mean every time someone knocked on the door I didn't know if the police were going to arrest me. … I didn't know what they were going to conjure up."

As it turns out, the Clearwater Police Department was not done with Sawyer. But their next action, many years later, was not something he had even envisioned.

In December 2013, detectives working on cold cases submitted a DNA sample from the case for testing. The technology was not available in 1986.

They soon learned the sample matched Stephen Manning Lamont, an Alabama man who had done prison time for robbery in that state. During his prison sentence, he escaped and came to Clearwater, detectives learned. So they traveled to Alabama to interview Lamont. And after telling several different stories, Lamont eventually admitted to the killing, police said.

Now, there appears to be a possibility Lamont may plead guilty. Sawyer's lawyer, Joseph Donahey, said that's what he was told by authorities, and it's why Sawyer has flown down from Illinois. Prosecutors would not confirm it. Lamont's public defenders could not be reached.

But the court system's online description of an 8:30 Thursday hearing for Lamont reads simply: "change of plea."

Sawyer first learned about the DNA match from his former lawyer, Donahey.

"I said I just couldn't believe it," Sawyer recalled on Tuesday. "And I give the cold-case detectives a lot of credit for opening this case and finally solving it." He called the breakthrough "a miracle."

Donahey recalled that phone conversation with his old client as well. After he delivered the news, Donahey said, Sawyer waited for a long time on the phone and then simply said, "Wow." And then he paused, and said "wow" again. And again. And again.

And then, Donahey recalled, Sawyer said something else: "Now I can answer my door again without being in fear of being arrested."

Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.

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