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Trial begins in deaths of Avila couple

TAMPA — The operator could hardly understand the man on the other end of the 911 call. But through breathless shouts, a few words of broken English were clear.

"They killed my boss," he said. "I was working ... They catch me. They tie me."

The call came from inside the sprawling mansion of Dr. Hector Rivera and his wife, Debra, in Tampa's exclusive Avila community. When Hillsborough sheriff's deputies arrived that night, Jan. 9, 2012, they found the couple shot to death.

When he reported the shootings, Julian Ospina-Florez claimed that he, too, was a victim of armed intruders.

On Friday, a jury heard the audio recording of his frantic call. And they also heard that he was not a victim at all, but a killer.

"The physical and forensic evidence points to him as the one and only assailant, the shooter, the perpetrator of these murders," Assistant State Attorney Ada Carmona said in opening statements of the murder trial.

Ospina-Florez committed the murders, she said, days after he was suspected of stealing thousands in merchandise from Debra Rivera's jewelry business.

Ospina-Florez, 35, was one of several employees of Distinctive Creations, a business that Debra Rivera operated out of her home in the gated community, where home prices range in the millions. Hired eight months before the killings, he worked as a driver, shuffling jewelry, handbags and accessories from the Avila home to trade shows in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

"To say that Mrs. Rivera was not an easy person to work for was an understatement," Carmona told the jury. She frequently yelled at her employees. She questioned their abilities. She called them stupid. "Julian Ospina-Florez was no exception to her maltreatment."

After a trade show in December 2011, Debra Rivera told Ospina-Florez to drive a van full of merchandise to his home for the night, the state said. The next morning, he drove the van to her home and helped unload boxes into the garage.

A day later, on Jan. 1, Rivera noticed that some of the merchandise was missing. She filed a report with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. A theft investigation began.

Detectives questioned all the employees. Rivera demanded that they take lie detector tests. No one seemed troubled. Not even Ospina-Florez.

But when sheriff's deputies arrived at the house the night of Jan. 9, they found Hector Rivera lying near a car in the driveway. He had been shot in the head, chest, back and arm.

Blood pooled away from his body. In the puddle was a void, as though someone had stepped in it, Carmona told the jury.

Inside the house Debra Rivera also lay dead in a bathroom. She had been shot twice in the face.

In an adjacent kitchen, black scuff marks on tiles and cabinets suggested a violent struggle, Carmona said. Near both bodies, crime scene technicians found several 9 mm bullet casings. Hidden in a drawer in another room was a 9 mm gun with two bullets remaining in it, Carmona said. It belonged to Ospina-Florez, she said. His DNA was on it. So was Debra Rivera's.

Forensic tests revealed footprints leading from Debra Rivera's body to the drawer, Carmona said. Her DNA was also found on a zip tie that dangled from Ospina-Florez's wrist. A sock on his foot was soaked in Hector Rivera's blood.

When authorities searched his car and his house, they found more 9 mm ammunition along with thousands of dollars worth of Distinctive Creations merchandise. A receipt showed the ammo was purchased a month earlier at a Tampa Walmart.

Defense attorney Charles Traina told the jury to carefully consider all the evidence in deciding whether Ospina-Florez is guilty. He noted that there is no video of the crime. And there were no eyewitnesses. He called the state's case purely circumstantial.

"Julian Ospina-Florez is an innocent man who did not murder anybody," he said. "This is not a one-way street. And there is not just one side to this story."

The trial is expected to last three weeks. If convicted, Ospina-Florez could face the death penalty.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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