LARGO — The man accused of killing a former Tampa Tribune reporter pleaded guilty on Wednesday, a week ahead of his murder trial.
Michael Robert-Jose Harbaugh, 42, also pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit murder, according to court records. Prosecutors said he tried to orchestrate the death of a man listed as a witness in the murder trial.
The pleas came just days before Harbaugh was to stand trial for first-degree murder on Monday. He faced the charge in connection with the 2017 slaying of former reporter David Sommer inside the journalist’s Safety Harbor home. The motive, according to investigators, was an unpaid yard work debt.
Then on Sept. 13, Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Colyer was reviewing recorded phone calls between Harbaugh, who was in jail, and his girlfriend. The prosecutor became concerned they were planning a murder.
Colyer said Harbaugh directed his girlfriend to bail out a fellow inmate so he could kill a witness in the Sommer case.
The prosecutor said she called the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, and deputies determined the identity of the man whom Harbaugh asked to carry out the murder. Harbaugh and the man were housed in the same part of the jail. Jail deputies ensured he could not post bail, Colyer said.
“We were afraid if we couldn’t figure out who this person was, he was going to bond this person out and something really bad could happen," Colyer said. "Ultimately we want to make sure nobody dies on our hands.”
The witness Harbaugh sought to have killed was a jail informant who was released from jail. Harbaugh confessed to the informant to killing Sommer, Colyer said.
Harbaugh enlisted the other inmate when he found out that informant was on the witness list in the murder trial and had been deposed, Colyer said.
Harbaugh told him that Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg would be a good place to dispose of the body, Colyer said.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone set hearings for each morning starting Tuesday until the complaint from the Sheriff’s Office arrived at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office accusing Harbaugh of the solicitation. Once that paperwork came, Colyer was able to file formal charges.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Thursday that after consulting with Sommer’s family, he reduced the charge to second-degree murder as part of a plea deal.
McCabe said the case against Harbaugh wasn’t a slam dunk. His face was not clear on video and the prosecution hinged largely on jailhouse informants, who can be unreliable witnesses.
“Looking at the all the information, we figured this was the best course of action," McCabe said.
After Harbaugh pleaded guilty to the murder and the murder solicitation, Bulone sentenced him to 30 years in state prison for each charge. Those sentences will run concurrently, court records show.
Jeff Sommer, David Sommer’s youngest brother, said he was pleased with the outcome. He said he doesn’t think Harbaugh would have pleaded guilty had it not been for the solicitation charge. And he’s unsure a first-degree murder charge was the right way to proceed anyway.
“You try to shoot for the moon and get life in prison, and we could have gotten nothing,” he said about pursing a first-degree murder trial.
Originally from New Jersey, Sommer moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1986 to work for the Tribune and to be with his eventual wife, Jeannie Schad. She recalled that he loved the water, and they owned a jet-powered boat because it was safer for manatees than one with a propeller.
Sommer covered courts and crime for the Tribune until he was laid off 11 years ago. Friends and colleagues remembered his gruff style and direct manner as a reporter. His family recalled he was most proud of his coverage on the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman whose husband and family fought in court for years over the removal of her feeding tube, generating national headlines until she died in 2005.