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Girlfriend of man accused of houseboat murders testifies against him

Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria faces the death penalty in the slayings of John Travlos and Germana “Geri” Morin.

LARGO — John Travlos and Germana “Geri” Morin seemed to trust their handyman.

Travlos let Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria borrow his car, once to drive across the state to pick up off-and-on girlfriend, Tessa Cooper. She lived in Vero Beach and was moving back to St. Petersburg, and later moved in with Figueroa-Sanabria.

In fact, it was Travlos and Morin who convinced Cooper to give Figueroa-Sanabria another chance, Cooper said in court Wednesday. They spoke highly of his work since he returned to the Loggerhead Marina near Maximo Park after a two-year prison stint in Puerto Rico.

Figueroa-Sanabria had a key to Travlos’ house boat, Relax-Inn, which was moored at the marina. The couple had him over for dinner frequently, and Travlos mentored him as he tried to launch his own boat detailing business. Once, when the couple went on a cruise, they left the boat in Figueroa-Sanabria’s care.

About one month after the cruise, prosecutors say, Figueroa-Sanabria betrayed that trust, stabbing and slicing the couple to death in the houseboat’s bedroom early April 12, 2013 over some jewelry. Cooper, who overcame a pain pill addiction and is now in school, testified against her former boyfriend in his murder trial on Wednesday, recounting for jurors the relationship Figueroa-Sanabria shared with the couple, and the hours surrounding the discovery of their bodies.

Figueroa-Sanabria, now 47, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He could be sentenced to death.

RELATED: St. Pete houseboat murder prosecution begins with focus on timeline

During about four hours of testimony, Cooper recounted for the jury of 12 plus two alternates how her life crossed paths with Figueroa-Sanabria’s, then what happened the day of the murders.

The pair met in 2010 when she was living in Cocoa Beach. He managed an apartment complex where her friend lived. They began a relationship and moved in together before relocating to St. Petersburg.

In 2011, shortly after they arrived in the Sunshine City, Figueroa-Sanabria returned to Puerto Rico for about two years, Cooper said. According to a 2014 St. Petersburg Times article, he was extradited to Puerto Rico and served time on a 2008 domestic violence charge.

During his incarceration, Cooper returned to the Atlantic Coast, this time in Vero Beach. He called her after he got out, and she drove to St. Petersburg in January 2013 to return some of his stuff she had kept. That’s when she met Travlos and Morin, who doted over Figueroa-Sanabria.

“They were singing praises about Rey,” Cooper said.

RELATED: Couple found dead on houseboat were stabbed by handyman, St. Petersburg police say

Later, Cooper chose to return to St. Petersburg, and Figueroa-Sanabria picked her up in Travlos’ silver Chrysler 300 sedan. The vehicle had a vanity license plate that said “JOHN.”

She and Figueroa-Sanabria lived together in apartment 204 at the Whitehall Gardens apartments, across 58th Avenue S from the Loggerhead Marina. He worked on the boat and stayed over for dinner. She was suffering from addiction and was carrying on an affair with at least one other man, deleting her texts and calls and hiding her phone.

A couple of weeks before the killings, a dispute broke out between Figueroa-Sanabria and Travlos over payments, and the handyman felt disrespected. After about a week off, he resumed working on the vessel, but no longer stayed for dinner.

The jury was shown a photograph of the Relax-Inn houseboat at the Loggerhead Marina, St. Petersburg, from April 12, 2013, taken by St. Petersburg Police. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

On the night before the bodies were found, Cooper said she went to sleep in a nightgown about 1 a.m., her phone tucked safely into her bra and Figueroa-Sanabria at her side in bed. She awoke at about 4:30 a.m. to a phone call from Figueroa-Sanabria.

“He was frantic, sounded just like he was in a panic," she said. She recalled he asked her to pick him up right away, and that he was stressed.

“I thought he was having a heart attack,” she said.

She picked him up around the corner from the apartment complex in her parents’ white Chevrolet Astro van, which they let her borrow after returning from a week-long detox program. He wore a black hoodie with what appeared to be a backpack underneath. He said he needed to get to New York State to see his brother, whom he claimed was sick.

So after he took a shower and changed his clothes at the apartment, she drove him toward St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport before he changed his mind about flying. They did stop at a 7-11 convenience store near the airport to vacuum out the van. He threw something away in the dumpster, though she told jurors she didn’t know what.

From there, Cooper walked the jury through the strange and meandering drive she and Figueroa-Sanabria made in the van that morning through southern Pinellas County, stopping in Madeira Beach, at rental car places, a jewelry store in St. Petersburg where he sold gold jewelry, and a bank near their apartment, where prosecutors said he made a deposit.

They split up that morning after he rented a gold Ford Taurus. He had instructed her not to tell anyone about their tour that morning, only that he rented a car see his brother. He headed north toward New York on Interstate 95. She went home and was soon cooperating with police.

RELATED: Trial to begin in St. Pete double murder on houseboat

Figueroa-Sanabria was later apprehended in North Carolina.

Before Cooper testified, a St. Petersburg police detective was on the stand. He walked the jury through photographs of the houseboat’s ransacked bedroom, with Morin lying naked on the floor and blood all over the white bedding. Travlos was lying face down on the floor in his underwear.

Travlos’ stepson, Robert Doherty, 55, watched from the gallery. When the picture of his stepfather came up, he lowered his head, then stared in Figueroa-Sanabria’s direction. The defendant, sitting beside his three attorneys, sat resolute, with his glasses near the tip of his nose.