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Man accused in St. Pete double murder testifies in his own defense

Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, accused of killing two aboard a houseboat in 2013, told a different version of the same story his girlfriend told. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of John Travlos and Germana Morin aboard Travlos' houseboat in 2013, takes the stand in his own defense Tuesday. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published Oct. 22
Updated Oct. 23

LARGO — The story the man accused of murder told jurors on Tuesday was familiar to them, in a sense.

The morning of April 12, 2013 began about 4 a.m., recalled Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, who is charged with killing two people on a houseboat. Then, he and his girlfriend drove all over south Pinellas County as they went to a 7-11 on Roosevelt Boulevard, to Madeira Beach and onward to a jewelry store and several car rental places.

Last week, Figueroa-Sanabria’s ex-girlfriend, Tessa Cooper, told jurors a similar story, but flipped. In her version, she was tagging along with him. In his version, everything was the opposite.

It will be up to a jury of 12 and two alternates to suss out who is being truthful about that day, the same day the bodies of John Travlos and Germana “Geri” Morin were discovered on Travlos’ houseboat, Relax-Inn, at the Loggerhead Marina near the southern tip of St. Petersburg. Both had been sliced to death with a knife. If they find Figueroa-Sanabria guilty of their murders, jurors will then weigh whether he deserves the death penalty.

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

Figueroa-Sanabria took the witness stand Tuesday in a dark shirt and his hair in his usual bun. His testimony started with the usual questions and answers. He’s 47 and originally from Puerto Rico, he told the jury in thickly accented English. His attorney, Keith Hammond, then asked how he met Cooper. He was managing a property in Vero Beach in 2010 where Cooper’s friend lived. The pair began a relationship and eventually moved to St. Petersburg, first in with Cooper’s parents and then to a place of their own in the Whitehall Gardens apartments, across 58th Avenue S from the Loggerhead Marina, where Figueroa-Sanabria had found a job.

Last week, Tessa Cooper, the former girlfriend of Reynaldo Figueroa Sanabria, testified in his murder trial. On the witness stand Tuesday, Figueroa-Sanabria contested her version of what happened the morning the bodies of John Travlos and Germana Morin were discovered. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

All that closely matched what Cooper told jurors last week. Then their narratives began to diverge.

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

For the first time, the jury heard about his two-year prison stint in Puerto Rico from 2011 to 2013. He said he tried to contact his daughter, which violated a protective order. He was arrested at the apartment.

When he returned, he told jurors, he got his job back at the marina and Cooper, who by then had returned to the Atlantic coast, came to deliver his clothes — though his furniture and Jeep were missing. He said she introduced him to Travlos and Morin, whose houseboat was moored in the marina. Last week, Cooper said he introduced her to them.

Figueroa-Sanabria said he worked for Travlos buffing and waxing the boat. He downplayed a disagreement between the two of them over money. Cooper had said the handyman felt disrespected by Travlos.

The meat of his testimony focused on the night of April 11 and the morning of April 12, 2013. By then he had been back from Puerto Rico about two months and he was growing his boat detailing business. He took his blood pressure medication and insulin, and got ready for bed at about 9 p.m. Cooper was out doing laundry, he said.

He awoke at about 4 a.m. the next morning — he said he awoke often to use the bathroom due to his blood pressure medication — and noticed his wallet was open and the debit card was missing. Cooper was gone, he told the jury. He called her. She had gone to buy cigarettes, she said.

He told jurors that Cooper, a self-described recovering drug addict, wanted to return to detox, where she had been about a week earlier. He agreed to drive her to Operation PAR, near Roosevelt Boulevard and U.S. 19. He said she wanted to stop at a nearby 7-11 on Roosevelt to get quarters and suggested they vacuum out the Chevrolet Astro van they were driving, so it would be clean when she returned it to her parents. He said she had him throw away a Publix shopping bag in the garbage. He said she then wanted to go to her parents’ house on Treasure Island. He said she then wanted to sell some jewelry she had — he said he didn’t know where it came from. He said he did all that before renting a car to drive up to Utica, N.Y. for a few days to visit his brother, who had his own addiction problems.

Last week, Cooper said she was in bed that morning when her phone rang about 4 a.m. It was Figueroa-Sanabria, who was not in the apartment, frantically asking her to pick him up nearby. She said he needed to get to New York to see his brother and directed her to drive toward St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. He changed his mind about flying, and they stopped at a 7-11, where he threw away a Publix shopping bag — she said she didn’t know what was in it — and he vacuumed out the van. She said he drove to Madeira Beach, where he left her near a beach access area for about thirty minutes, and then they went to a jewelry store where he sold jewelry — she didn’t know where he had gotten it.

RELATED: Girlfriend of man accused of houseboat murders testifies against him

Hammond’s last question to Figueroa-Sanabria on Tuesday was direct: “Did you kill John and Geri?”

“No.”

“No further questions," Hammond said.

On cross examination, Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger attacked Figueroa-Sanabria’s version of events. He asked how his DNA could be on the outside of a roll of duct tape that had 22 feet removed to bind Travlos and Morin. He asked how Travlos’ DNA could be on his shirt, which detectives found in the garbage at the 7-11 on Roosevelt.

Prosecutor Richard Ripplinger, center, cross examined Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, left, as Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa looks on. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Figueroa-Sanabria said he wasn’t there when the 22 feet of duct tape was unwound, and the shirt found in the garbage didn’t belong to him.

“That’s what you say," Ripplinger said, emphasizing the “you.”

One juror, in a short sleeve button-down shirt sitting on the top row of the jury box, smiled.

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