LARGO — A jury found Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria guilty of two counts of first-degree murder on Wednesday night in the 2013 stabbing and slicing of two people aboard a houseboat in St. Petersburg.
The case now moves to the sentencing phase. The state is seeking the death penalty for the 47-year-old defendant.
Figueroa-Sanabria, in a gray checkered shirt with his hair in his usual low bun, stood as the verdict was read aloud by the court clerk, his fingertips resting on the defense table. He didn’t flinch as the word “guilty” rang twice through the otherwise silent courtroom.
In the gallery, the stepson of houseboat owner and victim John Travlos sat motionless, a victim’s advocate behind him resting her hands on his back in support.
“It’s something we already knew," Robert Doherty said after the guilty verdicts were read aloud. "But finally, the beginning of getting some closure.”
The verdict came on the 13th day of the trial. The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for about four hours before unanimously agreeing with prosecutors, who said Figueroa-Sanabria killed Travlos and Germana Morin on April 12, 2013 over jewelry.
Figueroa-Sanabria was a handyman around the Loggerhead Marina near Pinellas Point where the boat, Relax-Inn, was moored. He worked for Travlos waxing and detailing the vessel. The handyman let himself in through the boat’s sliding glass door under the cover of darkness, then forced Travlos at knife point to open a safe where he kept jewelry and gold, prosecutors said. Then he killed them both, slicing Morin’s throat from ear to ear and stabbing Travlos 11 times in the torso.
The evidence in the case against Figueroa-Sanabria, now 47, was bountiful. Prosecutors put on 39 witnesses, including forensic experts, cell phone technicians, store clerks and the defendant’s former girlfriend, Tessa Cooper.
Cooper provided the narrative, meticulously walking jurors through what happened the night before and the morning of the murders. She said she went to bed next to Figueroa-Sanabria — then was awoken at about 4 a.m. by a frantic phone call from him.
She said he asked her to pick him up around the corner from their apartment, which was across the street from the marina. He took a shower and changed clothes, and then they went on a meandering drive all over south Pinellas, first toward St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, where Cooper said Figueroa-Sanabria was going to fly out to visit his brother in New York.
He changed his mind, Cooper said, and she drove them to a nearby 7-Eleven on Roosevelt Boulevard, where Cooper said he threw something in the garbage outside. Then it was on to Madeira Beach, then to a St. Petersburg jewelry store where Figueroa-Sanabria sold some jewelry. Then to several rental car companies. He eventually rented a gold Ford Taurus and they parted ways.
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All that was corroborated by cell phone data that showed Figueroa-Sanabria in proximity to all the locations in Cooper’s testimony. The defense did not dispute that they drove all over town.
Police arrived at their apartment shortly after Figueroa-Sanabria began his journey toward Interstate 95 and then north to New York. Cooper said she directed police to the 7-Eleven, where they found Figueroa-Sanabria’s bloody clothes.
Back at the crime scene, prosecutors said his DNA was on a roll of duct tape that was used to bind Travlos and Morin. Crime scene technicians also found Travlos’ blood on the inside of the van Cooper drove to pick up Figueroa-Sanabria after he called for a ride early that morning.
The defense only called one witness in their case: Figueroa-Sanabria. He took the stand and denied that he killed the couple. He told an alternate version of what happened that morning.
He said he was sleeping and awoke at about 4 a.m. to find Cooper wasn’t in the apartment, so he called her. He told jurors she wanted to return to a detox program she had left a week earlier, so he volunteered to drive her to Operation PAR near Roosevelt Boulevard, but first she asked to stop at 7-Eleven, where he said she directed him to throw away a bag.
He said she wanted to go to the beach to see her parents. And he said she was the one who wanted to sell some jewelry.
Figueroa-Sanabria said he didn’t unspool the duct tape, and that the clothes found in the garbage, stained with the victims’ blood, didn’t belong to him — despite being his size.
Before Wednesday’s verdict, lawyers gave their closing arguments, summarizing the case and offering their interpretation of the facts. Prosecutor Rene Bauer went first, ticking off all the statements Figueroa-Sanabria made in his testimony that were in conflict with evidence.
“That’s not credible,” she repeated after every point.
Defense attorney Keith Hammond told the jury to focus on how slow and deliberate Figueroa-Sanabria was going through his motions that morning, “putzing around” at the jewelry store, several rental car places, a bank and later Walmart, where he bought a GPS system to navigate toward his brother’s home.
“Does he look stupid?' Hammond asked rhetorically. "Does he look stupid enough to hang around for seven hours after he commits a double homicide?”
The attorney tried to point out where the evidence didn’t add up. He seemed to imply — but never explicitly said — that perhaps Cooper was the killer, and that some of the evidence was planted.
During the prosecution’s rebuttal closing argument, Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger had another explanation for Figeroa-Sanabria’s “putzing around.”
“That’s what you call taking care of business when you’re a double murderer," Ripplinger said in a raised voice. “He’s taking his time, coldly and calculatingly trying to get away with this crime."
Ultimately, after ordering dinner in, the jury sided with prosecutors, settling on a guilty verdict at about 8 p.m.
“The evidence was overwhelming," Hammond said. "So I did the best I could, in spite of the evidence.”
Ripplinger said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict.
“I expected it," he said. "They listened intently throughout the trial and they did their jobs.”
The sentencing phase is set to start Monday. The state will list the aggravating factors in favor of the death penalty, while the defense will offer mitigating factors in favor of incarceration.
Then jurors will recommend whether Figueroa-Sanabria should spend the rest of his life in prison, or die by lethal injection.