Justyn Pennell had spent months thinking about killing, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said. He didn’t know who he would kill, or where, or when — but according to an arrest report, he wanted to know what it was like to kill.
On Thursday, Nocco said, 21-year-old Pennell was running errands in his Chrysler PT Cruiser about 2:45 p.m. when he saw a 75-year-old man — a grandfather and a veteran of the Vietnam War — walking on Aripeka Road near Old Dixie Highway. Pennell decided, as he’d later tell detectives, that this was his chance.
Pennell drove past the older man, Nocco said in a Friday news conference, then pulled a U-turn and aimed for the man. As the septuagenarian scrambled to get off the road, which doesn’t have sidewalks, the PT Cruiser struck and killed him. The man died at the scene, just south of the village of Aripeka, which straddles the Pasco County-Hernando County line.
A day later, Pennell faces a charge of premeditated murder. Nocco said that the case was horrifying even for law enforcement officers who sometimes find themselves hardened from repeatedly investigating killings.
"There are some cases that we hear of that absolutely, even for us in law enforcement, make us just realize and remind us that there is pure evil in the world,” he said.
Deputies were able to arrest Pennell almost immediately, Nocco said: The PT Cruiser was damaged in the crash, forcing Pennell to pull over on Old Dixie Highway, a quarter-mile away from the crime scene.
Then he called 911 and confessed to an operator, according to an arrest report. Sgt. Michael Rosa, of the Sheriff’s Office’s major crimes unit, said a recording of the 911 call will not be released immediately because it contains a confession.
Pennell later confessed to deputies on the scene and in interviews, Nocco said. Pennell told deputies that he smiled and laughed as he saw the look of fear on the victim’s face, according to an arrest report.
Rosa said Pennell was calm, cooperative and lucid during interviews. Pennell had never been arrested before this, Rosa added — he only appears twice in the department’s records, including once when he was reported as a runaway.
And, as far as deputies can tell, the two men had never met before the collision, Rosa said.
“I have never worked a case where someone actually planned to go out and look for a victim," he said. “The act was not random, but the victim was a random victim.”
An investigation is ongoing, Nocco said. Deputies are still interviewing Pennell’s family and friends and are putting together search warrants. The Florida Highway Patrol is also investigating the crash, he said, for details such as the speed of the car at the time of the collision.
And though Nocco already believes there’s “a very strong case” against Pennell, he wants others to come forward with any evidence they may have. He said one witness told deputies that other motorists stopped and took pictures of the scene before continuing along.