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Judge to seal some statements made by Gibsonton teen charged with murder

Hunter Eargood, who was 15 when he was arrested in March, made statements that could be construed as a confession, his public defender says.
Prosecutors are charging a teenage boy as an adult in the slaying of a Tampa man.
Prosecutors are charging a teenage boy as an adult in the slaying of a Tampa man. [ Photo illustration by ASHLEY DYE and MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published May 5
Updated May 17

TAMPA — Before he was arrested on a murder charge two months ago, records show, 15-year-old Hunter Eargood talked.

Early on the morning of March 11, Eargood fatally stabbed a man in Gibsonton, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Court records say Eargood, who has since turned 16, made statements before and after the slaying that were heard by witnesses and he made spontaneous statements to a sheriff’s detective.

But what Eargood said, as well as additional details about the death, have remain shielded from public view since his defense attorney filed a motion to exempt material in the case that could be construed as a confession. The Tampa Bay Times, through its attorney, intervened, calling the motion overly broad.

After a brief Zoom hearing Tuesday, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michael S. Williams agreed to seal only material that would be exempt under Florida’s public records law.

In other news from the case, a charging document filed recently by prosecutors includes the identity of the victim, which has not been previously reported. His name was Christopher Hambrook.

Hambrook’s relationship to Eargood has not been released.

Information publicly released in the case so far has largely been limited to the few details provided by the Sheriff’s Office in a news release the day Eargood was arrested.

Deputies responded to a 911 call about a stabbing on the 8000 block of Honeywell Road about 1:45 a.m. March 11, the news release said. Court records list Eargood’s home address as the 8600 block of Honeywell Road. Hillsborough voting records show a Christopher Hambrook, 50, listed a home address on the 8500 block.

Deputies arrived to find a man with at least one stab wound to his upper body. He died at a local hospital. According to the Sheriff’s Office, Eargood and the victim knew each other and got into a fight before the stabbing. Sheriff Chad Chronister said Eargood made a “reckless decision to harm and kill the victim,” according to the news release.

The Sheriff’s Office did not provide the name of the victim in the case due to its interpretation of Marsy’s Law, a voter-approved amendment to the state Constitution that was meant to protect crime victims but that deprives the public of information long available under Florida’s public records law.

Deputies arrested Eargood on a first-degree murder charge. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office has decided to prosecute Eargood as an adult on a second-degree murder charge, indicating there is not enough evidence to charge him with premeditated murder.

The Hillsborough Clerk of Court has previously denied a records request from the Times for the criminal report affidavit, citing the motion to seal information made by Assistant Public Defender Carolyn Schlemmer.

According to the motion, Eargood made statements before and after the slaying that could constitute “the substance of a confession.” Witnesses overheard the statements, and Eargood spoke with a sheriff’s detective before he was read his Miranda rights.

Under Florida law, such statements are exempt from public record until the criminal case is resolved. The motion asks the judge to exempt from public disclosure the portions of any records that contain these statements, such as a criminal report affidavit and search warrants.

“Based upon the considerations in this case, this Court must strike the balance in favor of protecting Mr. Eargood’s state and federal constitutional rights to a fair trial over the public’s right to access discovery material specifically exempt from public records laws,” Schlemmer wrote in the motion.

Alison Steele, an attorney for the Times, claimed the defense motion sought the “sealing and closure of material going far beyond the statutory exemption for ‘the substance of a confession.’ ”

“It appears simply to want any remark emanating from the Defendant to be withheld,” Steele wrote in her response to the motion. “This Court should not permit this undefined, wide-ranging withholding of records.”

It “behooves the public,” Steele added, “to be able to form some understanding of how it is a 15-year-old kid is charged with second degree murder.”

Schlemmer countered that her motion only requests the sealing of material that qualifies as the substance of confession.

“I don’t know where Ms. Steele is coming up that I want everything else sealed,” she said.

Williams asked Assistant State Attorney Aaron Hubbard if he was aware of statements that wouldn’t qualify as a confession. Hubbard said Eargood did make other statements during interviews that would not, such as comments about his schooling and grades.

Williams said he would draft an order limiting the information to be sealed. It will cover only material that would qualify as a confession and exempt under current law.

Christopher Hambrook’s sister Valerie Hambrook tuned in to Tuesday’s Zoom hearing. She declined to comment when reached by Facebook direct message.

Cheryl Zabel, who is listed in court records as Eargood’s guardian, also declined to comment when reached by phone.

Records show Eargood, who turned 16 on April 25, was being held Tuesday in the Hillsborough County jail with bail set at $500,000.