TAMPA — Gary Tyrone Danielle pleaded guilty to a second-degree murder charge Tuesday, almost three years after Laura Pietscher was strangled and left beside a trash bin at an east Tampa food market.
In an agreement with state prosecutors, Danielle, 50, admitted to the reduced charge in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence. He also admitted to charges of evidence tampering and grand theft of a motor vehicle.
Short, gray-bearded, bald, handcuffed and wearing orange, Danielle stood quietly in a jury box during the brief court hearing. He said nothing to Pietscher’s family.
Laura Pietscher’s father waited a long time to confront the man responsible for his daughter’s death.
On Tuesday, he finally had the chance to speak in a Tampa courtroom. Standing before a judge, Art Pietscher held a small photo of her ashes. He wanted Danielle to see the image.
“Gary really should have them,” he said. “If he wants them, I don’t know.”
The guilty plea punctuated the case, but it left questions unanswered. Among them: Why was Pietscher murdered? And how did she meet Danielle?
Court documents detail only some of the story.
It began with a 911 call the morning of Oct. 19, 2018. Employees in a restaurant at 3712 N 15th St. reported finding a woman’s body, covered with a plastic bag and concealed beneath a wood board, near a trash bin behind the business.
Detectives determined she’d been lying on the ground at least a day. In the trash bin, they found a purse, clothing, mail and a wallet that belonged to Pietscher. Fingerprints confirmed her identity.
Pietscher, 28, lived in Sebring, in rural Highlands County. A medical examiner deemed her cause of death to be ligature strangulation.
Her truck, a 2006 Toyota Tundra, was missing. It was captured on a tag reader the afternoon of Oct. 17 near 111 County Line Road in the Plant City area. The truck was later spotted on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa after what was described as an attempted beer theft from a Wawa convenience store.
When police found the truck, there was blood on the rear driver’s side door, the floorboard and the seat. It was matched to Pietscher.
Police arrested Calvin Gary, who was in the truck. He said he’d gotten the truck from a man who went by the name “Hot.”
Hot was Gary Danielle. He came from Sebring but had been staying in Tampa.
A partial receipt found among Pietscher’s belongings in the trash bin was linked to an ATM in a Circle K store at 850 County Line Road in Lakeland, near the place where the tag reader captured Pietscher’s truck Oct. 17. Surveillance video from the store and a neighboring business showed Danielle entering the Circle K and later driving away in Pietscher’s truck.
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Danielle initially refused to talk to police, but later spoke with homicides detectives. Confronted with crime scene photos, Danielle said he did not recognize Pietscher or the place where her body was found.
But DNA from Pietcher’s fingernails, a leather strap that bound her wrists and a shirt found in her truck all matched to Danielle’s DNA. He was arrested in March 2019 on a charge of first-degree murder.
Pietscher had worked as a corrections officer. Danielle had served prison time for robbery and drug charges. Pietscher’s family said they were told he was never in the prison where she’d worked.
Speaking afterward, Art Pietscher said the family felt Danielle’s 30-year sentence was not enough time. His daughter didn’t even live that long. At the same time, he said, it spared them the anguish of a two-week trial.
“At Gary’s age and circumstances, it may still be a life sentence,” he said.
In court, the father did not condemn Danielle, but instead used his words to talk about the young woman who was lost.
Laura Pietscher was born on a cold Michigan day in 1989. She had an older sister and brother, a sister-in-law and two nephews — one whom she never got to meet.
She was born with a short left arm, with a thumb and two fingers on her hand. She grappled with discrimination throughout her life because of her physical difference.
She was a job coach at Goodwill, and worked with physically and mentally disabled people. Her father recounted a story about a young boy who pointed out her short arm. Another boy told her he had asthma. Her response: “Don’t you know there’s something wrong with everyone?”
Her father brought to court some items that belonged to his daughter. Her journal was among them, emblazoned with the words “Live the Life You’ve Imagined.” She jotted notes in it about how she hated cooking because she lived alone and there was no one to do the dishes. She wrote about how she hated littering. She wrote about her four tattoos — the most meaningful was a blackbird, in honor of a sister-in-law who died, and inspired by the Beatles song.
She couldn’t swim, but she wrote about wanting to swim with dolphins. Every year, the dolphins come up the Peace River from Punta Gorda. Her family scattered her ashes there.