Pasco jurors find man guilty of murder in death, dismemberment of ‘ThunderCats’ writer

It took the jury less than four hours to convict James Davis of first-degree murder in Stephen Perry’s death.
James Davis (left), and his defense attorneys Jenna Finkelstein (center) and Anne Borghetti (right) prepare to face Pasco County Circuit Judge Gregory Groger after a 12-person jury found Davis guilty of first-degree murder on Monday, May 23.
James Davis (left), and his defense attorneys Jenna Finkelstein (center) and Anne Borghetti (right) prepare to face Pasco County Circuit Judge Gregory Groger after a 12-person jury found Davis guilty of first-degree murder on Monday, May 23. [ Anastasia Dawson ]
Published May 23, 2022|Updated May 23, 2022

DADE CITY — If he was nervous, James Davis never showed it as deputies ushered him to his seat Monday. In fact, his khaki suit seemed to be the only thing rumpled by the week’s worth of damning testimony linking Davis to the death and dismemberment of his former roommate: “ThunderCats” cartoon writer Stephen Perry.

One by one, jurors confirmed their decision: the 56-year-old handyman from Zephyrhills is guilty of premeditated, first-degree murder.

Still, Davis remained somber and solemn. No tears, no gasps.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Davis and those same 12 jurors will return for the death penalty phase of Davis’ trial. Groger has asked jurors to remain available through Friday.

Davis’ defense team called only one witness to the stand before resting its case on Thursday — a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement analyst who searched for fingerprints on the multiple black garbage bags, bottles of bleach and reciprocating saw blades that tested positive for Perry’s remains.

No fingerprints were found on those items, Borghetti told jurors in her closing argument Monday morning. In fact, she said, none of the many pieces of evidence that tested positive for Perry’s DNA — the body pillow soaked in blood and riddled with bullet holes, the pieces of flesh found decomposing in the crevices of a reciprocating saw Davis had borrowed from a friend, the pools of blood that settled under toy chests and among little green Army men on the bedroom floor where Perry’s then-5-year-old son Leo slept — showed any traces of Davis’ DNA.

“There is no eyewitness here,” Borghetti said. “This is a purely circumstantial case.”

Davis worked as a handyman, and Perry had given him permission to drive his van whenever needed, she told the jury. It wasn’t unusual for Davis to borrow tools from his neighbors while working various jobs, and it wouldn’t be unusual for him to make purchases at Home Depot, Walmart or Kmart for the items listed in the bundle of receipts recovered from Perry’s blood-soaked van.

There were plenty of other suspects with motives that were either disregarded or ignored by investigators, Borghetti argued. There was Perry’s estranged girlfriend, Krystal Carroll, who was locked in a bitter custody battle over their young son when the 56-year-old cartoonist disappeared. There was Carroll’s new boyfriend, carnival worker Joel Porter, and there was Davis’ cousin, Charles Lumley, who was seen on video with Davis as they purchased items and checked into the Quality Inn on Bearss Avenue in Tampa.

Want breaking news in your inbox?

Want breaking news in your inbox?

Subscribe to our free News Alerts newsletter

You’ll receive real-time updates on major issues and events in Tampa Bay and beyond as they happen.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia told jurors there is not “a scintilla of evidence” linking any of the people offered by the defense as possible suspects to Perry’s killing.

There is, however, an avalanche of other evidence connecting Davis to the fatal shooting and dismemberment — DNA, bloody footprints, withdrawals from Perry’s bank accounts days after his death and videos and photos of Davis purchasing items the average handyman would rarely, if ever, need. Items such as bottles of Lysol and industrial bleach, boxes of large, black garbage bags, tarps, saw blades and large bags of hydrated lime. All of those items were found among Perry’s scattered remains, and, in many cases, the lime powder made it impossible for analysts to collect the DNA or fingerprint evidence the defense team argued was lacking.

Not only did investigators find the receipts for all of those items in Perry’s van, but they also found they were covered in Davis’ fingerprints. His prints were also found on a Kmart bag full of cleaning supplies and tarps and a box of black Husky trash bags with red plastic ties — the same make and model of bags that held Perry’s remains.

And while neither Davis’ DNA or prints were found on the outside of the garbage bags, his DNA covered both the inside and outside of a pair of discarded green gloves left in the bag that concealed Perry’s arm, Garcia said.

“If you put all the hundreds of pieces of evidence together, you’re going to get a picture — and that picture is that the murderer in this case is none other than James Davis,” Garcia said.

The state is not required to prove a motive, he said, and numerous motions made over 12 years of litigation prevented many of the possible motives from being aired in court.

“But we have our beliefs as to why he did it,” Garcia said. “Think about it ― the oxycodone. A whole bottle is gone that had just been filled May 2, and another bottle — gone.”

Perry was battling bladder cancer at the time of his death, and “ThunderCats” fans from around the world had been funneling money into a PayPal account created to help Perry cover his medical expenses.

In the days after Perry was known to be dead, surveillance footage and bank records show a man driving Perry’s van made withdrawals from those accounts while wearing multiple disguises. Those disguises — a mask, a bandana, a wig and a camo hat — were all found in Davis’ room, along with Perry’s bank cards, Garcia said.

Yet no DNA evidence came back conclusively tying Davis to those disguises, his lawyers argued. And while his cousin and law enforcement identified him as the man seen in surveillance footage, who can really say for sure, they asked.

But perhaps most important to the state’s case, Garcia countered, is that they could show premeditation. In Davis’ bedroom, there were printouts of internet articles on topics such as how to make a homemade silencer — all printed in February 2010, three months before Perry’s murder. There was a notebook with lists of reminders such as “get a gun” and times that would provide an opportunity to kill Perry.

And then there was the letter — a postcard Davis wrote to his wife Roxanne while in jail on an unrelated drug charge in the weeks before he was charged with Perry’s murder. The letter, Garcia told the jury, is tantamount to his “confession or admission that he killed Stephen Perry, without a doubt.”

“I’m not going anywhere soon,” Davis wrote. “Baby, I sure wish I could talk to you. There is so much I want to tell you to explain things. Maybe that day will come. Until then, don’t believe everything you hear. I am not ashamed or sorry for anything but the fact that I probably will never be with the ones I love again, at least not free.

“You need to understand this so you can do whatever is best for you and your future. … Baby, I’m sorry I f----- up our future. But believe me, I had no choice. I’m sorry if this letter leaves you sad, but you have to know the truth. There’s no way to make it easier. Please don’t let the kids think bad of me. I will fight to the end, you know me.”