Thursday was poised to be an exceptional day in the career of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.
He was set to announce a major break in a high-profile investigation: Based on DNA evidence that had been uncovered by Warren’s office, two men were being indicted in the unsolved cases of two women who had been raped and murdered in 1983.
The story had another layer of intrigue: Warren’s predecessor, Mark Ober, had personally prosecuted an innocent man in one of the murders. That man, Robert Duboise, was wrongfully convicted and served 37 years in prison before Warren’s office exonerated him in 2020. Warren, a reform-minded Democrat, in 2016 had shocked the local legal community when he defeated Ober, a Republican.
The announcement Thursday would not only remind the public that a conviction review unit created by Warren had freed the wrongly imprisoned man; but also cast him as a dogged crime-fighter who had finally brought the two real killers closer to justice.
Then, the bombshell.
Just hours before Warren was scheduled to hold a news conference about the indictments, Gov. Ron DeSantis stunned Tampa legal and political observers by announcing that he was yanking Warren from office for a number of reasons, including that he had pledged not to enforce the state’s 15-week abortion ban and that local law enforcement leaders were complaining that Warren was soft on crime. A coterie of local sheriffs spoke at DeSantis’ news conference, taking shot after shot at Warren.
Warren, who would say in an an interview Thursday evening that he had been escorted out of his office by a sheriff’s deputy that morning, at first canceled the news conference about the indictments, then announced a news conference on Thursday afternoon to talk about his ouster.
Later that afternoon, Grayson Kamm, who had served as Warren’s spokesperson at the state attorney’s office before leaving for a private communications job several months ago, announced that the two news conferences would be blended. Warren would at first talk about the indictments, then talk about his removal from office. The news conference was scheduled at Shumaker law firm in the downtown Tampa Bank of America building.
Warren appeared at about 4 p.m.
“I’ll briefly address the governor’s presidential campaign” afterward, Warren said, a shot at DeSantis’ political ambitions.
The men who have been indicted are Abron Scott and Amos Earl Robinson. Both are already serving life sentences in state prison for a 1983 murder in Pinellas County. They were convicted of that crime in the 1980s.
The pair also are now charged with first-degree murder in the death of Barbara Grams, who was raped and beaten one night in 1983 as she walked home from her job at a Tampa shopping mall. This is the murder for which Dubois served 37 years.
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Scott and Robinson also were charged Thursday with a third murder — the cold case of Linda Toni Lansen, who was found shot to death on a Town ‘N Country roadside about five weeks before Grams was killed.
“They are still alive and they will finally face a reckoning for what they did,” Warren said of Scott and Robinson.
Also appearing at the news conference was Linda Sheffield, Lansen’s niece, who teared up while talking about the loss of her aunt and the years of no arrest being made in her death.
“There are no words to describe what it’s like to go through 39 years of grief and not knowing what happened,” she said.
Scott, 57, is incarcerated at Okeechobee Correctional Institution. Robinson, who turned 59 on Friday, is held at Union Correctional Institution, near Raiford. It’s expected that both men will return to the Hillsborough County jail in the coming weeks to await trial.
Lansen, 41, who worked as a freelance photographer, left her apartment the night of July 10, 1983, in the Woodland Terrace area and never returned. A jogger found her body the next day roughly 13 miles away in a ditch along Old Memorial Highway, west of Sheldon Road in Town ‘N Country. She had been shot repeatedly.
Police found her car a day later in Tampa. It was parked on a residential street near Manhattan Avenue and Interstate 275. Someone found her purse by a roadside in Clearwater.
“She taught me how to count to 100, she taught me how to put on makeup,” Sheffield, her niece, said at the news conference, later adding: “The void stays and the pain stays and the crying stays, it doesn’t go away.”
The killing was mentioned repeatedly in 1983 in news stories documenting a string of murders that police insisted were unrelated. The killings all involved women who were attacked seemingly at random.
Barbara Grams was one of them.
Grams, 19, worked at a restaurant called The Hot Potato in a now-defunct shopping mall called Tampa Bay Center, which stood near what is now Raymond James Stadium. The night of Aug. 18, 1983, she left work and started a 2-mile walk toward her home in Tampa Heights.
A gardener found her body the next morning in a yard behind a dentist office at 3911 N Boulevard. She’d been raped and beaten to death.
The Pinellas County murder of Carlos Orellana, for which Scott and Robinson are serving life sentences, occurred a few months later. Scott and Robinson were later arrested and convicted of robbing, kidnapping and murdering Orellana.
He was a 33-year-old office manager and part-time shoe salesman who’d come to the U.S. in the early 1970s from his native Honduras.
On Oct. 21, 1983, he was getting into his car outside a bar on W Kennedy Boulevard when the two men attacked him.
Court records and news accounts tell of the pair beating Orellana until he was unconscious, then pushing him into the car’s back seat. They drove to what was then a sparsely developed area off Gim Gong Road, just north of Tampa Road, in Oldsmar.
As Scott pulled him from the car, Orellana began to fight. Robinson tried to run him over, but stopped to avoid hitting Scott.
As the fight continued, Scott beat and choked Orellana. He then, according to court records, got back in the car and ran him over.
The car got stuck in sand while Orellana’s body was pinned underneath. Two unidentified men in trucks helped them dislodge the car. Afterward they hid Orellana’s body in the woods and drove off. Road workers found his body five days later.
Both men were convicted in separate trials and sentenced to death. Both sentences were later reduced to life in prison.
In an ironic twist, state prison records indicate that Robinson and Scott were on death row at the same time as DuBoise. His sentence, too, would be reduced to life. But he still served decades before being exonerated.
State records reflect that Robinson committed two other murders — one in 1998, the other in 2004 — while he was confined to prisons in Florida’s Panhandle. Details about those cases were not immediately available.
After the news conference about the indictments was over, Warren pivoted to DeSantis’ move to oust him.
“If the governor thinks he can do a better job, he should run for state attorney and not president,” Warren said, later adding: “This is the governor trying to overthrow democracy here in Hillsborough County.”