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Trial begins in case of Tarpon Springs man accused of killing grandparents 13 years ago

Prosecutors said George Georgiou, 35, killed his grandparents over a money dispute related to the family business.
 
George S. Georgiou, who is 24 in this mugshot, is accused of killing his grandparents and setting fire to their Tarpon Springs home. More than 13 years since the incident, Georgiou's trial started this week.
George S. Georgiou, who is 24 in this mugshot, is accused of killing his grandparents and setting fire to their Tarpon Springs home. More than 13 years since the incident, Georgiou's trial started this week.
Published Feb. 10

The Tarpon Springs community was stunned 13 years ago when an older couple were found shot to death in their home, which the killer had then set on fire.

Steve Georgiou, 83, and Flora Georgiou, 78, were well known in the community because they owned a boat repair business and a deep-sea fishing boat.

Police later arrested their grandson, George Georgiou, on two charges of first-degree murder and one charge of arson.

The case lingered in the courts for 12 years — an unusually long time for a murder case and one of the longest in the Tampa Bay area — as Georgiou, now 35, was found incompetent to stand trial five times.

His trial finally began on Friday, with prosecutors outlining Georgiou’s life and family history. They described a financial dispute related to the family business that they say motivated Georgiou to kill his grandparents.

Georgiou appeared in court Friday sporting a navy blue suit, shoulder-length hair and a shaggy beard.

“You’ve got a tie on today, you look nice,” said Judge Susan St. John.

In the first few minutes of the trial, his defense brought up the issue of Georgiou’s competence to stand trial. He has been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, schizophrenia and autism, according to court records.

“My ruling isn’t going to change,” St. John said. “We’ve thoroughly exhausted that issue previously.”

During a brief recess before opening statements, Daniel Hernandez, Georgiou’s lawyer, silently read over handwritten letters that Georgiou hoped to present to the court. He advised him against it.

“This has nothing to do with the case itself,” Hernandez said quietly to him at the defense table. “If you want to hand this to the judge, that’s your call.”

“It has everything to do (with the case),” Georgiou replied.

He told the court his letters proved that the outcome of his trial had been predetermined by organizations he referred to as “the orgies.”

“I don’t want to hear about the orgies,” St. John said.

As opening statements began, Assistant State Attorney Nathan Vonderheide said a combination of DNA evidence and statements made by Georgiou would prove his guilt to the 12-person jury.

Vonderheide began arguing the state’s case by outlining Georgiou’s life and family history.

Family members called Georgiou “little Georgie,” Vonderheide said. He is the youngest of three siblings and lived as a recluse in his parents’ house, according to family members.

Georgiou’s family members present at court Friday declined to speak with Tampa Bay Times reporters.

The children grew up in a strict, religious household. Georgiou’s interests clashed with those of his family, prosecutors say.

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He had started sneaking out at night and taking taxis to pick up pornography ordered to a P.O. box. He frequented liquor stores and strip clubs, prosecutors said.

According to Georgiou’s diary, he wrote that he was a “survivalist” and enjoyed shooting guns.

“His obsession with firearms is why he is sitting here today,” Vonderheide said. “He got sloppy and he thought he was smarter than he is.”

When police obtained a search warrant, they seized 13 guns and more than 16,500 rounds of ammunition from his parents’ home, according to court records.

Georgiou wrote in his diary about living an isolated, lonely life, closely monitored by his parents and spending most of the daytime in his room.

Georgiou never had a driver’s license, job or money of his own, according to the state. His only income came from an allowance granted by his father, prosecutors said.

Much of the family’s money came from a boat business run by Georgiou’s father and grandfather.

His grandparents owned Anclote Marine Ways, a boat repair company, and Miss Milwaukee Fishing Co., a deep-sea fishing party boat.

But the family business fell on hard times during the 2008 recession, prosecutors said. Their situation worsened when the BP oil spill in 2010 shut down commercial fishing operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

That meant fishing boats weren’t stopping in Tarpon Springs for maintenance. Prosecutors said the family businesses owed more than $500,000 in the years following the spill.

It also halted Georgiou’s allowance, the state said. Vonderheide read snippets of a diary entry written by Georgiou.

“Money’s tight these days,” he wrote on June 11, 2008. Georgiou continued, writing that he had demanded money from his grandfather while wielding a “double-barrel shotgun.”

It was around this time that Georgiou got himself into debt. Prosecutors said he owed one taxi driver $1,200 and that Georgiou told her he was “working on a job” to pay her back.

Vonderheide said financial woes were a motive for the killing. He said Georgiou was angry with his grandparents, who he said owed his father money.

Georgiou told detectives that his family’s stack of bills were “as big as a duffle bag” and that their home was in danger of going into foreclosure.

Georgiou lived about eight doors down from his grandparents’ home, according to prosecutors. Vonderheide said Georgiou knew his grandmother woke up every morning about 4:30 a.m. to do laundry in the carport.

On the morning of Jan. 4, 2011, Vonderheide said Georgiou was waiting for his grandmother outside the home.

“She’s met with him and the barrel of a gun,” Vonderheide said, pointing at Georgiou.

Flora Georgiou was shot four times and had burn marks on her body.

Firefighters, who responded to a call about a fire at the home, found her facedown in the utility closet.

Steve Georgiou was found in the front hallway with five bullet wounds.

Prosecutors said Georgiou used matches and accelerant to light the house on fire. But because the windows were closed, the home never fully caught fire.

During the initial investigation, Tarpon Springs police said the matches used to set fires in the couple’s home were the same as the matches found in Georgiou’s bedroom.

Prosecutors said Georgiou’s sister, Lana, was distraught when she heard the news about her grandparents, while her older brother seemed excited.

Georgiou told her in a text “they were killed with a small-caliber rifle,” and that everyone knows he only used larger-caliber guns. Prosecutors noted that information concerning what type of weapon was used in the homicides had not yet been made public by investigators.

When Lana returned to Florida for the funeral with her ex-husband a few days after her grandparents died, she spent a day with her younger brother.

Vonderheide said Georgiou’s sister was his “trusted confidante.”

Georgiou told her that he had been “doing an op” that day under the guise of his alter ego, which he called “the patriot,” according to prosecutors.

He told her he had been covered in blood and gunshot residue, and that he had clipped his fingernails and flushed them down a toilet. Prosecutors said Georgiou also told his sister he had hidden his bloody clothes in a closet.

A gunshot residue test performed on Georgiou’s hands the day the bodies were discovered came back positive, according to court records.

Investigators also found shell casings under Georgiou’s bed that matched ones near his grandfather’s body, prosecutors said.

Court records show Georgiou talked about the killings to fellow Pinellas County Jail inmate Joshua Hood.

In a January 2013 interview, Hood told detectives that Georgiou confessed to using .22-caliber and .25-caliber guns to kill his grandparents.

Hernandez, Georgiou’s lawyer, spoke for less than 10 minutes during opening statements.

“Is my client odd? Yes. Is he peculiar? Yes,” he told the jury. “But he’s not a murderer.”