BRANDON — When her husband walked out of the county jail six years ago, Johnna Flores greeted the decorated war veteran with open arms.
It was June 2013, and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Wald, 70 at the time, had just been acquitted of murder. He stood trial in the shooting death of a man Wald found having sex with Flores in the couple’s home on Clara Drive.
Ready to repair their marriage, Wald and Flores celebrated with a Waffle House meal.
But there have been signs of trouble in the years since then. Wald filed to dissolve the marriage in 2014 but later withdrew the case. And this past January, Flores was arrested after she threw picture frame at her husband, records show.
On Monday, deputies found a woman dead in the house at 513 Clara, still owned by Wald and Flores, property records show.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case as a homicide and declined to release the victim’s name, citing the agency’s broad interpretation of a constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law, meant to protect the rights of crime victims.
But the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that on the same day, the office received the body of a 48-year-old woman named Johnna Flores with the same birth date as Wald’s wife.
What happened in the house, and whether detectives have identified a suspect, was still unclear Tuesday. The Sheriff’s Office has said only that deputies were called to the Clara Drive home about 10:20 a.m. for a report of an unresponsive female and found a woman with upper body trauma dead at the scene.
Investigators converged on the quiet street off Kingsway Drive and spent hours at the 60-year-old, ranch-style home.
Warren Wilmeth, a neighbor and friend of Wald’s who lives two doors down, said he saw Wald get into the back of a marked patrol at one point Monday. Wald wasn’t in handcuffs and Wilmeth didn’t see the car leave.
No one answered the door at the house when a Tampa Bay Times reporter visited Tuesday morning. A chandelier and another lamp glowed from behind partly opened drapes hanging in the front picture window. Two sodden Sunday newspapers lay on the stoop. A Halloween decoration announcing that “The witch is in” hung from the bottom of a mailbox stuffed with mail.
Wald did not return a phone message.
Wald and Flores were next-door neighbors on Clara Drive when they started dating. They married in 2012.
Less than five months later, on March 10, 2013, Wald woke around midnight and found Flores and 32-year-old Walter Conley having sex on the floor in the living room. Conley was a former roommate and old flame of Flores.
Wald retrieved a .38-caliber revolver from his bedroom and shot Conley in the stomach and head.
Charged with second-degree murder, Wald demanded a speedy trial, so a jury heard the case two months later. Prosecutors argued that Wald, who suffered from erectile dysfunction, killed Conley in a jealous rage when he discovered him with Flores.
Wald’s attorneys argued that he did not recognize Conley and shot him thinking he was an intruder raping his wife. They invoked the state’s stand your ground self-defense law, noting that Wald had “no duty to retreat” when facing perceived danger within his own home.
“This is a military man,” Joe Episcopo, Wald’s Tampa-based attorney, told the jury, noting that Wald had been decorated for valor in combat during the Vietnam War. He said Wald was “trained what you do with the enemy … you take your gun and kill the enemy.”
Flores testified she was “black-out” drunk the night of the shooting after consuming a large quantity of cognac and remembered almost nothing.
It took jurors about two hours to reach a not-guilty verdict.
Outside the courtroom that day, Flores told reporters she was “elated” about the verdict. Once Wald was released from jail, she said, he had promised her a special celebration.
"Because my husband puts me first, he’s taking me to the Waffle House,” Flores said.
News cameras were there when Wald was released from jail and embraced and kissed his wife. Speaking with reporters in his driveway a couple of days later, Wald said he might not have opened fire if he’d known the man was Conley. He also said he wanted to mend the marriage.
“It’s going to take work on my part and it’s going to be some work on Johnna’s part," he said.
About 16 months later, in October 2014, Wald filed a petition to dissolve the marriage but voluntarily dropped the case the following May, records show.
Late on the night of Jan. 31, Flores was arrested at the Clara Drive home after Wald told deputies she threw a metal picture frame at him during an argument, cutting his shin, an arrest report says. The report says the couple were living together in the home at the time.
Flores was charged with battery with a weapon on a victim older than 65, a felony. Records show prosecutors dropped the case the following month.
Wilmeth, the neighbor, said he has known Wald for several years and considers him a friend, though they haven’t spoken in about a year or so after Wald stopped returning messages. Wald’s health declined in recent years, and Wilmeth, 79, cut his grass as a favor.
“A polite, courteous man,” Wilmeth said. “He’s a gung-ho American.”