TAMPA — In their last days, Tommy Skeens and Lara Kuchar panhandled for cash and sought shelter in an abandoned car wash with their 10-pound terrier, Tiny. Some of those who knew them didn’t know they were homeless. But in a courtroom Friday, it was clear that they are missed by many.
"He still had a family that loved him,” wrote Skeens’ sister, Kim Watson, in a letter to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella.
The judge listened to their words. Then he sentenced the couple’s 50-year-old killer to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Ricky Fitzgerald Hathorn had been homeless himself before his arrest in November 2015, two days after the murders. This month a jury found him guilty of murder and sexual battery.
Sabella expressed surprise when told that Hathorn’s only prior criminal conviction was for a misdemeanor assault charge.
“That makes this even sadder,” the judge said.
Skeens, 52, and Kuchar, 45, had lived together as a couple for several years. Both had children from prior relationships. In 2015, they became homeless and turned to panhandling to get by.
They lived in a U-Haul trailer, and later a hotel.
Weeks before they died, they took up residence in an abandoned gas station car wash at 7701 E Hillsborough Ave., near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. It was there the morning of Nov. 28, 2015, that someone found Kuchar lying partly nude, her head and face bloodied. A 3-foot piece of wood lay nearby. She appeared to have been beaten with it.
After a 911 call, Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies arrived to find Skeens steps away from Kuchar. He had also been beaten to death.
Witnesses told detectives that Hathorn was with the couple at the car wash a few hours earlier. A few days earlier, they were told, he asked Kuchar for sex. She refused.
Another witness said that the night before the killings, Hathorn talked about wanting to “touch some girls.”
An autopsy revealed indications that Kuchar was sexually assaulted before she died. Two condoms, one used and another unused, lay near her body.
Detectives found Hathorn about 10 miles away, at the corner of W Kennedy Boulevard and S Orleans Avenue in South Tampa. He had blood on his pants. The tread on his shoes was consistent with a footprint on the car wash floor.
Later, Hathorn sat alone in an interrogation room. He stood and knocked on the door. When a detective entered, the Sheriff’s Office said he made a spontaneous confession.
“Yeah, I did it. I did it,” he said. He went on to admit that he beat the couple, but said he thought someone else may have come afterward and “finished it.”
“They was trying to run me ... nuts,” he said, according to court records.
Letters read in court Friday echoed each other. The families of the dead hoped that Hathorn would spend every day in prison being reminded of what he had done.
As she stood at lectern, Jackie Gaskey, Skeens’ sister, spoke through heavy sobs. She remembered her brother as man who made everyone laugh, one who brightened any social gathering. She is haunted by thoughts of the horrific manner in which he and Kuchar died. But she also spoke of forgiveness.
“As hard as it is to hear and say it," she said, "I forgive him.”
Hathorn sat in the jury box during the brief hearing as his victims’ relatives addressed the court. He remained stone-faced throughout the hearing. He did not speak.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley told the judge the defense was prepared to introduce evidence to mitigate a potential death sentence — evidence that would be used to convince a jury to spare his life. But prosecutors decided before the trial not to pursue the death penalty.
The jury found Hathorn guilty of first-degree murder and sexual battery in the assault on Kuchar, and second-degree murder in the death of Skeens. A life sentence is the only sentence possible for first-degree murder.
“You took two lives,” the judge said. “And you clearly affected the lives of many.”