Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Hillsborough

Drama, horror in Tampa courtroom as murder trial opens

“I look alone, but I am backed by a mighty God!” Ronnie Oneal III said as he represents himself in his murder trial.
Ronnie Oneal III gives his opening statement during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa on Monday.
Ronnie Oneal III gives his opening statement during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa on Monday. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jun. 14
Updated Jun. 17

TAMPA — Ronnie Oneal III stood before a jury, gazed at the courtroom floor then closed his eyes and rubbed his palms. He was silent for a beat, then raised his head and began to cry out.

“The evidence is going show,” he yelled, “that we are under some of the most vicious, lying, fabricating, fictitious government you ever seen! By the time it’s all said and done, you will see who is the mass murderers in Tampa Bay!”

Oneal shouted throughout an impassioned opening statement Monday morning as he continued to represent himself in his murder trial. He paced the courtroom floor. He gestured rapidly with his hands. At times, he directed his words to the crowded courtroom gallery. At times, he leveled his gaze at prosecutors.

“I look alone!” he yelled. “But I am backed by a mighty God!”

Related: ‘Hugged my other firefighter and cried’: Rescuers recall Riverview murder scene

In a half-hour oration, Oneal promised to demonstrate that law enforcement and government officials tampered with and distorted evidence in his case to make him look guilty. He suggested that it was his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, who attacked their children the night of March 18, 2018, in their Riverview home, and that he killed her in self-defense.

Ronnie Oneal III gives his opening statement during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa on Monday.
Ronnie Oneal III gives his opening statement during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa on Monday. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Related: With death on the table, man begins his defense in Tampa murder trial

Oneal, 32, is accused of two counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Barron and their 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal. He is also accused of attempting to kill his then-8-year-old son.

If the jury finds him guilty, prosecutors will ask them to recommend a death sentence. The trial is set to last through next week.

Oneal’s declamation came moments after Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon guided the jury through a night of horror. They heard it through the dead woman’s voice, recorded on a 911 call. She made the call from inside a closet, Harmon said.

“I’m shot,” she whispers in the recording. “Help me, I’m shot, help me, please.”

As she speaks, Oneal is heard in the background.

“Allahu Akbar!” he yells. “Get in here and kill this bitch, right now!”

Barron’s voice becomes hysterical before she begins to scream.

“Okay, Ronnie, I’m sorry,” Barron said in the recording. “I’m so sorry. Help me. ... I can’t move my arm. My arm is shot up, Ronnie. Please.”

A thumping noise punctuated the screams. Jurors grimaced.

Later in the call came the male voice again.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “She killed me.”

The house on Pike Lake Drive in Riverview where authorities say Ronnie Oneal III attacked his girlfriend and their children.
The house on Pike Lake Drive in Riverview where authorities say Ronnie Oneal III attacked his girlfriend and their children.

A next-door neighbor, James Gray, testified Monday afternoon that he heard the commotion, looked out his front door, and saw the elder Oneal standing in an entryway over Barron’s battered body, beating her. After a few brief words, Oneal dashed back toward his own home. Gray told his girlfriend to call 911.

Back inside, Harmon said, Oneal retrieved a hatchet and attacked his daughter.

Born premature, Ron’Niveya Oneal had cerebral palsy. She could not speak and was diagnosed with autism. In the courtroom, the prosecutor showed the jury a series of graphic photos depicting chop wounds and other injuries to her head, neck and body.

“She unlike her mother, couldn’t flee,” Harmon said, looking at the defendant. “And she couldn’t make assertions of love for her father. She couldn’t beg for her life. Ron’Niveya was unable to say stop, please, daddy, please stop. ... The evidence will show she was totally helpless.”

On a TV screen, Harmon showed a photo of Barron’s pink cell phone. On it, was a snapshot of her son, Ronnie Oneal IV. The boy, who survived the attack, was later adopted by one of the homicide detectives who assisted in the case. He is expected to testify in the trial as early as Wednesday.

Oneal then turned to his third victim, Harmon said. Using a knife, Oneal stabbed and slashed his son repeatedly. Oneal then took a red can and splashed gasoline throughout the house, concentrating on the areas where Barron hid in the closet and in the area near his daughter’s body. He also doused his son with gasoline, the prosecutor said.

When Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies arrived, they first tended to Barron, whose body lay in the neighbor’s yard. They soon noticed smoke seeping out of the Oneal home. The garage door opened. The boy, smoke drifting off his clothes, trotted out. His internal organs were exposed.

“They will tell you,” Harmon said, “The first words that came out of this little brave boy’s mouth— ‘my daddy killed my mommy.’”

Related: ‘Thank you for all you’ve done’: Deputy who adopted child victim testifies in murder trial

The elder Oneal followed soon thereafter. When deputies told him to get on the ground, he complied, but then stood up and walked down the driveway, Harmon said. The deputies subdued him with Tasers.

Deputies will testify that Oneal reeked of gasoline, Harmon said. His shirt and shoes were stained with his family’s blood.

In his opening statement, Oneal said he will prove that the boy may have been coached about what to say.

“The evidence is going to show,” Oneal told the jury, “that I love my children. ... The evidence will not show you that my son witnessed me beat his mom to death, nor did he witness me shoot his mom. In fact, he didn’t witness much at all.”

Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon gives the state’s opening statement during the Ronnie Oneal III murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Monday, June 14, 2021 in Tampa.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon gives the state’s opening statement during the Ronnie Oneal III murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Monday, June 14, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Oneal said he will prove that the government altered the 911 recording and records of the call itself. Likewise, he said, he will show that they tampered with video of his arrest and other evidence.

“The evidence is going to show that your representatives in law enforcement wanted to make it to seem like I’m some kind of menace to society,” he said.

He told the jury he would not take his case to trial if he was guilty.

“I guarantee you I wouldn’t waste your time,” he said. “I would have already taken a plea deal of some kind if I knew I did something like this.”

Several family members of the victims watched the opening statements from the courtroom gallery’s back row.

As the prosecutor played the 911 audio, a man stood and began to shout at Oneal.

“They’re going to burn your f--king ass!” he said. Sheriff’s deputies hustled him out of the courtroom.

Ronnie Oneal III gives his opening statement during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Monday, June 14, 2021 in Tampa.
Ronnie Oneal III gives his opening statement during his murder trial at the George Edgecomb Courthouse Monday, June 14, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]