Advertisement

A murder case without a body? Largo lawyer’s death part of uncommon trend.

Tampa Bay area prosecutors have won convictions in a number of homicide cases in which the victim’s body was never found. Still, challenges remain.
 
On Sept. 30, 1998, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tom DePolis, left, announced that Willie Crain would be charged with the murder of Amanda Brown. Brown's body was never located, and the case was one of several high-profile local homicide cases in which a body was never found. With DePolis is Jay Pruner, a prosecutor for the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.
On Sept. 30, 1998, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tom DePolis, left, announced that Willie Crain would be charged with the murder of Amanda Brown. Brown's body was never located, and the case was one of several high-profile local homicide cases in which a body was never found. With DePolis is Jay Pruner, a prosecutor for the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office. [ St. Petersburg Times ]
Published May 1, 2023|Updated May 3, 2023

Just five days after a Largo attorney vanished from his office in late March, detectives pieced together evidence to arrest a plastic surgeon on a murder charge even though the lawyer hadn’t been found.

Among the evidence: surveillance footage showing a man entering attorney Steven Cozzi’s office building and leaving with a cart large enough to hold a body. Large amounts of blood in an office bathroom. Brass knuckles, a stun gun and sedatives in the doctor’s car. Blood in his truck.

Tomasz Kosowski was indicted on a first-degree murder charge Thursday in the attorney’s death. Over the coming months, prosecutors will be tasked with building a case against Kosowski as they prepare for trial.

While homicide cases in which a body is never found are uncommon, Tampa Bay prosecutors have won convictions in a handful of cases missing that key piece of evidence. In fact, according to research by one former federal homicide prosecutor, these cases have a higher conviction rate than murder cases overall.

Local attorneys and police who’ve handled such cases say circumstantial and forensic evidence can convince a jury.

“A lot of these other cases you see on TV, if there’s no body, there’s no crime,” said retired St. Petersburg police detective Jim Culverson, who investigated the homicide of a missing 17-year-old that resulted in a conviction despite a body never being found. “And that’s not true.”

“Develop a strong motive”

Tampa Bay assistant state attorneys have prosecuted bodyless homicides for decades, including high-profile cases in the 1980s and ‘90s. That was years before modern DNA testing gave investigators a powerful tool and decades before suspects would leave digital bread crumbs with their phones.

In 1987, a jury convicted Steven White of first-degree murder in the death of a St. Petersburg exotic-goods dealer who was never found.

Police had discovered the victim’s Shore Acres home spattered with blood and bullet holes. Relatives and business associates said they hadn’t heard from the victim.

White was seen on surveillance cameras draining the victim’s bank accounts. He was arrested in Georgia, where he stored the victim’s El Camino and other possessions. While White was being extradited on a plane to Florida, he looked at the ocean and said he had “fed sharks before,” a deputy testified at trial.

“It was just implicit that the motive was to take this property,” said Pinellas assistant state attorney Richard Ripplinger, one of the prosecutors on the case. White was sentenced to life in prison.

Five years later, Pinellas prosecutors tried a case against Ronald Lavare Weldon, who tried to rob a drug dealer with three other people. During the robbery, the drug dealer, Rodney Sapp, fatally shot one of the robbers, 20-year-old Anthony Bates. Sapp disposed of the body in a trash bin. It was never found.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Because Sapp was the victim of a crime, he was not charged with murder, though he did face charges of felonious possession of a firearm, destroying evidence and removing a body without a permit.

The three surviving robbers were charged with felony murder. Two of them — brothers Jermaine Poole and Ellery “Ray Ray” Gainer — pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 12 years in prison and 17 years, respectively. Weldon was convicted of lesser charges, including aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit burglary and attempted armed robbery at trial. He got seven years.

Prosecutors relied on witnesses who said they had seen the shooting.

“I think the biggest challenge was having a credible witness as to what exactly happened to the body,” said Tim Hessinger, a former Pinellas-Pasco assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case.

In a high-profile 1999 Hillsborough County case, a jury convicted Willie Crain in the death and disappearance of 7-year-old Amanda Brown. Crain had befriended Brown’s mother and had spent the night at her home. When she woke up, Amanda was gone.

Crain denied he killed the girl but authorities found Amanda’s blood in his bathroom and underwear, and prosecutors called witnesses who said Crain had confessed.

The jury unanimously recommended that Crain receive the death penalty. He remains on Florida’s death row to this day.

Challenges with no body

Other cases have gone unsolved.

After baby Sabrina Aisenberg went missing from her parents’ Valrico home in 1997, Hillsborough investigators suspected her parents. In 1999, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg were federally indicted based on recordings from devices investigators secretly placed in their home.

Their defense team argued that the recordings did not contain intelligible incriminating statements. A federal judge agreed. The U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the charges and the judge ordered them to pay $2.9 million to the Aisenbergs for a “bad faith” prosecution.

When 59-year-old Sandra Prince was reported missing in 2006, Temple Terrace police investigated her boyfriend, Earl Pippin III. Paul Sisco, a Tampa attorney who represented Pippin, said authorities conducted “a cherry-picking and sort of selective review of the available evidence.”

Temple Terrace Police Chief Kenneth Albano said delayed reporting of Prince’s disappearance, along with a thoroughly cleaned crime scene and an “uncooperative witness” made the case difficult to investigate. Ten years after police reclassified the case as a homicide, it remains unsolved.

Diane Marger Moore, the director of the conviction review unit at the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, tried a high-profile case as a prosecutor in Indiana in which a woman was convicted of killing her 4-year-old son, who was never found. Marger Moore said thorough investigations in cases like these also can guard against wrongful convictions.

“No one wants to put anyone in prison who’s not guilty,” she said.

In order to make an arrest, police must, at the very least, have “probable cause,” meaning it is more likely than not that a crime was committed, according to Pinellas-Pasco assistant state attorney Jennifer Colyer. Prosecutors, however, must meet a higher standard of proof.

“In a court of law, I have to prove someone committed that crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Colyer, who prosecuted Jacobee Flowers in the case that Culverson, the retired St. Petersburg detective, investigated.

Flowers was indicted on a murder charge four years after Morgan Martin, 17, vanished in 2012, even though her body had not been found. Martin said Flowers was the father of her unborn child.

As prosecutors built their case, they made one last attempt to find Martin, offering Flowers a plea deal: If he told authorities where her body was located and it was found, he would receive 25 years in prison. If not, he would be sentenced to 40 years.

Flowers said her body was in Alabama and gave investigators a location, but they couldn’t find it. Flowers got the 40-year sentence.

Martin’s mom, Leah Martin, said people sometimes ask her why she agreed to the plea deal.

“My want for my daughter was more than my need for him to go to prison,” she said in a recent interview. “I’ll be dead in 40 years. I won’t have to even think about the day that he walks out.”

Detectives and prosecutors had used relatively new technology to find evidence against Flowers. They traced his location on the night Martin disappeared using cellphone tower records. They also analyzed forensic evidence to prove that a body had been burned in the KFC where Flowers worked on the night Martin went missing, Culverson said.

Today, phones and social media also make it easier for police and prosecutors to prove that someone is dead, not simply missing, Culverson said.

“Now,” he said, “people don’t just simply vanish off the face of the earth.”