TAMPA — Once sentenced to live out his days behind bars, James Hanson, Jr. left state prison last month a free man.
In 2003, Hanson was convicted for robbery with a firearm and sentenced to life in prison. He was just 22, but by then already had previous convictions for armed burglary and robbery.
Then, in 2016, he caught a dream break when a judge vacated his life sentence, let him plea to a lesser charge and sentenced him to 20 years with credit for time served.
On paper, at least, Hanson was a changed man. In a court document filed before his release, Hanson wrote that he "has undergone a complete change of perspective, and has grown to respect life in a way that could never truly be understood by anyone who has never experienced 14 years in prison, or been told you will die in prison."
Hanson was released on July 2. Thirty-five days later, investigators say, he confessed to robbing the CenterState Bank in Valrico, carjacking 68-year-old Mathew Korattiyil and strangling the retired convenience store owner to death with his own belt after he tried to escape.
Hanson, 39, was arrested Tuesday and charged with first degree murder, carjacking, robbery, grand theft and resisting arrest.
Court records and an arrest report released Wednesday show how Hanson got another chance at freedom and what investigators say he did to make his liberty so short-lived.
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Hanson was just 16 when he was first arrested in 1996 on a charge of armed robbery and grand theft. Then, in 2002, he was again charged with armed robbery. According to news reports at the time, Hanson robbed an AmSouth bank branch in Tampa. He was also wanted at the time in North Carolina on bank robbery and auto theft charges.
In 2003, a Hillsborough County jury found him guilty of robbery with a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison as a so-called prison releasee reoffender, a provision of Florida law that allows for enhanced penalties if a defendant commits certain felonies within a certain amount of time after being released from prison.
Hanson filed numerous unsuccessful appeals over the years, often representing himself. Then, in 2016, he became a material witness in the prosecution of another defendant, Robert Alton Henderson III, on charges of first-degree murder and robbery.
Henderson confessed his crimes to Hanson and solicited him to kill two witnesses, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office said in a statement Wednesday. Hanson provided this information to law enforcement and testified at trial. His testimony was critical in convicting Henderson of murder and robbery, the statement said. Henderson is now serving a life sentence.
Hillsborough prosecutors agreed to a deal: If Hanson voluntarily dismissed his motion for a new trial, prosecutors would ask a judge to vacate his life sentence and allow him to plead to a lesser charge. He would be sentenced to 20 years in prison and be required to serve at least 15 years of that, followed by 10 years of probation. He was given credit for more than 13 years in prison he had already served.
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Hillsborough Circuit Judge Vivian T. Corvo approved the deal and wished Hanson luck.
In its statement, the state attorney's office called Korattiyil's murder a "senseless tragedy.''
"The hard reality of our criminal justice system is that sometimes prosecutors have to use the testimony of criminals to convict other criminals,'' the statement said. "Mathew's death is a senseless tragedy, and our office extends its deepest condolences to his family and friends.''
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Tuesday's robbery of the CenterState branch and subsequent carjacking of Korattiyil and his 2019 Lexus GX happened about 10:30 a.m., authorities say, sparking an intensive search for the suspect and Korattiyil.
Investigators used the Lexus's GPS system to track it to the area of Marjo Lane and St. Cloud Avenue, about a mile and a half west of the bank. Records list Hanson's address as 21 Marjo Lane.
Deputies spotted the Lexus there about 12:15 p.m. When Hanson saw patrol cars, he fled in the Lexus and led deputies on a chase, the report says. Deputies used a tire-shredding device to disable the SUV and pushed it off the road, causing it to overturn. Hanson fled on foot, the report says, jumping several fences and resisting arrest once deputies caught up to him.
Hanson first told investigators he didn't know anything about a bank robbery or kidnapping. He said a friend he knows as Chris or Mo paid him $50 to get rid of the Lexus. When he saw the deputies, he got scared and fled because he's on parole.
Eventually, the report says, Hanson acknowledged knowing where Korattiyil's body could be found but refused to say more "until he speaks to someone high up enough to make a deal with him to make the bank robbery and kidnapping 'go away,' " the report says.
Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner told Hanson prosecutors would not be making deals with him. Hanson then led them to Sacred Heart, at 2620 Washington Road, where investigators found Korattiyil's body in some bushes.
Back at the Sheriff's Office, Hanson finally confessed, the report says. He said he robbed the bank to get money for his sister who is being evicted and his girlfriend who is struggling financially. He said he intended to rob the bank with a fake gun, then panicked because he didn't get any money and carjacked Korattiyil. Hanson said he took him straight to Sacred Heart and parked in back of the building.
Hanson told investigators Korattiyil asked to be let go, but Hanson refused because there were cops everywhere, the report says. Then, according to Hanson, Korattiyil punched him and tried to flee. Hanson chased him down, strangled him with his bare hands and then again with Korattiyil's belt, the report says.
Hanson said he stripped Korattiyil's body to his underwear because he knew he had left sweat on the victim's clothes and didn't want to leave behind DNA evidence. He then dragged Korattiyil's body into the bushes and drove the Lexus home, throwing Korattiyil's clothing out the window along the way.
Why Hanson went to Sacred Heart was still unclear Wednesday, but Korattiyil was an active and generous member of the community center, its president Tomy Kattinacheril told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. A father of three, Korattiyil owned Valrico Food Store, a gas station and store, but recently retired and leased it out, Kattinacheril said. He was looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren.
At his first appearance Wednesday morning, Pruner told a judge prosecutors plan to file a motion seeking to keep Hanson in jail until trial. A hearing on that motion could be held as early as Friday. Until then, he's being held without bail.
Times staff writer Amanda Zhou and senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @TMarreroTimes