TAMPA — It has been nearly 22 years since Preston Clarke was accused of killing Linda Faye Hollins in her Tampa apartment.
For much of the time since, he has shuffled between mental hospitals and jail as courts and doctors struggled to make him well enough to face trial.
On Monday, he was finally ready. But then his case came to an abrupt end.
Clarke, now 47 and deemed by doctors and a judge to be mentally competent, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder in exchange for a 40-year prison sentence. With credit for more than 6,000 days he has spent in jails and hospitals, plus gain time he might receive for good behavior in prison, the remainder of his sentence could be complete in 18 years.
It was a welcome if bittersweet resolution for Hollins’ family members, who have kept a quiet vigil through mundane and seemingly endless hearings in Tampa courtrooms as the case spanned decades.
“We’re thankful it’s behind us," said her sister, Georgia Sylvain. "And we’re thankful she has some form of justice.”
Hollins was 26 when she died. She came from a large family with roots in Louisiana and Mississippi. Her mother called her “Blimp” because of how round she looked as a baby. It was a nickname that stuck into adulthood, as her family regarded her as larger than life.
She was a single mother to three young daughters: Kourtnei, 3, and 1-year-old twins Kalin and Kamry. She lived in a small apartment in a public housing complex in an east Tampa neighborhood now known as Belmont Heights Estates.
She had dated Clarke, who was known around town as “Icky.” Friends would later describe him as possessive and abusive toward her. She once left town to get away from him. But when she came back, so did he.
Friends became concerned when she didn’t pick up her daughters from day care on March 20, 1998. Police entered her home and found her lying dead in a bedroom. She had been shot through her left cheek.
Clarke had been seen at the apartment earlier that day. He later visited a nearby restaurant where he told several people he had just killed his girlfriend.
Although police quickly identified him as a suspect, they were unable to find him. He became a fugitive. In 2002, he was arrested in South Florida.
Then began his long and frustrating legal odyssey. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Clarke was declared incompetent to face trial. He was ordered into mental health treatment, but in 2004, was mistakenly released.
He was arrested again in 2005. From there began a cycle: Judges would declare him incompetent and he’d be sent to state hospitals for treatment, only to eventually return to court and be declared incompetent again.
Over 15 years, he was found incompetent more than 10 times.
“I didn’t think I would live to see him get any justice," Sylvain said. "After 10 years, you think, how long is this going to go on?”
Clarke’s case was the subject of a 2018 Tampa Bay Times report, which detailed the crime and explored the reasons for the unusual delay.
Weeks after the Times story, he returned to jail in Tampa. The months that followed saw a battery of new exams and orders for more treatment at the direction of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash. Recommendations included placement in a different hospital with a new treatment staff.
Clarke returned in July 2019. Then came more exams. After hearing from three doctors, Nash deemed Clarke competent in October.
His trial was set for Monday. Then came the plea offer.
Clarke’s public defender discussed it with him under the watch of a doctor who had previously examined him.
In court Monday morning, the judge was told that Clarke remained competent and that he wanted to accept the deal.
The judge asked Clarke a series of standard questions. Did he understand that he was giving up his right to a trial? Was he satisfied with the work of his attorneys? Was he changing his plea freely and voluntarily?
In a soft voice, Clarke gave the same simple reply: “Yeah.”
He was asked if anyone had promised him anything.
“Just the deal,” he said.
Clarke was also ordered to serve 10 years of probation upon completion of his prison sentence. He will be required to continue to take psychiatric medication.
Afterward, Hollins’ family members expressed relief, but also some sense of disappointment.
“It’s nothing compared to the life of my sister,” Juanita Hollins said of the sentence. “He was sane enough to know he wanted her dead and sane enough to do it.”
Still, the family voiced gratitude to the judge, prosecutors and the community for seeing the case through and allowing them to put it behind them. They also sought to preserve the memory of their sister long departed, a woman who doted on her children and a daughter who acted as a caregiver in their mother’s final years.
“When I think of her, I can smile,” said her brother Gary Hollins.
“For 22 years, we’ve been fighting for justice for Linda,” said her sister Jacqueline Hollins Franklin. “He took her physical body, but he couldn’t take her spirit from us.”