TAMPA — Steven Lorenzo, who has for two decades lingered at the center of one of the most notorious and shocking criminal cases in Tampa history, says he wants to plead guilty to two murder charges and accept a death sentence.
In a 16-page handwritten court paper he recently penned from jail, Lorenzo expressed his wish to withdraw his not-guilty pleas to charges that he murdered Jason Galehouse and Michael Wachholtz in December 2003 at his Seminole Heights home. He says he wants to plead guilty, have a judge sentence him to death and waive his right to appeal.
The only explanation he gives is his apparent pessimism about his chances of success in a trial.
In a note to a judge, he wrote: “regardless of whether or not there would have been a trial ... the end results will prove to be identical. Simply because the defendant has no intention of taking the witness stand under oath or at a trial. Therefore the state’s case against the defendant would have gone unchallenged anyway.”
He reiterated his wishes in a court hearing Friday morning before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella.
“I knew what I wanted to do with this case right from the beginning,” Lorenzo said. All along, he said, he just wanted to be able to scrutinize the evidence against him, but it took him a while to get access to all of it.
The judge asked him a series of questions meant to ensure Lorenzo understood the consequences of his decision.
“You realize that there are only two possible sentences to your plea?” Sabella said. “Life or execution at the hands of Department of Corrections?”
“Exactly,” Lorenzo said.
He said he was fine with either one, that the federal prison sentence he’s already serving was effectively a life sentence, and that at his age he didn’t mind death.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said.
The unusual request marks a strange and abrupt turn in the long-running case. In a missive he filed a year ago, Lorenzo indicated that he wished to plead no contest to the charges if prosecutors would agree to a life sentence. He denied killing anyone and called the death penalty “childish” and “ridiculous.” The state declined his plea offer then.
Prosecutors, in a response to Lorenzo’s latest request, wrote that they’re fine with it, as long as his decision is made “knowingly and intelligently.” The only caveat, wrote Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks, is that a judge must still conduct a penalty hearing to evaluate the case’s aggravating and mitigating factors, and any legally required pre-sentence reports.
“I don’t trust him,” Galehouse’s mother, Pam Williams, said Thursday when asked about Lorenzo’s request. “He’s pulled so many things. I just don’t trust him. So we will see.”
Lorenzo, 63, was convicted in 2005 in federal court for using GHB, widely known as a date rape drug, to facilitate sexual assaults against several men, including Galehouse and Wachholtz. Prosecutors said that he and another man, Scott Schweickert, fantasized in online chats about drugging and murdering men, then went out and did it.
Galehouse and Wachholtz vanished on back-to-back nights in December 2003 after they each visited a Tampa nightclub.
Schweickert later confessed that the men were taken to Lorenzo’s home, where they were drugged, sexually tortured and ultimately killed. He said they dismembered Galehouse’s body with an electric saw in Lorenzo’s garage and disposed of the body parts in trash bins throughout Tampa. They placed Wachholtz’s body in his Jeep and drove it to a west Hillsborough apartment complex, where it was abandoned.
The killings and the contemporaneous disappearances of several other gay men in the Tampa Bay area struck fear in the region’s LGBTQ community and demands for answers.
Lorenzo and Schweickert both later went to federal prison for the drug convictions. But it took years for state prosecutors to assemble enough evidence to bring murder charges. Schweickert in 2016 agreed to plead guilty to his role in the crimes and testify against Lorenzo, who was charged soon thereafter. Schweickert was sentenced to life in prison.
Lorenzo has refused the assistance of lawyers since he returned to a local jail five years ago from the federal prison where he was serving a 200-year sentence. He has chosen instead to manage his own defense.
He has filed his own court paperwork, which tends to incorporate both typical legal verbiage alongside language commonly associated with the sovereign citizen movement. In numerous routine court hearings, he has made his own arguments and carried his own paperwork while clad in handcuffs and red jail garb.
Attorneys Brian Gonzalez and Nick Sinardi have for five years acted as standby counsel to Lorenzo, ready to take over the case if he decides he no longer wants to represent himself. In court Friday, they both told the judge that they’d tried to talk him out of pleading guilty.
Lorenzo confirmed they’d tried to change his mind. He was steadfast.
“These guys are great,” he said with a laugh. “They’re too good.”
The judge explained to Lorenzo that he couldn’t just sentence him to death. He said there is a legal process that still has to be followed, including the presentation of evidence of the aggravating factors — circumstances that qualify capital punishment — and mitigating circumstances — facts that would weigh against the death penalty.
Sabella said he would appoint a consultant to present mitigation on Lorenzo’s behalf. He set a new hearing date for Tuesday morning.
Tyler Butler, a close friend of Galehouse, and Carrie West, the president of Tampa Pride, expressed dismay after observing Friday’s hearing.
“Nineteen years,” Butler said. “Why all of a sudden now?”
Both said they were skeptical of Lorenzo’s intentions.
“I would think right now that there’s going to be another great big hiccup Tuesday,” West said. “It’s not going to be an ending to this. There’s a surprise happening.”