Jury recommends death penalty for man who murdered 5 women in Florida bank (2024)

A jury on Wednesday recommended a former prison guard trainee be sentenced to death for his execution-style murders offive women inside a Florida bankfive years ago, a massacre that fulfilled his long-stated desire to kill.

Jurors voted 9-3 to recommend Zephen Xaver receive the death penalty for the Jan. 23, 2019, murders at the SunTrust Bank in Sebring, about 85 miles southeast of Tampa.

Xaver, 27, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion as the verdicts were read after the Highlands County jury deliberated for less than three hours.

The final decision rests with Circuit Judge Angela Cowden, who could reject the jury’s recommendation and sentence Xaver to life in prison without parole. She said she will set a sentencing date after a hearing next month.

Undera 2023 Florida law, the jury only had to vote 8-4 favoring the death penalty for Cowden to impose that sentence. State law had required a unanimous jury recommendation for a judge to impose death, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature changed it after a 9-3 jury votespared the shooterwho murdered17 peopleat Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

Jury recommends death penalty for man who murdered 5 women in Florida bank (1)

Xaverpleaded guiltylast year to five counts of first-degree murder, negating a planned trial that was delayed for years by the COVID-19 pandemic, legal arguments and attorney illness.

Xaver’s victims included customer Cynthia Watson, 65, just married less than a month; bank teller coordinator Marisol Lopez, 55, a mother of two; banker trainee Ana Pinon-Williams, a 38-year-old mother of seven; bank teller Debra Cook, a 54-year-old mother of two and a grandmother; and banker Jessica Montague, 31, a mother of one and stepmother of four.

He ordered them to lie on the floor and then shot them each in the head as they cried out, “Why?”

Earlier Wednesday, prosecutor Bonde Johnson said in closing arguments that Xaver deserved the death penalty because the massacre was long-planned, “shockingly evil” and fulfilled his yearslong desire to experience killing.

“He didn’t murder one person to truly know what it would be like to kill. He killed five. He watched them laying there on the floor. They were under his control, for his enjoyment, as he shot each one,” she said.

But defense attorney Jane McNeill had urged jurors to spare Xaver, saying he is mentally ill and has been hearing voices since childhood urging him to kill himself and others. He sought help, she said, but never truly got it.

Jury recommends death penalty for man who murdered 5 women in Florida bank (2)

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“We ask you to show Zephen what he may least deserve — compassion, grace and mercy,” McNeill told the panel, her voice breaking as she said “sentencing Zephen to life is the right thing to do.”

During the two-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Xaver as a cold and calculated killer who pretended to hear voices to cover for his violent impulses. His attorneys countered he has long suffered psychotic episodes.

In 2014, Xaver’s high school principal in Indiana contacted police after he told a counselor he dreamed of killing classmates. His mother, Misty Hendricks, promised to get him psychological help. She testified at trial that she stopped his medications at 17 because he seemed to be doing better.

He joined the Army, but was discharged during boot camp in 2016 because of homicidal thoughts. Those thoughts continued.

“It’s all I can think of, it’s all I hear every day and it’s all I see every day. It’s all I smell and taste every day: blood, death and murder. It’s all I have happening 24/7,” Xaver wrote a friend. He made similar posts online.

He moved to Sebring in 2018 and was hired by the local prison but quit after two months. That was the day after he bought his gun and two weeks before the massacre.

The morning of the killings, he had a long text message conversation with a girlfriend, telling her it would be the “best day of his life” but refused to say why.

He finally told her just before entering the bank that he was about to die. He then added “the fun part.”

“I’m taking a few people with me because I’ve always wanted to kill,” he texted.

Afterward, Xaver threatened suicide but eventually surrendered.

Defense witnesses testified Xaver was a quiet, kind child, but struggled in school and then took a dark turn in adolescence.

Melissa Manges, his high school counselor, testified Xaver wanted more extensive help for his disturbing thoughts, but no long-term residential programs accepted him.

“The system failed Zephen,” she said.

Brian Haas, the local state attorney, welcomed the verdict but said in his statement that the focus should be on the victims, “not the monster who committed these crimes.”

“Five women, who were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and so much more to so many people, had their lives cut short on that fateful day in January 2019. Their families have suffered so much without them while they waited for justice,” he said.

By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press

Jury recommends death penalty for man who murdered 5 women in Florida bank (2024)
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