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Sentencing trial set to begin for Florida man who executed 5 women at bank in 2019

Zephen Xaver walked into a central Florida bank in 2019, shot five women, then called police to tell them what he had done. Now, 12 jurors will decide whether the 27-year-old former prison guard is sentenced to death or life without parole.

Jury selection is expected to begin Monday in the sentencing trial, after numerous delays caused by the pandemic, legal wrangling and attorney illness.

Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre at the SunTrust bank in Sebring, about 85 miles southeast of Tampa. Only the trial will decide Xaver’s sentence. Opening statements are expected in two weeks, with the trial expected to last approximately two months.

His victims included client Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married less than a month; bank coordinator Marisol Lopez, 55, mother of two children; Ana Pinon-Williams, trainee banker, mother of seven children, aged 38; bank teller Debra Cook, 54, mother of two and grandmother; and banker Jessica Montague, 31, mother of one and stepmother of four.

Michael Cook said he hoped his wife’s killer would be sentenced to death and said he was very frustrated by the years of delay. The trial was scheduled to begin at least two more times, but was postponed.

“I purposely didn’t ask too many questions because I don’t want to get more frustrated and angry,” Cook said. He plans to attend the trial.

Lead prosecutor Paul Wallace and lead defense lawyer Jane McNeill both declined to comment. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Xaver deserves the death penalty because the murders were cold, cruel, heinous and planned. Xaver’s lawyers are expected to cite what they described as his years-long mental health issues in their quest for leniency.

Under a new Florida law, for Xaver to receive the death penalty, the jury only needs to vote 8-4 for execution, instead of being unanimous. It was signed into law after the 2018 Parkland High School shooter was unable to receive the death penalty for killing 17 people despite a 9-3 jury vote.

Sebring is a town of approximately 11,000 people and known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance automobile race. Agriculture, tourism and retirees are the driving force of its economy.

Xaver moved to Sebring in 2018 from near South Bend, Indiana. In 2014, his high school principal contacted police after Xaver told others he dreamed of hurting his classmates. His mother promised to give him psychological help.

He joined the military in 2016. A former girlfriend, who met him at a psychiatric hospital where they were patients, told police he said joining the military was a “way to kill people.” people and get away with it.” In 2017, a Michigan woman reported him after he sent her text messages suggesting he might commit suicide by cop or take hostages.

Despite his psychological issues and his discharge from the military, Florida hired Xaver as a trainee guard in November 2018 at a prison near Sebring. He resigned two months later, two weeks before the shooting. His employment record shows no disciplinary issues. He had applied to become a police officer in Sebring seven months before the murders but was not hired.

The day before he left prison, Xaver legally purchased a 9mm handgun and some bullets. He later bought a bulletproof vest.

About five hours before the murders, Xaver began a long, on-and-off text message conversation with a girlfriend in Connecticut, telling her “this is the happiest day of my life” but refusing to say why.

Fifteen minutes before the shooting, he texted her: “I’m dying today.”

Then, from the bank parking lot, he texted: “I’m taking a few people with me because I’ve always wanted to kill people, so I’m going to try it and see how it goes.” Watch for me on the news.

He then entered the bank, a sweatshirt covering his jacket. Security video shows him smiling as he approaches Lopez, according to police reports. They speak briefly, before he draws his gun and points it at her and the other women. He orders them to lean against the wall before telling Lopez to lock the doors.

When she returns, he orders the women to lie face down. After shooting them, he calls the police on his cell phone.

He had been at the bank for less than four minutes.

Police spoke with Xaver for about an hour before a SWAT team stormed the bank. He turned himself in shortly afterward and confessed during a recorded interview with detectives. That statement has not been released, but will be played during the trial along with the security video.

Shortly after the shooting, the bank was demolished. The site is now a park with a memorial to the victims.


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