Florida Bank Massacre: Jury Urges Death Penalty for Ex-Prison Guard Trainee

Florida Bank Massacre Jury Urges Death Penalty for Ex-Prison Guard Trainee

For his execution-style killings of five women inside a Florida bank five years prior—a slaughter that satisfied his long-standing need to kill—a jury on Wednesday recommended that a former prison guard trainee be executed.

For the killings that occurred at the SunTrust Bank in Sebring, roughly 85 miles southeast of Tampa, on January 23, 2019, the jury decided, 9-3, to recommend that Zephen Xaver be executed.

After the Highlands County jury deliberated for less than three hours, Xaver, 27, looked straight ahead and showed no expression as the verdicts were read.

Circuit Judge Angela Cowden will make the ultimate judgment. She has the option to disapprove the jury’s verdict and give Xaver a life sentence without the possibility of release. Next month, she stated, a sentence date will be determined following the hearing.


Cowden could have sentenced the defendant to death with just an 8-4 vote from the jury by a 2023 Florida statute.


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When a jury voted 9-3 to spare the gunman who killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, state law required a unanimous recommendation from the jury before a judge could execute the sentence. However, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature removed this requirement.

A scheduled trial was postponed for years due to the Covid-19 outbreak, court disputes, and attorney illness. However, Xaver entered a guilty plea to five charges of first-degree murder last year.

Customers Cynthia Watson, 65, who had only been married for a month, bank teller Marisol Lopez, 55, a mother of two, banker trainee Ana Pinon-Williams, 38, a mother of seven, bank teller Debra Cook, 54, a mother of two and a grandmother, and banker Jessica Montague, 31, a mother of one and stepmother of four, were among Xaver’s victims.

He gave them the order to lie on the ground, and while they shouted out, “Why?” he shot them all in the head.

During the prosecutor Bonde Johnson’s closing remarks earlier on Wednesday, Xaver was justified in receiving the death punishment since the massacre was premeditated, “shockingly evil,” and it satisfied his lifelong wish to kill someone.

“To understand what it would be like to kill, he didn’t kill one person. He took five lives. As they lay on the floor, he observed them. She stated, “He shot each one of them, controlling them for his amusement.”


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However, Xaver’s defense lawyer, Jane McNeill, had asked the jury to spare him, claiming he was mentally ill and had heard voices in his head since he was a little child, telling him to harm himself and others. She said he asked for assistance but never really received it.

With a broken voice, McNeill addressed the panel, “We ask you to show Zephen what he may least deserve — compassion, grace and mercy.” She added, “Sentring Zephen to life is the right thing to do.”

Prosecutors painted Xaver during the two-week trial as a cold-blooded killer who feigned to hear voices to suppress his violent tendencies. His lawyers argued that he has a history of psychotic episodes.

After Xaver revealed to a counselor that he had dreams of murdering classmates in 2014, the principal of his Indiana high school called the police. Hendricks’ mother, Misty, pledged to get him psychiatric assistance. She said in court that she had stopped giving him medicine when he was 17 because he appeared to be getting better.

After enlisting in the Army, he was released from boot camp in 2016 due to suicidal concerns. These ideas persisted.

That’s all I see and hear and all I can think about daily. Every day, murder, blood, and death are all I can taste or smell. Xaver wrote a buddy, “It’s all I have going on 24/7.” He published comparable content online.

After relocating to Sebring in 2018, he was employed by the nearby prison but left after just two months. That was two weeks before the massacre and the day after he purchased his rifle.

He told his girlfriend over a lengthy text message that the morning of the killings would be the “best day of his life,” but he wouldn’t explain why.

Just before going into the bank, he finally told her that he was going to die. Then he said, “the fun part.”

He texted, saying, “I’ve always wanted to kill, so I’m taking a few people with me.”

Xaver then threatened to commit suicide but gave up in the end.

According to defense testimony, Xaver was a gentle, compassionate youngster who struggled in school before taking a dark turn as an adolescent.

Xaver’s high school counselor, Melissa Manges, testified that he desired more comprehensive therapy for his troubling thoughts, but no long-term residential programs would take him.

She said, “Zephen was let down by the system.”

While applauding the decision, the local state attorney, Brian Haas, stated in his statement that the victims should receive more attention than “the monster who committed these crimes.”

“On that awful day in January 2019, five women, who were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and so much more to so many others, had their lives cut short. He remarked, “their families have endured so much without them as they have waited for justice.”

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