Polk man convicted of murder in death of woman he intentionally ran over with church van

A Polk County man will spend the rest of his life in prison after he was convicted of murdering a beloved librarian back in 2020, who died after she was run over by a van of teenagers who deputies said attacked her son.

On Friday, a jury convicted 20-year-old Elijah Stansell of first-degree murder for the death of Polk City librarian Suzette Penton, who died in November 2020, several weeks after she was intentionally run over by a van driven by Stansell, who was attempting to flee.

State Attorney Brian Haas said Stansell will be sentenced later this year to a mandatory life in prison sentence for the crime.

Stansell was 18 years old when he and three other teens drove to Penton's home on Nov. 9, 2020 to confront her son.

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Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said Penton's son was the ex-boyfriend of one of the other suspects, a 15-year-old girl who was in a relationship with Stansell. Judd said all three were involved in a "romantic entanglement."

The sheriff said the 15-year-old was the "instigator," asking Stansell to confront her ex-boyfriend.

Stansell, the son of a minister, got permission from his father to borrow a church van that was typically used for maintenance. Judd said Stansell, his 15-year-old girlfriend and two others, ages 14 and 16, took the van to Penton's home.

After Suzette Penton left the house to go to the store, home security videos showed three of the teens getting out of the van and banging on the front door of the home while the 15-year-old girl stayed in the vehicle.

When Penton's teenage son came out of the side door into the carport to see who was outside, investigators said Stansell physically attacked him. The victim ran back into the house, followed by Stansell and the 16-year-old, who continued beating the teen.

Security footage showed Penton coming back home and the suspects fleeing the home. Penton followed and watched them get into the van across the street, so she started taking photos of the vehicle with her phone.

That's when Stansell intentionally ran Penton over with the van, the sheriff said.

"If you see the video, you can see clearly he had the opportunity to back up or drive around her," Sheriff Judd said. "He didn't try to turn away from her and accidentally hit her. She was squared up and he ran over her, directly over her, rolled her underneath the van."

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A citizen followed the van and spoke to 911 dispatch as he trailed the vehicle, the sheriff said. Deputies and Auburndale police officers apprehended the teens after they fled. The sheriff's office said all four suspects admitted they'd gone to the home to confront Penton's son.

Penton was left in critical condition, suffering a traumatic brain injury and multiple broken bones. She died of those injuries about three later, investigators said.

"Suzette won't be there when her children get married. She won't ever get to see her grandchildren. It never should've happened," Judd said, describing her death as a "senseless tragedy."