Sebring bank shooting: Lawyers argue over alleged jury misconduct in gunman’s sentencing trial

Before jurors entered the courtroom in the Sebring bank shooter’s sentencing trial on Wednesday, lawyers on both sides argued over potential juror misconduct. 

A series of text messages showed that shortly after being sworn in on June 7, a juror texted a co-worker stating she was surprised she had been picked for the jury and would be out of work through the end of June. 

The state attorney’s office said it investigated the allegation, but the defense said the court should investigate.

The judge said she does not believe the text messages are misconduct because they do not indicate a feeling one way or the other about the outcome of the case. However, she interviewed the juror on Wednesday morning to see if there was any other communication and reminded the juror not to discuss the case with anyone.  

Defense attorneys made a motion for a mistrial due to the allegations and it was denied.  

The jury is down to 12 members because one had a medical issue, and another had to tend to a spouse who suffered a medical emergency. 

Public Defender Jane McNeill called for a mistrial on Wednesday morning amid allegations of potential juror misconduct. The motion for a mistrial was denied. 

After the jury entered the courtroom, they heard from Dr. Tod Stillson, a family physician who treated Zephen Xaver. 

Xaver walked into a SunTrust Bank in Sebring on Jan. 23, 2019, and shot four employees and one customer inside. Now, a jury will decide if he will be sentenced to death or spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Dr. Stillson spoke about Xaver suffering a concussion after being hit in the head while playing football. 

He said Xaver had depression and anger issues because of the head injury. Stillson added that Xaver told him that he had homicidal and suicidal ideation that included hanging himself.

Stillson explained Xaver was prescribed medications for anxiety, depression, moodiness, and sleep. He also spoke about an anti-psychotic medication Xaver was prescribed. 

He recommended Xaver see a counselor and a psychiatrist.

Dr. Tod Stillson testifies at Zephen Xaver's sentencing trial.

Dr. Tod Stillson testifies at Zephen Xaver's sentencing trial. 

Stillson added that he thought Xaver should be admitted into a residential facility. 

He also noted that Xaver’s mother eventually took him off of his prescribed medications. 

School nurse Dawn Campbell told jurors of Xaver’s numerous visits because he felt tired from medication and anxious. 

She said he often took a nap in her office and would usually return to class. However, Campbell recalled that on Feb. 20, 2014, Xaver woke up from a nap and told her that he had a dream in which he barricaded the doors at the school and killed the people inside.

Campbell said she told the principal at the school who called law enforcement, Xaver’s mother, and his counselor. 

Xaver was then escorted by police to a behavioral health center due to the nature of his dream. 

After that dream, Xaver left the school. 

Jurors also heard from Xaver's mental health counselor, Patrick O'Connell. He said Xaver had suicidal and homicidal thoughts, and he also thought Xaver should be admitted to a residential facility. 

After O'Connell's testimony, jurors heard from a string of family friends and friends including Gracelynn Williams, who met Xaver during a stay at a behavioral health center.  

Williams said she did not see Xaver being violent at the center and described him as quiet. After their brief stay at the facility, Williams told the jury she saw Xaver at school and the two continued to maintain a relationship. 

When asked, Xaver's friends and friends of his family said they would continue to have contact with him if he was sentenced to life in prison. 

On Tuesday, Xaver's mother, Misti Hendricks, took the stand for the second time this week. 

She explained to the jury that her son, who former teachers described as quiet and well-mannered, changed when he became a teenager. 

Hendricks told jurors that her son had attempted suicide and had been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities several times, but never for more than a week or so. She said she tried to get him placed in a residential facility, but he never qualified. 

READ: Sebring bank shooting: Gunman’s mother tells jurors he had a dream about a school shooting

Xaver's mother went on to tell the jury about her own struggles with mental health and explained that she was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia after giving birth to her second son. 

She said she was put on medication that made her hear and see things that weren't real. Hendricks said those side effects went away once she stopped taking the medicine, and she began to feel better once she was diagnosed with post-partum depression and was placed on medication to treat it. 

Zephen Xaver's mother testifies for the second day in a row.

Zephen Xaver's mother testifies for the second day in a row. 

During the defense's opening statement, Xaver's lawyer said that the evidence they will present this week is not an excuse or a justification for him shooting and killing five women at the SunTrust Bank, because there is no excuse.

However, the defense is arguing that Xaver’s life should be spared, and jurors should sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

While on the stand on Tuesday, Hendricks shared that she e-mails her son at the jail every day and does a video chat with him once a week. She said she loves her son and will continue to have contact with him if he is sentenced to life in prison. 

Last week, the jury heard from a slew of witnesses called by the prosecution.

Xaver's ex-girlfriend, Imani Davis, told jurors that after months of not communicating, Xaver reached out to her on Jan. 23, 2019, and seemed uncharacteristically happy and excited. 

READ: Sebring bank shooting: Jurors hear 911 call as gunman's sentencing trial gets underway

She said Xaver sent her a message at 12:14 p.m. on Jan. 23, 2019, which read, "The fun part, the [expletive] cliché clincher, is that I’m not going out alone. I’m taking a few people out with me because I’ve always wanted to kill people, so I’m going to try it and see how it goes. Watch out for me on the news – Sebring, Florida."

She said she wrote back, "There’s something wrong with you. Seriously."

Xaver's ex-girlfriend Imani Davis testifies at his sentencing trial.

Xaver's ex-girlfriend Imani Davis testifies at his sentencing trial. 

Then she told her teacher about the messages and school officials contacted law enforcement. 

Another friend of Xaver’s took the stand Thursday and testified that she contacted her local law enforcement in Michigan after Xaver sent her a message stating that he wanted to hold up a bank. He wanted the police to shoot him, so they would look like heroes. 

READ: Sebring bank shooting trial: Gunman tells police ‘I deserve to die for this’ in video played for jurors

Police said they contacted Xaver’s mother at the time and said they saw no reason to follow up. 

Jurors also heard from a bank teller who escaped the massacre, law enforcement officers and witnesses who arrived at the bank that afternoon to find the doors locked and people lying on the floor.

Prosecutors played an interview between Xaver and police shortly after his arrest in which he said, "I deserve to die for this."

Jurors also listened to the 911 call Xaver made from inside the bank moments after he shot five women inside. 

Twice, Xaver's defense team called for a mistrial. The first time was over an audience member who had an audible reaction to testimony and the presence of a therapy dog in the courtroom, and the second time was when an employee at the gun store where Xaver purchased his firearm gave him a dirty look when he entered the courtroom to testify. 

Both times, the judge denied the mistrial. 

Who is Zephen Xaver? 

The man police say shot and killed five people in a Sebring, Florida, SunTrust bank was described by a woman who knew him as "normal" and "well-mannered."

Sharon Spillane, a friend of Xaver’s parents, told FOX 13 in 2019 that she never in a million years saw this coming. 

"We’ve cooked together, I’ve been in their house, we’ve watched movies. They’re a very normal family," Spillane said. "He had a job, and he was very quiet and very well-mannered. Anytime that I saw him, he was very well-mannered, always good posture and well-spoken."

However, Xaver’s ex-girlfriend paints a different picture. In a previous interview with FOX 13, Alex Gerlach said Xaver was obsessed with guns and knives.

"The only thing I can remember is him talking about guns and wanting guns," Gerlach said in a 2019 interview. "He wants to hurt people physically."

According to Gerlach, she met Xaver in a psychiatric hospital in 2013. She said they dated off and on for about two years.

Pictured: Zephen Xaver

Pictured: Zephen Xaver

"At one point, my mother was terrified because she thought he was going to physically harm me," explained Gerlach, who described Xaver as a troubled teen. "For some reason, he always hated people and wanted everybody to die."

Gerlach said Xaver continued to make chilling comments over the years and said one week before the shooting he sent her a picture of him holding a gun.

"I've been scared for years and every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate it had to come to this," she said in 2019.

Documents provided by the Bremen Police Department in Indiana state officers went to Xaver's high school in 2014, after school officials said he was having disturbing thoughts.

The documents state Xaver told school officials he had dreams of hurting his classmates. According to the police report, Xaver's mother agreed to take her son to a behavioral health center.

In recorded conversations played for the jury, Xaver states that medication did not help him and neither did his time at a behavioral treatment center. He claimed that voices in his head told him to kill people. However, a psychologist who took the stand on Thursday said he did not believe Xaver was really hearing voices because he appeared to be very calm and methodical in video that shows him carrying out the murders. 

The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Xaver was a correctional officer trainee with Avon Park Correctional Institution for about two months. He resigned two weeks before the shooting. 

Who were the victims?

Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook, Ana Pinon Wiliams and Cynthia Watson were killed on Jan. 23, 2019, when Xaver, who was 21 at the time, walked into the SunTrust Bank on Highway 27, wearing a bullet-proof vest and armed with a gun he recently purchased, forced the women to lie on the floor and shot them to death. 

Last Friday, friends and family of the five women who were killed told the jury how their lives were destroyed by the murders. Several jurors wiped tears from their eyes as Xaver sat stone-faced with his head propped in his hand. 

Ana Piñon Williams came to America from Mexico when she was 12 years old and picked fruits and vegetables to support her family. 

She is remembered as a loving daughter, mother, sister, and friend who was the glue that kept their family together. 

"She lives in and through us," Anna’s sister Blanca told the jury. "We continue her legacy with humbleness, compassion, empathy, and a strong faith in God. She was a ray of sunshine and a breath of fresh air."

Pictured: Anna Pinon Williams

Pictured: Ana Piñon Williams

Debra Cook was a cancer survivor who had been married to her husband, Michael Cook, one month shy of 35 years. 

He said they didn't have to work, but she wanted to work, so she could help out her children and travel. 

RELATED: Sebring bank shooting trial: Jurors hear from bank teller who escaped, crisis negotiation recording

"No one expects to say goodbye to a loved one in the morning and never see them, hold them, or talk to them again," Michael Cook stated. "Everyone expects to say goodbye to the ones they love."

Debra Cook

Debra Cook

Friends and family describe Marisol Lopez as an exceptional human being who was a daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend. 

Her daughter said her world stopped on January 23, 2019, when Lopez was killed. 

"I lost the one person I trusted entirely, and now I am very alone, and I feel so isolated. I may have been 21 when she died, but I was still a girl who needed her mom."

Pictured: Marisol Lopez

Pictured: Marisol Lopez

Family members described Cynthia Watson as having the heart of an angel and described her as empathetic, compassionate, adventurous, and strong. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, sister and daughter.

Her daughter says she has been sentenced to a lifetime of grief since the passing of her mother

Pictured: Cynthia Watson

Pictured: Cynthia Watson

Jessica Montague is described as a loving, caring, and kind person. 

Her mother, Tina Warner, said, "I never knew what a true heartbreak was until Jessie was taken from us. She always lit up a room with her outstanding personality."

Warner added, "I miss my Jessie every day. The hole in my heart will never heal. My love for my daughter will never be replaced by anyone or anything."

Jessica Montague

Pictured: Jessica Montague

Police said they haven't found any connection between suspect Xaver and the victims. It also did not appear that there had been any attempt to rob the bank.

Will Zephen Xaver get the death penalty? 

Xaver’s trial will be one of the first high-profile cases in Florida where the death penalty sentence no longer hinges on a unanimous jury verdict.

Florida lawmakers made the change in 2023, shortly after jurors spared the life of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooter in a 9-3 decision.

Florida law now states that a defendant may be sentenced to death if at least 8 of the 12 jurors recommend execution. 

State Attorney Brian Haas says all five of the victims‘ families support seeking the death penalty in this case. 

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