Sebring bank shooting: Jurors hear victim impact statements in gunman’s sentencing trial

On Friday, before the state rested its case, jurors listened to emotional victim impact statements in the sentencing trial of Sebring bank shooter Zephen Xaver. 

Tears poured down the faces of some of the jurors as friends and family of the five women killed described how Xaver destroyed many lives as he sat emotionless with his head propped up with his hand. 

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. 

Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook and Ana Piñon-Williams were working at the SunTrust branch on U.S. 27 when Xaver opened fire. A customer, Cynthia Watson, was also killed in the attack. 

Pictured: Anna Pinon Williams

Pictured: Ana Piñon Williams

Family and friends of Ana Piñon Williams spoke first. 

They talked about how she came to America from Mexico when she was 12 years old and picked fruits and vegetables to support her family. 

She was described 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."

Debra Cook

Debra Cook

Michael Cook, Debra Cook’s husband, spoke next. 

He described how the murder of his wife, who beat two types of cancer, impacted their youngest son, Thomas. 

Michael Cook said Thomas was an alcoholic and relied on his mother to help him overcome it. He said when Debra was killed, it sent Thomas over the edge, and he went into a coma from kidney and liver failure. 

Michael Cook had to decide to take him off of life-support. 

"I miss and think of Debbie and Thomas every day," Michael Cook stated. "Some days are not so bad, but mostly they are bad days."

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

When court resumed after the lunch break, jurors heard from friends and family of Marisol Lopez, who was described as an exceptional human being.

She 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

The family of Cynthia Watson spoke next. 

Her daughter, April Nelson, said she had the heart of an angel and described her as empathetic, compassionate, adventurous, and strong. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, sister and daughter.

Nelson recalled that her mother, who used to work at the Kennedy Space Center, had to tell the families of astronauts on the Challenger space shuttle what happened to their loved ones. 

Nelson told the jury that she used to be happy and full of life, but now she suffers from anxiety and depression. 

While she was dealing with her mother's murder, Nelson explained that a man who was obsessed with murder began stalking her, striking even more fear into her life.  

"I have been sentenced to a life of grief and emptiness," Nelson stated.

Pictured: Cynthia Watson

Pictured: Cynthia Watson

Jessica Montague’s family was the last to give victim impact statements. 

She was 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."

Warner also read a statement from Montague’s young daughter, who shared, "I miss spending time and being silly with her and I miss her every day."

Jessica Montague

Pictured: Jessica Montague

On Thursday, jurors heard from Zephen Xaver’s ex-girlfriend, high school student Imani Davis. She told the jury that after months of not communicating, Xaver reached out to her on Jan. 23, 2019, and seemed uncharacteristically happy and excited. 

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. She said he told her he wanted to do it on a Wednesday or a Friday, but didn't know why those two days were significant. 

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

Testimony in the sentencing trial began on Monday. Since then, jurors 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.

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

Earlier in the week, jurors 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.

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.

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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