Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders (2024)

A jury recommended Wednesday that a former prison guard trainee be sentenced to death for his execution-style murders of five women inside a Florida bank five years ago.

The Highlands County jury voted 9-3 to recommend that Zephen Xaver receive the death penalty for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre at the SunTrust in Sebring.

The jury deliberated less than three hours before reaching its verdict.

The final sentencing decision rests with Circuit Judge Angela Cowden, who could reject the jury's recommendation and sentence Xaver, 27, to life in prison without parole. The judge is expected to set a sentencing date later.

Under a 2023 Florida law, the jury only had to vote 8-4 in favor of the death penalty for Cowden to impose that sentence. State law had required a unanimous jury recommendation for a judge to impose death, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature changed it after a 9-3 jury vote spared the shooter who murdered 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

A prosecutor argued at the killer's penalty trial earlier Wednesday that Xaver deserved the death penalty for the massacre, calling it "shockingly evil” and long-planned.

Assistant State Attorney Bonde Johnson also told jurors during closing arguments that the defendant carried out the mass shooting at Sebring's SunTrust bank to satisfy his yearslong desire to experience killing, forcing the women to lie down before executing them.

“He didn't murder one person to truly know what it would be like to kill. He killed five. He watched them laying there on the floor. They were under his control, for his enjoyment, as he shot each one,” Johnson said.

But defense attorney Jane McNeill had urged the 12 jurors to spare Xaver, saying he is mentally ill and has been hearing voices since childhood urging him to kill himself and others. He sought help, she said, but never truly got it.

“We ask you to show Zephen what he may least deserve — compassion, grace and mercy,” McNeill said, her voice breaking before the jury began its deliberations. “Compassion is not a limited resource. Grace is not limited. Mercy is not limited. Sentencing Zephen to life is the right thing to do.”

The jury was sequestered while considering whether Xaver should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders (1)

Stephanie Colombini

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WUSF Public Media

Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, killings in Sebring. The trial was delayed for years by the COVID-19 pandemic, legal arguments and attorney illness.

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

He ordered them to lie on the floor and then shot them as they cried out, “Why?”

During the two-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Xaver as a cold and calculated killer, who pretends to hear voices as a cover for his violent impulses. His attorneys countered he has long suffered psychotic episodes. A defense physician told jurors he has a small, benign brain tumor that could explain his behavior — a prosecution doctor testified he doesn't.

In 2014, Xaver's high school principal in Indiana contacted police after he told a counselor that he dreamed of killing classmates, among other alarming behavior. His mother, Misty Hendricks, promised to get him psychological help. She testified at trial that she stopped his medications at 17 because he seemed to be doing better.

He joined the Army, but was discharged during boot camp in 2016 because of homicidal thoughts. Those thoughts continued, the jury heard.

“It’s all I can think of, it’s all I hear every day and it’s all I see every day. It’s all I smell and taste every day: blood, death and murder. It’s all I have happening 24/7,” Xaver wrote a friend. He made similar posts online.

He moved to Sebring in 2018. The local prison soon hired him, but he quit after two months. That was the day after he bought his gun and two weeks before the massacre.

The morning of the killings, he had a long text-message conversation with a girlfriend, telling her it would be the “best day of his life” but refused to say why.

He finally told her just minutes before he entered the bank: he was about to die. He then added “the fun part.”

“I’m taking a few people with me because I’ve always wanted to kill," he texted.

Following the killings, Xaver surrendered after speaking by phone with a sheriff's crisis negotiator. He told a detective, “I deserve to die for this.”

Death penalty recommended for man convicted in 2019 Sebring bank murders (2024)

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