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Sentencing trial begins for Florida man who executed five women in a bank in 2019

Zephen Xaver walked into a central Florida bank in 2019, shot and killed five women, and then called police to tell them what he did. Now, 12 jurors will decide whether the 27-year-old former prison guard trainee is sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in the sentencing trial after numerous delays caused by the pandemic, legal disputes and attorney illnesses.

Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre at the SunTrust Bank in Sebring, about 84 miles (135 kilometers) southeast of Tampa. Only the trial will decide Xaver’s sentence. Opening statements are expected within two weeks and the trial will last about two months.

His victims included client Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married for less than a month; the bank’s teller coordinator, Marisol López, 55 years old, mother of two children; the banker’s apprentice Ana Pinon-Williams, 38 years old and mother of seven children; bank teller Debra Cook, 54, mother of two and grandmother; and banker Jessica Montague, 31, mother of one child and stepmother of four.

Michael Cook said he hopes his wife’s killer gets the death penalty and described being very frustrated by the years of delays. The trial was scheduled to begin at least two more times, but it was postponed.

“I purposely haven’t asked too many questions because I don’t want to get more frustrated and angry,” Cook said. He plans to attend the trial.

Lead prosecutor Paul Wallace and lead defense attorney Jane McNeill declined to comment. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Xaver deserves the death penalty because the murders were cold, cruel, heinous and planned. Xaver’s lawyers are expected to mention what they have described as his years-long mental health problems as they seek clemency.

Under a new Florida law, for Xaver to receive the death penalty, the jury’s vote only has to be 8-4 for execution instead of unanimous. It was enacted after the 2018 Parkland High School shooter could not be sentenced to death for murdering 17 people despite a 9-3 jury vote.

Sebring is a city of about 11,000 people and known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. Agriculture, tourism and retirees drive its economy.

Xaver moved to Sebring in 2018 from near South Bend, Indiana. In 2014, the principal of his high school contacted police after Xaver told others that he was dreaming about hurting his classmates. His mother promised to get him psychological help.

He joined the military in 2016. An ex-girlfriend, who met him at a psychiatric hospital where they were patients, told police that joining the military was a “way to kill people and get away with it.” months in 2017, a Michigan woman reported him after he sent her text messages suggesting he might “commit suicide by cop” or take hostages.

Despite his psychological problems and his discharge from the Army, Florida hired Xaver as a guard trainee in November 2018 at a prison near Sebring. He resigned two months later, two weeks before the shooting. His employment record does not show any disciplinary problems. He had applied to be a Sebring police officer seven months before the murders, but was not hired.

The day before he stopped working at the prison, Xaver legally purchased a 9mm handgun and bullets. He subsequently bought a bulletproof vest.

About five hours before the murders, Xaver began a long, intermittent text message conversation with a girlfriend in Connecticut, telling her “this is the best day of my life” but refusing to say why.

Fifteen minutes before the shooting, he texted her: “I’m dying today.”

Then, from the bank parking lot, he texted: “I’m taking some people because I’ve always wanted to kill people, so I’m going to try it and see how it works. Stay tuned for the news.”

He then entered the bank with a sweatshirt covering his vest. Security video shows him smiling as he approaches Lopez, according to police reports. They talk briefly, before he pulls his gun from her and points it at her and the other women. He orders them against the wall before telling Lopez to close the doors.

When she returns, he orders the women to lie face down on the ground. After shooting them, he calls the police from his cell phone.

He had been on the bench for less than four minutes.

Police spoke with Xaver for about an hour before a SWAT team stormed the bank. He turned himself in a short time later and confessed in a recorded interview with detectives. That statement has not been made public, but will be played at the trial along with the security video.

Shortly after the shooting, the bank was demolished. The site is now a park with a memorial to the victims.

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