Sentencing trial set to begin for Florida man who executed 5 women at a bank in 2019

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

Jury selection will begin Monday in the criminal trial after numerous delays due to the pandemic, legal wrangling and attorney illness.

Xaver pleaded guilty last year to five counts of first-degree murder for the Jan. 23, 2019, massacre at SunTrust Bank in Sebring, about 85 miles southeast of Tampa. Only the trial will determine Xaver’s sentence. Opening statements are expected in two weeks, while the trial will last about two months.

His victims included client Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married less than a month; bank teller Marisol Lopez, 55, mother of two; banking intern 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, mother of one and stepmother of four.

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

“I purposely didn’t ask too many questions because I didn’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 both declined to comment. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Xaver deserves the death penalty because the killings were cold, brutal, gruesome and planned. Xaver’s lawyers are expected to point to what they have described as his years of mental health problems in their pursuit of leniency.

Under a new law in Florida, for Xaver to receive the death penalty, he only needs to vote 8-4 in favor of execution instead of unanimously. It was introduced after the Parkland high school shooter failed to be sentenced to death for the murders of 17 people in 2018, despite a 9-3 jury vote.

Sebring is a city of approximately 11,000 residents and internationally known for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring car race. Agriculture, tourism and pensioners are the driving force of the 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 dreamed of hurting his classmates. His mother promised to provide him with psychological help.

He joined the Army in 2016. A former girlfriend, who met him at a psychiatric hospital where they were patients, told police he said joining the military was a “way to kill people and get away with it.” The army discharged him after three hours. 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 discharge from the military, Florida hired Xaver in November 2018 as a guard trainee at a prison near Sebring. He quit two months later, two weeks before the shooting. His employment file shows no disciplinary problems. He had applied to be a police officer in Sebring seven months before the murders, but was not hired.

The day before he stopped working at the prison, Xaver legally bought a 9mm pistol and bullets. Later he bought a bulletproof vest.

About five hours before the murders, Xaver began a long, intermittent text conversation with a friend 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 he texted from the bank parking lot, “I’m taking some people with me because I’ve always wanted to kill people so I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes.” Keep an eye on me on the news.”

He then entered the bank, wearing a sweatshirt over his vest. Security footage shows him smiling as he approaches Lopez, police reports show. They talk briefly before he pulls his gun and points it at her and the other women. He orders them against the wall before telling Lopez to lock the doors.

When she returns, he orders the women to lie face down on the floor. After shooting them, he calls the police on 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 entered the bank. He surrendered a short time later and confessed in a recorded interview with detectives. That statement has not been released, but will be played along with the surveillance video during the trial.

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