JURY VERDICT: Man guilty of attempted lewd battery, transmitting harmful material to a minor

When Eric Norris found an ad on Craigslist about a sexual encounter with a minor, he promptly replied: “I am interested.”

Eric Norris, 29.

For three days, Norris had non-stop graphic discussions about what he would do to the 12-year-old girl. He also sent explicit photos of himself.

On May 19, 2017, Norris drove from Jacksonville to a closed gas station in Davenport, where he thought he would be meeting a 12-year-old girl and her stepmother for sex. He was met by members of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office instead.

A jury convicted Norris Thursday of attempted lewd battery, traveling to meet the parent of a minor, and transmitting harmful material to a minor. He is facing 35 years in prison and will be sentenced June 15.

When Norris took the witness stand, he claimed that his graphic communications were simply a way to keep the conversation going. He also said he didn’t believe a minor was actually involved and that he thought he was fulfilling the other person’s fantasy.

But when Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr questioned Norris, he pointed out parts of their conversations that were more reality than fantasy.

Norris discussed which sexual acts the stepmother – who was played by an undercover detective – would allow him to perform on the girl.

“Boundaries were placed as to what was and wasn’t OK. Wouldn’t that would be limiting the fantasy and turning it to reality?” Orr asked Norris, who agreed.

Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr addresses jurors during closing arguments of the Norris trial on Thursday. Norris faces up to 35 years in prison and will be sentenced June 15.

Orr also pinpointed a part of the conversation where Norris said he would be there for the girl if he accidentally got her pregnant.

“Teen pregnancy,” Orr said. “That’s a fantasy you wanted to have? That’s not real life?”

Norris also claimed there were red flags from the beginning and that he thought the Craigslist ad was a setup. But Norris said he continued the conversation anyway because he was lonely and wanted to talk to someone.

“He said he saw red flags and knew it was a lie, but he still drove two hours to meet them,” Orr said. “Is that reasonable?

The defense told jurors that this case was about nothing more than adults lying to each other and that there was no evidence to show what Norris was actually thinking.

Orr reminded the jury that Norris’ intentions were clear based on the nature of the chats he had with undercover detectives.

“There’s no doubt what this man was interested in doing. There’s no role play. No backing up. It’s all the time, every day. It is as graphic as it can be,” Orr said. “We are left with an inescapable reason why a man would travel to Davenport and park at that gas station – it’s because he’s guilty.”

SENTENCING UPDATE: Bennett sentenced to life after being convicted of attempted murder

When Derek Maude got into the car with Kaheem Bennett, he had no way of knowing he would be robbed, kidnapped, and paralyzed from a gunshot wound that severed his spinal cord.

On Jan. 25, 2015, Bennett and two others violently beat Maude before unlocking the doors of the car they had him trapped in. While Maude was running away, Bennett stepped out of the car and shot Maude in the back.

At the end of a trial prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Bonde Johnson, a jury convicted Bennett Feb. 22 of attempted first-degree murder, robbery with a firearm, and armed kidnapping.

At his sentencing Thursday, Judge Sharon Franklin handed down a life sentence for each of the charges. She also sentenced Bennett to 15 years in prison for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, which will run concurrent to his life sentences.

Bennett was arrested by the Lakeland Police Department for Maude’s attempted murder in January of 2015.

Over the past three years, the numbers of Lakeland’s violent crimes and shootings have decreased by 32 percent. While Police Chief Larry Giddens said he believes Bennett’s arrest played a role in the reduction of violent crime, he cannot say how big or small that role was.

“Any time that we can take a violent criminal off the streets through the cooperative partnership between the State Attorney’s Office and The Lakeland Police Department, it makes all of the citizens of Lakeland safer,” Giddens said.

State Attorney Brian Haas said he’s grateful for the outcome of Bennett’s trial and sentencing.

“I appreciate the hard work of Assistant State Attorney Bonde Johnson and the thorough investigation of the Lakeland Police Department in sending Kaheem Bennet to prison for the rest of his life,” Haas said.

SENTENCING UPDATE: Haines City man sentenced to 25 years for execution-style robbery

Nicolas Vasquez held a gun to the back of Joshua Dibling’s head, threatening to kill him if he did not hand over money.

Nicolas Vasquez, 21, of Haines City.

Vasquez was convicted by a jury Oct. 25, 2017, of three counts of robbery with a deadly weapon and one count of burglary while armed with assault or battery. He was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years in prison by Judge Roddenbery.

Assistant State Attorney Amy Smith tried Vasquez’s case and walked the jurors through the events of Dec. 2, 2015.

About 10:15 a.m., Vasquez and his co-defendant Zachary Bitner went to Executive Insurance in Lake Alfred with handguns. Upon entering the building, the masked men drew their weapons and demanded money.

Bitner stayed in the front of the agency, pointing a gun at an employee and customer. Vasquez went back to the offices and pointed a gun at Dibling.

Vasquez threatened to kill the man if he did not hand over money.

While holding a gun to the back of Dibling’s head, Vasquez then walked him to the owner’s office and demanded more money. He told Dibling to get down on the ground, while still holding the gun to the back of his head.

Vazquez then took the money and ran out of the agency, followed by Bitner.

They stole about $1,000 from the victims and fled on foot into a wooded area. While fleeing, they removed the clothing they were wearing and hid it under a trailer.

Vasquez and Bitner then got into a white Toyota truck, which was driven by co-defendant Koree Warren.

A Polk County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Deputy tracked Vasquez and Bitner through the wooded area behind the agency but only located the discarded items of clothing.

Assistant State Attorney Amy Smith, right, and Vasquez’s defense attorney address Judge Roddenbery during the sentencing hearing Tuesday.

A witness saw a white Toyota leaving a neighborhood located North East of the Insurance Agency.  Later, a second witness saw the same white Toyota parked near his cousin’s residence.

When the witness attempted to make contact with the occupants, a Hispanic male, later identified as Vasquez, displayed an apparent semi-automatic firearm. The weapons were later found to be Airsoft guns.

Law enforcement located and completed a traffic stop on the truck the following day.

The description of the suspects in the Toyota matched the description of the suspects from the armed robbery. DNA testing confirmed the identity of both Vasquez and Bitner.

Prior to Vasquez’s sentencing, Warren – the getaway driver – testified against his co-defendant and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Bitner – the second gunman – was sentenced to life in prison.

JURY VERDICT: Man convicted of DUI manslaughter, faces 30 years

James Marcelin had been partying all day when he made the decision to drive three of his friends to Haines City.

James Marcelin, 27.

While traveling at least 20 MPH over the speed limit, Marcelin veered off the roadway and crashed head-on into a tree. The collision killed 19-year-old Andrew Valdez and critically injured Jose Almanzar and James Richards.

After about an hour and 20 minutes of deliberation, a jury convicted 27-year-old Marcelin Thursday of DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, two counts of DUI with serious bodily injury, two counts of reckless driving resulting in serious bodily injury, three counts of driving while license suspended or revoked, and one count each of grand theft of a motor vehicle and burglary of a conveyance.

Marcelin is facing a maximum of 30 years in prison for the DUI manslaughter. His sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

Assistant State Attorney Amy Smith walked jurors through the events of that led up to the fatal crash on April 26, 2015.

Eleven days prior to the incident, Marcelin stole a 2007 Mazda minivan from Orlando. Marcelin drove the van to a party in Winter Haven at about 4 p.m. on April, 26, where he and the victims drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and did drugs.

They went to a second party in Orlando, where they continued to drink and smoke. When they ran out of marijuana, Marcelin got behind the wheel of the van and attempted to drive Valdez, Almanzar, and Richards to another party in Haines City.

About 11:15 p.m., Marcelin was driving on Lake Marion Creek Road in Haines City, which has multiple 90 degree turns. As he came out of a turn, Marcelin drifted off the road way and lost control, braking for 88 feet before colliding with the tree at 65 MPH.

Valdez was thrown from the front passenger seat and into the windshield, where he was entrapped. He lost consciousness and never regained it.

Valdez died on May 14, 2015.

Almanzar had a broken spine and a brain bleed. Richards had a cracked skull, which required 22 staples.

Both men were unconscious after the collision.

Marcelin had his right leg broken in two spots and a broken left arm, broken pelvis, sternum, and ribs. Multiple witnesses saw him in the driver’s seat and said he was the only occupant still conscious.

While witnesses called 911, Marcelin pulled himself out of the vehicle and to the ground, where he stayed until paramedics and law enforcement arrived.

In court, Marcelin took the stand and admitted he drank alcohol and did drugs before getting in the minivan. He said he could not remember if he was the one who drove it.

Assistant State Attorney Amy Smith addresses jurors during closing arguments Thursday. Marcelin was found guilty as charged and faces 30 years in prison.

The defense claimed that Almanzar was the driver and that Marcelin’s injuries were consistent with being in the passenger seat, arguing that Almanzar got away with homicide.

But Smith reminded jurors that witnesses on scene testified that the driver of the minivan clearly had a broken arm and broken leg – he also pulled himself out of the seat he was trapped in. None of the other victims had those injuries, and all but Marcelin were unconscious.

She said the argument that Almanzar got away with homicide is not supported by any of the facts in this case.

“Just because an attorney says it doesn’t make it so,” Smith said in her closing arguments. “It has to be supported by the evidence.”

She added that Almanzar could not have been the driver because he has hundreds of pages of medical records that say he had a broken spine, was in a coma, and was unable to speak from the moment of impact.

“The defense is asking you to disregard all of the evidence and somehow believe these men got switched. To speculate that Almanzar was the driver is not a part of this case. It is not supported by the facts,” Smith said.

“This is not complicated. All of the testimony is consistent,” she said. “When you step back and apply some common sense, it’s very clear there’s not some crazy oddity or mix-up. It’s that the defendant is guilty.”