Sebring bank shooting: Jurors recommend death penalty for gunman Zephen Xaver (2024)

Jury recommends death penalty for bank shooter

After deliberating for about three hours, jurors in the Sebring bank shooter’s sentencing trial voted 9-3 to sentence gunman Zephen Xaver to death. Kimberly Kuizon reports.

SEBRING, Fla. - After deliberating for about three hours, jurors in the Sebring bank shooter’s sentencing trial voted 9-3 to recommend the death penalty for gunman Zephen Xaver.

Xaver shot and killed five women inside a Sebring SunTrust bank on January 23, 2019.

Xaver showed no emotion as he sat in a courtroom on Wednesday as the verdict was reached.

Jury recommends death for Zephen Xaver

Jurors voted 9-3 on Wednesday to recommend a death sentence for Sebring bank shooter Zephen Xaver, who killed five people in 2019.

His trial was 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.

"I think the change in the law was necessary," stated April Nelson, victim Cynthia Watson's daughter. "I don’t think it should be up to one juror that could make a decision on an entire case that maybe there was 12 and maybe one person held out. I don’t think one person should have control of that. I’m happy with the new change in law. I think it’s fair."

Michael Cook, victim Debra Cook's husband said, "I agree with the change in the law. I like it not just because of this case, but because it stops deadlocks. Because a person does not have to second guess a juror or anything, but a person could obviously be guilty and deserve the death penalty, but a juror may feel because they’re against the death penalty and not be for it."

Who is Zephen Xaver?

Xaver was born and raised in Indiana and spent his childhood traveling back and forth between his mother's house and his father's house.

His mother described him as a typical kid until he became a teenager. However, during the court proceedings, several testified that Xaver had claimed to be suicidal since the age of 9 and homicidal since the age of 12.

He was in regular counseling and had several stays at behavioral health centers.

Former teachers who took the stand during his sentencing trial described Xaver as quiet and well-mannered but recalled him not doing his homework.

Counselors who testified said Xaver was failing all his classes and was expelled from a school for writing a threatening note to a teacher.

Upon enrolling at another school, Xaver made nearly daily trips to the school nurse complaining about being tired and anxious.

Sebring bank shooting: Jurors recommend death penalty for gunman Zephen Xaver (1)

Pictured: Zephen Xaver

A former school nurse testified that Xaver told her his morning medication made him sleepy, but others who testified said he liked to stay up all night playing video games.

RELATED: Sebring bank shooting trial: Gunman told ex-girlfriend on day of massacre ‘I’ve always wanted to kill people’

His former school nurse testified that he was often permitted to take a nap before returning to class.

When he awoke from one of those naps in 2014, he told the school nurse he had a dream in which he barricaded everyone in the school and began killing his classmates.

The school nurse and the guidance counselor alerted authorities and Xaver was taken to a behavioral health center with a police escort.

RELATED: Sebring bank shooting: Gunman’s mother tells jurors he had a dream about a school shooting

He never returned to the school.

That was not the first time Xaver had been to a behavioral health center.

Witnesses told jurors that Xaver had suicidal and homicidal thoughts and described an incident in which he tried to kill himself with a rope on top of the roof of his father’s home.

Xaver was prescribed medication for depression, anxiety, and sleep. A doctor testified that Xaver was also placed on antipsychotic drugs. However, Xaver’s mother, Misti Hendricks, admitted that she pulled her son off of his medication because she thought he was doing better.

Hendricks also told the jury that she struggled with post-partum depression after giving birth to her second son and was initially misdiagnosed as being bipolar and schizophrenic.

Bank shooter's mother takes the stand

Zephen Xaver's mother told the jury that he had struggled mentally when he was a teenager, but she thought things improved when he moved to Sebring.

Hendricks said she tried everything she could to get Xaver into a residential facility for his mental health issues, but he never qualified.

After leaving school, Xaver signed up for the military but did not disclose his mental health history.

READ: Ex-girlfriend of suspected bank shooter says he 'wanted everybody to die'

He told his mother that he left boot camp because he had a busted eardrum. However, a fellow recruit testified that Xaver told her that he was feeling homicidal. She said she told him to go to the medic because this was not the place for him, and he was discharged.

Sebring bank shooting

Xaver moved to Sebring, Florida, and moved in with his mother and her boyfriend in 2018. He got a job as a corrections officer trainee at the Avon Park Jail on Nov. 2, 2018. He quit his job on January 9, 2019, around the same time his mother drove him to buy a gun.

READ: Sebring bank shooting: Community continues to heal as suspect prepares for trial 3 years after massacre

Hendricks testified that her son told her on Jan. 22, 2019, that he was starting a new job the following day and seemed excited about it.

However, on Jan. 23, 2019, Xaver, who was 21 at the time, donned a bullet-proof vest, walked into the SunTrust Bank located along U.S. 27, south of Lake Jackson, and forced five women inside to lock the doors and lie on the ground as he shot and killed them one by one.

After the murders, Xaver called 911.

Sebring shooting trial: 911 call played for jury

Listen to the 911 call Zephen Xaver made after he killed five women inside a Suntrust Bank in Sebring in January 2019.

After being on the phone with the 911 operator for nearly 45 minutes, a crisis negotiator spent more than an hour talking with Xaver before a SWAT team entered the bank and he surrendered.

RELATED: Sebring bank shooting trial: Gunman tells police ‘I deserve to die for this’ in video played for jurors

Investigators say Xaver did not rob the bank and the killings appeared to be completely random.

Sebring bank shooting: Xaver's recorded interview with police

Listen to a portion of an interview between a lieutenant with the Sebring Police Department and Zephen Xaver about what happened before, during and after the Sebring bank deadly shooting. [WARNING: This contains offensive language].

Who were the Sebring bank shooting victims?

Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook, Ana Pinon Wiliams and Cynthia Watson were killed execution-style by Xaver on Jan. 23, 2019.

Friends and family of the five women who were killed told the jury how their lives were destroyed by the murders.

Several jurors wiped tears from their eyes as Xaver sat stone-faced with his head propped in his hand.

Emotional impact statements from loved ones in deadly Sebring bank shooting

Loved ones of people killed in the bank shooting in Sebring several years ago gave impact statements Friday at the sentencing trial for the killer. FOX 13's Kimberly Kuizon reports.

After the death penalty recommendation was read, Nelson said, "The five women were brutally executed. This is a mass shooting on a whole different level. I’m glad I don’t have to keep dealing with the court system anymore, but I’ll never be the person I was before my mom was murdered."

Cook shared, I’m happy with the verdict, but of course, it doesn’t fix anything and everybody will feel this for the rest of our lives, but he deserves it. He’s a coward and this delay has just been trying to keep him alive."

Victor Lopez, Marisol Lopez's husband, shared," The verdict won't bring them back…I’m happy with the verdict, but of course it doesn’t fix anything and everybody will feel this the rest of our lives, but he deserves it. He’s a coward and this delay has just been trying to keep him alive."

Blanca Pinon, Ana Maria Williams' sister stated, "I feel like we are now one step closer to closing this chapter, but of course, we will never be able to completely heal because ana was a huge part of our lives. She was the glue to our family. We will always have that missing piece."

A sixth person was inside the bank at the time of the killings. Former bank teller Benjamin Wysokowski told jurors he was eating lunch and watching YouTube videos in the breakroom when he heard the gunshots go off.

He said he ran out the back door and through the woods, leaving his cell phone behind. He eventually made it to a nearby home and the homeowner called the police.

Bank teller testifies in Sebring shooting hearing

As Zephen Xaver waits to find out whether he’ll be sentenced to death for killing five people at a bank in Sebring in 2019, a teller at the bank who managed to escape testified Tuesday.

Sebring bank shooter’s sentencing trial

Initially, Xaver pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial. However, he later changed his plea to guilty in May 2023 and wrote an apology note. State prosecutors were seeking the death penalty and left it in a Highlands County jury's hands during his sentencing trial.

After two weeks of testimony, both sides rested their case. However, state prosecutors called rebuttal witnesses on Monday and closing arguments began on Tuesday.

Xaver’s attorney has called for a mistrial several times over alleged jury misconduct, a therapy K-9 in the courtroom, and a dirty look a gun shop employee gave Xaver when he entered the courtroom. All the motions for a mistrial were denied.

During the defense's opening statement, Xaver's lawyer said that the evidence they presented this week was not an excuse or a justification for him shooting and killing five women at the SunTrust Bank, because there is no excuse.

However, the defense argued that Xaver’s life should be spared, and jurors should sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Xaver's attorneys called witnesses who testified that he had a brain tumor, suffered from mental illness and was physically and mentally abused by his father.

However, the jury recommended the death penalty in a 9-3 vote.

A Spencer hearing is scheduled for July 16 at 1 p.m. That is an opportunity for Xaver’s lawyers to present additional evidence to the judge before a sentence is entered. Xaver also has the right to speak at the hearing and both sides can comment on the recommended sentence.

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Sebring bank shooting: Jurors recommend death penalty for gunman Zephen Xaver (2024)
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