SEBRING — The Highlands County grand jury has indicted 21-year-old Zephen Xaver on five counts of first-degree murder.
District 10 State Attorney Brian Haas said, after reviewing the facts of the case and the law, and visiting with victims' families on Thursday, he has decided to seek the death penalty. Xaver will be arraigned on those charges on Feb. 25, Haas said.
“I ask you to keep these devastated families in your prayers,” Haas said at a press conferences Friday afternoon on the lawn in front of the Highlands County Courthouse.
Although they will never recover from the tragedy, Haas said, the families will still need the support of the community to have strength to make it through the difficult months ahead.
“From the first second of indication that there was trouble at the SunTrust Bank, these folks and their agencies immediately sprung into action,” Haas said, referencing the law enforcement officials behind him.
He said they will continue to do so until this case is completed, as will Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody.
“Over the past 26 years, I have been steadfast in my faith in the criminal justice system,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said Friday, "and today's indictment has reinforced that faith.”
He offered thanks to Haas and his staff for prosecuting the case "to the full extent of the law," and thanked community organizations and agencies for "coming together as a team" to prepare and prosecute the case.
"Please keep the families in your prayers, keep the community in your prayers and find faith that we will find justice as the result of the case," Hoglund said.
Motive or details?
When asked if Xaver had said why he shot five people on Jan. 23, Haas said documents will be released later in the case that may shed light on that.
"At this point, we're not able to talk about anything that he may have said," Haas said.
When asked about details of how Xaver killed the five women in the bank, Haas said he had two concerns about those details. One, that he did not want to release any information that might create issues in trying the case.
Second, he said, the victim's families are going through "an incredibly tough time," and wanted to make sure they would be forewarned about that information being public, so they could avoid reports of it.
The survivor, or gun?
Regarding the person who escaped the incident through a back door, Haas said Xaver is not being charged with anything in relation to that person. However, he declined to give that person's name Friday, saying that information would come out when records are made public.
He said the same thing to questions of where Xaver bought the 9mm handgun he used in the killing. Haas would only say it was bought locally, and when asked if it was bought at a gun show that occurred just prior to the incident, he gave an emphatic, "No."
Venue or rumors?
Regarding possible change of venue, Haas said that would be up to the defense, once status hearings begin after the arraignment.
When asked about rumors that Xaver may have cased other banks before choosing the SunTrust branch, Haas said "rumors" was the operative term.
Again, he said information on that would come out in discovery.
Other than that, not much has changed in the case since 12:36 p.m. Jan. 23, when Xaver called 911 from SunTrust Bank, 1901 U.S. 27 South, to report he’d shot everyone there.
He also told the 911 dispatcher he had a 9mm handgun and was wearing a bulletproof vest.
Hoglund said on Jan. 24 that Xaver allegedly took everyone hostage before killing them in “a senseless crime.”
There were four employees — 54-year-old Debra Cook, 55-year-old Marisol Lopez (Rosado-Carmona), 31-year-old Jessica Eileen Noreen Montague, and 38-year-old Ana Maria Piñon-Williams — and one customer, 65-year-old Cynthia Lee Watson.
An as-yet unidentified employee in a rear break room managed to escape out a back door, calling 911 for what may have seemed at first to be a bank robbery.
Prior to the shooting, bank customer Victor Sparks walked up to the front doors, found them locked, and peered inside to find out why.
Seeing people lying on the floor and someone walking among them, he quickly turned away from what he thought was a robbery. He heard loud bangs while walking back to his car where his wife, Dianne, was waiting.
They called 911 and watched the bank from their minivan in the Residence Inn by Marriott parking lot across Tubbs Road from the bank. Police arrived in 90 seconds, according to Victor Sparks.
All 911 calls were released, along with arrest reports where Xaver allegedly gave a statement. However, all pertinent information on the calls was bleeped out and any statement in reports was redacted under Florida public records law, which gives exceptions for both open investigations and statements that could be a confession.
When Sebring police arrived, they also found doors locked, but 911 dispatchers maintained phone contact with the suspect. After more than an hour of negotiation, where Xaver would not grant access to the building, Hoglund had Highlands County Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team ram the doors.
SWAT came back out with Xaver, blank-faced and wearing a “Death to the Wicked” T-shirt. He had holed up in a rear office.
It’s at that point that police and SWAT also found the five victims. The Highlands News-Sun has chosen not to report details of the victim’s deaths.
Xaver was charged that day with five counts of first-degree premeditated murder.
Research by the Highlands News-Sun revealed Xaver grew up in Indiana. Plymouth Community School Corporation confirmed he was a student there, 2004-2012.
He changed schools in the 2012-13 school year to Bremen High School, and behavioral problems started. Documents from Bremen Police Department, dated Feb. 20, 2014, show a call from the high school regarding Xaver, who said he had a dream of “killing other students in a classroom.”
Allegedly, Xaver was allowed to take a nap during the fifth hour, if he felt he needed one. Upon waking, reports said, he allegedly reported having a dream where he killed multiple students.
The high school counselor contacted Eric Foster Counseling Services, who spoke to his counselor, who said he should be transported to Behavioral Health Center in Plymouth. His mother agreed.
On March 20 that year, police received advance notice of Xaver being re-admitted, and were told they might receive another call “due to Zephen's psychiatric issues.”
Xaver was actually able to enlist in the United States Army in March 2016. Army media relations stated, “Xaver reported to initial entry training in March 2016 and was separated in June 2016 before completing training; therefore, he was not awarded a Military Occupational Specialty.”
Law enforcement heard of Xaver’s mental health issues again. Michigan State Police Sgt. Matt Casseman was told by a girl on March 7, 2017, that Xaver sent her messages that he was “possibly thinking of suicide by cop and taking hostages.”
Xaver's license was checked and found valid and he had no convictions. His mother was notified and said she would speak with her son, but declined police assistance.
Xaver moved to Sebring sometime during the fall of 2018 and was hired as a trainee prison guard at Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2, 2018. He quit on Jan. 9, two days after he registered to vote.
Shortly before beginning at APCI, Xaver enrolled in online college classes at Stevens-Henager College. Officials there released a statement that they are reviewing what they were allowed to disclose under federal FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) guidelines.
“What we can disclose is that Mr. Xaver enrolled in our online program in September of 2018 and withdrew in December of 2018,” the statement said.
On the same day Xaver’s mother had a planned business trip, he entered the SunTrust bank.
Highlands Sun Editor Allen Moody, Staff Writers Kim Leatherman and Melissa Main, and Sports Writer Ruth Ann Lawson contributed to this report.