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

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Bank Shooting Florida Trial
FILE - A Highlands County Sheriff's SWAT vehicle is stationed out in front of a SunTrust Bank branch, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Sebring, Fla., where authorities say five people were shot and killed. Jury selection starts Monday in the penalty trial of 27-year-old Zephen Xaver, who pleaded guilty last year to the murders. Chris O'Meara / AP

Zephen Xaver walked into a central Florida bank in 2019, fatally shot 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 without parole.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in the sentencing trial after numerous delays caused by 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 the SunTrust Bank in Sebring, about 84 miles (135 kilometers) southeast of Tampa. The trial only will decide Xaver's sentence. Opening statements are expected in two weeks, with the trial lasting about two months.

His victims included customer Cynthia Watson, 65, who had been married less than a month; bank teller coordinator Marisol Lopez, 55, who was a mother of two; banker trainee 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, a mother of one 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 set to begin at least two other times, but was postponed.

"I have purposely not 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 both declined to comment. Prosecutors are expected to argue Xaver deserves the death penalty because the killings were cold, cruel, heinous and planned. Xaver's attorneys are expected to cite what they have described as his years-long mental health problems as they seek leniency.

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 residents and known internationally for its annual 12 Hours of Sebring endurance auto race. Agriculture, tourism and retirees drive its economy.

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

He joined the Army in 2016. A former girlfriend, who met him at a mental 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 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 dismissal from the Army, Florida hired Xaver as a guard trainee in November 2018 at a prison near Sebring. He quit two months later, which was two weeks before the shootings. His employment file shows no disciplinary issues. He had applied to be a Sebring police officer seven months before the murders but wasn't hired.

On the day before he quit working at the prison, Xaver legally purchased a 9 mm handgun and bullets. Later he bought a bullet-resistant 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 shootings, he texted her, "I'm dying today,"

Then from the bank parking lot he texted, "I'm taking a few people with me because I've always wanted to kill people so I am going to try it and see how it goes. Watch for me on the news."

He then entered the bank, a sweatshirt covering his vest. Security video shows him smiling as he approaches Lopez, according to police reports. They briefly speak, 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 onto the floor face down. After shooting them, he calls police on his cellphone.

He had been in the bank less than four minutes.

Police spoke with Xaver for about an hour before a SWAT team broke into the bank. He surrendered a short time later and confessed in a taped interview with detectives. That statement has not been released, but will be played at the trial along with the security video.

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

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