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Uncertain verdict
Wed Mar 23, 2011 10:33am

Attorneys for more than two decades have argued jurors were left in the dark about the inconsistencies in the Vronzettie Cox murder investigation.

Most of the proof is found in various reports written by detectives with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. More undisclosed evidence was brought to light in the dozens of volumes of court documents and testimony given during the post-trial hearings.

Prosecutors said Cox, 42, was killed and stuffed into the trunk of her Chevrolet sedan the morning of Sept. 9, 1985. One year later, they convinced jurors Paul Hildwin was the culprit.

After a series of appeals and a second sentencing hearing in 1996, Hildwin remains on death row.

Prosecutors used forensic test results, eyewitnesses and a jailhouse informant to support their case.

"Piece by piece and block by block, these bricks of circumstantial evidence are going to surround this defendant and this circumstantial evidence is going to be held together by the mortar of your common sense," said then-Assistant State Attorney Tom Hogan during his opening arguments in the 1986 trial.

Attorneys representing Hildwin during the appellate process said they have found several holes in Hogan's case and they've accused him of purposely hiding them.

For starters, the sheriff's office was unsure of the correct timeline in Cox's murder even after Hildwin was indicted and subsequently convicted and sentenced, according to narrative statements written by detectives who worked the case.

They interviewed a relative of the victim who spoke to Cox at a Brooksville-area bar one night 12 hours after she was reportedly killed.

Another witness claimed she saw Cox with her boyfriend the following day. She was a server at the bar the two allegedly visited.

A motion was filed by Hildwin's defense in 1990. It included stinging indictment of the performance of Hogan and his co-counsel, Assistant State Attorney Richard Cole. Attorneys took aim at their ethical approach to the case.

"(Jurors) saw and heard only what (Hogan and Cole) felt was appropriate to put before them," wrote attorneys with Capital Collateral Representative, a state-funded office that represents death-row defendants.

"Despite the State's obligation to produce the HCSO records, however, none of the actual reports were given to the defense," CCR attorneys argued. "The failure to provide these reports was obviously deliberate because they contained information damaging to the state's case."

What the defense attorney did on his own perhaps proved more damaging to Hildwin's fate. A murder trial that dragged on for two weeks resulted in a jury deliberation lasting less than two hours.

It was in large part because Hildwin took the stand in his own defense.

Pine needles, a checkbook and a ring

Jurors afterward told The Tampa Tribune it was a difficult trial to sit through, but reaching a guilty verdict was easy, especially after Hildwin testified.

"The state had a real good case," one juror said.

Hildwin, who was convicted of rape twice, had told detectives he witnessed someone assaulting Cox. He said her attacker had a noticeable tattoo of a cross on his back.

While Hildwin was cross examined, Hogan ordered him to stand up, pull up his shirt and turn his back to the jury.

Hildwin was sporting a cross tattoo.

"It was obvious he was confessing," one juror was said in the Tribune article. "We all knew he was describing himself."

Hildwin, who had no money, said his car had run out of gas the night before along U.S. 19. He decided the following morning to walk to a nearby store to get some cash. While hitchhiking, he was picked up by Cox and her boyfriend, William Haverty, according to his interviews with detectives.

Hildwin said he had met Haverty before. He claimed the couple argued incessantly that morning before Haverty snapped and attacked Cox.

While Haverty was smacking and choking his girlfriend, Hildwin decided he had seen enough, he said.

He grabbed Cox's purse and her checkbook fell out. Inside one of the side pockets was a pearl ring.

He said he took off on foot with both items while Haverty continued to attack Cox.

Authorities arrested Hildwin on check forgery after he cashed one of Cox's checks. Deputies searched his home and found the ring.

In October 1985, more than four weeks after Cox's body was found, deputies responded to a pine forest near Oregon Road, a short distance north of Centralia Road, according to sheriff's office records.

A pair of women's sandals was recovered along with a silver door molding. Authorities later linked the shoes to Cox and the molding to her vehicle.

Cox's body and Chevrolet were barely less than a mile from the pine forest.

Additionally, pine needles were found inside the car and on Cox's body, according to the sheriff's office.

Hildwin told several stories to detectives and gave another version while on the stand during his trial.

Hogan tore into him, accusing him of telling "repeated lies" to investigators.

More suspicions about Haverty

Haverty, who was 23 at the time of the murder, showed a variety of emotions after a detective notified him of Cox's fate, according to the sheriff's office.

Sgt. Thomas Blackman, who at the time was a supervisor of the criminal investigative division at the sheriff's office, interviewed Haverty.

"It should be noted, during this interview, when Mr. Haverty was advised that (Cox's) body had been found in the trunk of a vehicle and she had been murdered, he became somewhat theatrical in his motions temporarily and then appeared to show no remorse or concern whatsoever," Blackman wrote in his report.

"When relating this story in his sequence of time, Mr. Haverty was very quick in his responses," stated Blackman. "(It was) almost as though his story had been rehearsed."

Blackman also noted when Haverty was told people were looking for him at local bars to talk to him about Cox's disappearance, he "spontaneously started to make the remark, 'I knew you would be,' and then caught himself."

Relatives of Cox had their suspicions of Haverty, according to sheriff's records and court documents.

Acquaintances of Haverty also learned through their conversations with him that his relationship with Cox had hit a few snags.

Tracy George told prosecutors he observed Haverty acting "huffy jumpy and unsettled" one morning possibly the day after authorities believed Cox was killed, according to interview transcripts.

George said Haverty left that morning for a few hours. After he returned to his trailer, George noticed a woman's stocking hanging out of Haverty's pants pocket and gravel on his T-shirt, the transcripts showed.

Deputies also recovered a handwritten note inside the couple's trailer written by Haverty. It read, "(expletive deleted) and die."

When Cox's sister, Beatrice Moore, filed a missing person report, she was accompanied by Haverty.

Sgt. Perry Louis Flinn, who took the report, noticed a strange demeanor on the part of Cox's boyfriend. He also noted Moore's apparent distaste for Haverty, according to court records.

Haverty said not to contact the Brooksville Police Department "because she would not be in their area," Flinn stated in his report.

Hildwin's attorneys point to that statement as evidence he had inside information, which contradicts his contentions he had nothing to do with the slaying.

Moore and Haverty arrived at the sheriff's office to file a report only after they were implored to do so by Cox's husband, who lived in Ohio.

"Sgt. Flinn was obviously intrigued by the fact that it was Mrs. Cox's estranged husband, rather than her boyfriend, who wanted to report Mrs. Cox as missing," CCR attorneys wrote in a 1990 motion.

All of the aforementioned evidence was withheld from Hildwin's defense attorney prior to the 1986 trial, according to court records.

Haverty, meanwhile, remains in prison following his 1998 conviction on sexual battery charges. The victim was younger than 12 years old, according to court documents.

Faulty forensics and a shaky timeline

Hernando Today recently reported the discovery of a failed match between Hildwin's DNA and the forensic evidence recovered at the scene.

Prior to the advancement of DNA technology, prosecutors relied heavily on the evidence to prove its case. The seminal fluid found on a pair of underwear in the backseat of Cox's car contained no traces of a blood type.

That only occurs with 11 percent of the population and Hildwin was part of that minority, prosecutors said. Haverty, they contended, was not.

The DNA still hasn't been matched to anyone else since the 2003 discovery and Hildwin's attorneys have argued it's entirely because of the state's inaction.

They have filed a petition asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to upload the DNA into its databank. The Florida Attorney General and the State Attorney's Office are fighting it.

Jennifer Krell Davis, the press secretary for Attorney General Pam Bondi, said her office had no comment on the case because it's still going through the appellate process.

The latest oral arguments were made March 7 before the Florida Supreme Court. Briefs on the DNA petition are likely to be written and filed by both the state and the defense during the next few weeks.

One issue CCR attorneys have referenced multiple times in their appellate motions has been whether the sheriff's office nailed down an accurate timeline. They believe that's where detectives failed. They also think former prosecutor Tom Hogan ignored those warning signs before taking the case to trial.

Some of the reports on file with the sheriff's office include narratives from witnesses who said they had seen Cox more than 12 hours after she was reported killed.

One bar manager told detectives he saw Cox and Haverty together in the middle of the afternoon on Sept. 10, 1985. Prosecutors said Cox was killed the previous morning.

A bartender at the same bar confirmed the sighting. She told detectives she served drinks to both of them.

Lt. Roland Hazzard, of the sheriff's office, had a lengthy interview with Terry Moore, who was Cox's nephew.

Moore, who was 21 at the time, said he was at Peeping Tom's Bar with the victim and her boyfriend the night of Sept. 9.

Haverty was drinking and not paying attention to his girlfriend's conversation with Moore, according to Hazzard's report.

Moore told Hazzard they spoke for three or four hours, during which Cox made it known to him she was unhappy with her relationship with Haverty.

Cox asked Moore whether he could "fix an enemies (sic) car so that it didn't run," according to the report.

Cox explained she wanted Haverty's vehicle "destroyed" and would pay $50 to do it, Moore said.

Eventually, the couple left the bar together visibly drunk, according to the report.

That was the last time Moore ever saw Cox.

Hildwin's trial attorney, Daniel Lewan, "was not provided with even the names of the witnesses in (those) reports," according to court documents.

A questionable jail informant

Hildwin was arrested Sept. 21, 1985, for forging one of Cox's checks.

Four days earlier, Hogan prosecuted Robert Allen Worgess on a grand theft charge. The judge, R.L Huffstetler, sentenced him to probation.

On Nov. 7 of that same year, Worgess was told he would be arraigned on a second count of grand theft.

Roughly five weeks later, Worgess gave a statement to the sheriff's office claiming Hildwin had confessed to him about the Cox murder.

On July 23, 1986, a month prior to Hildwin's trial, Worgess went before Huffstetler again. He was granted a continuance for his second grand theft charge.

While testifying on the stand during Hildwin's trial, he told jurors the murder defendant was reading a book one day and in a fit of emotion, hurled it out of his cell.

Worgess said he approached Hildwin, who then told him, "They're going to fry my (expletive deleted)."

"And at that point I asked him did he kill her," Worgess testified. "He said, 'Yes, I did.'"

Worgess also said Hildwin told him "I stabbed her first."

The autopsy report revealed Cox was strangled. There was no evidence her attacker used a knife or any other sharp object to kill her.

"The prosecutor, Tom Hogan, nevertheless, failed to correct Worgess' perjured testimony and then used it in his closing argument to the jury," CCR attorneys wrote in their motion.

On Sept. 10, 1986 five days after jurors returned with a death penalty recommendation for Hildwin Hogan asked Huffstetler to release Worgess from jail.

"Worgess was then released immediately and his reinstated probation was transferred to the State of Michigan," Hildwin's attorneys stated.

Worgess received no additional jail time for his second grand theft charge, in spite of committing it while on probation, according to court records.

Huffstetler retired from the bench and died in 2009.

Hogan, who now owns a private practice with offices in Brooksville and Spring Hill, did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

"None of (those) facts ever reached the jury," Hildwin's attorneys stated in their motion 21 years ago. "Whether Worgess, at the time of his testimony, expected favorable treatment is indisputable.

"It would stretch the imagination to its limits to believe that Worgess simply never discussed with Mr. Hogan the ramifications of his assistance," they wrote. "The state's conduct in this instance was appalling."

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or

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