Jury picked and opening statements begin in Gateway murder trial
ST. PETERSBURG — For many in the courtroom here, Friday was a reintroduction to the three-year-old Gateway killings.
But for nine women and five men seated in a jury box, the opening statements and witnesses in Fred Cooper’s second murder trial offered their first look into the brutal 2005 deaths of a young — and seemingly happy — married couple, Steven and Michelle Andrews.
They saw pictures of Steven Andrews’ blood-caked body, face down on the carpet between his bed and the wall. They saw Michelle Andrews’ body on the other side of the room, beaten and exposed, her arms extended.
And they saw a photograph of their 2-year-old son, Lukasz Andrews, smiling as he stood in a pair of blood-stained socks.
Cooper’s trial began in earnest on Friday morning after the court narrowed a jury pool of 45 to 14, comprised of 12 regular jurors and two alternates.
Cooper, 30, a former motorcycle mechanic who lived in Bonita Springs, is charged with two counts of first degree homicide and a count of armed burglary. His first trial, in October 2008, ended when a Lee County jury failed to reach a verdict. Lee County Judge Thomas S. Reese moved the second trial to St. Petersburg, citing the case’s heavy publicity.
If convicted, Cooper could face the death penalty.
In opening statements, neither side offered a narrative as much as a preview of the days to come.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek presented a timeline of the murder and subsequent investigation of Cooper. He said testimony from Cooper’s longtime girlfriend, Kellie Ballew, would detail a relationship that was at its end when Ballew began having an affair with Steven Andrews. Prosecutors say the relationship provided Cooper’s motive.
“You’re going to hear they weren’t speaking to each other much anymore,” Kunasek told jurors. “You’re going to hear they weren’t sleeping in the same bed.”
He named the witnesses in the Andrewses’ Cypress Point community who saw a stranger fitting Cooper’s description around the time of the killings. Kunasek said jurors would hear about Cooper’s lies to Lee County Detective Walter Ryan, when he said he never went to Gateway and didn’t know where the Andrewses lived.
By the end of one of those interviews, “Walter Ryan has a suspect — motive and means,” Kunasek said.
He asked that jurors “maintain your common sense.” “And you’re going to see the state has proved there was a motive, there was an opportunity, and evidence.”
In his opening statement, Cooper’s defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Ken Garber, cautioned jurors to be skeptical as they listened to the state’s evidence. Cooper was tricked into visiting a Sheriff’s Office substation, he noted, when Ballew said she needed an alibi. Eyewitnesses struggled to pick Cooper out of photo lineups, he said, and they may not have gotten a good look in the first place.
“I think you’re going to hear evidence it was very dark that night,” he said.
Cooper, he explained, had nothing to hide. He gave detectives permission to take a camouflage jacket he owned and to search his home and vehicle.
“He was cooperative in this investigation,” Garber said.
“I think you’ll be able to come to the right justification in this case, which is that Mr. Cooper did not commit these crimes,” he ended.
The prosecution began its case by calling Lee County Deputy Tracie Lodato, the first person on the scene at the Andrews home. She was dispatched after an emergency operator received a 911 call at 7:02 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2005. No one could be heard on the end of the line.
Lodato, who lived in the neighborhood and knew the Andrewses, arrived to find Lukasz alone inside. He said ‘mama’, and he pointed upstairs. Lodato was nervous that his parents were still home, but she followed him to the stairs.
“He went up a couple of stairs and continued saying ‘Mama’, and I continued to announce myself,” Lodato said.
When they arrived at the door, she opened it to find Michelle Andrews’ body.
“I saw a female foot that appeared to me to be deceased,” she said.
She grabbed Lukasz and ran outside.
Deputies in the area responded to Lodato’s call for backup.
“I could tell, you know, hearing her voice, she wanted it there pretty quickly,” said Deputy Christopher Laylor.
Laylor, Lodato and another deputy drew their guns and searched the home. They entered the master bedroom and saw Michelle Andrews. They found her husband on the other side of the room.
Harry Balke, a crime scene manager with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, said the bedroom was the only room that presented an obvious crime scene.
“There was blood generally on the carpet, furniture and the walls,” he said.
During cross-examinations, Garber asked Lodato if she saw anyone suspicious in the area and how well lit the neighborhood was. She didn’t see anyone, she said, and lamp posts are set in front of each home.
Friday’s progress followed two days of jury selection and a setback on Tuesday, when several jurors had an opportunity to see a handcuffed Cooper being escorted along a back hall in the building. Reese dismissed the day’s jury pool.
Wednesday and Thursday’s proceedings moved slowly at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater, where the court found several jury pools to continue the selection process.
By Friday morning, the remaining 45 potential jurors — minus one who called in sick — returned with energy. When Garber asked the group if they could trust someone who admitted to lying in the past, he received a variety of responses. Some said they would be prone not to believe the person. Others said the person may have had legitimate reasons.
When one man said he wouldn’t believe Cooper’s account unless he testified, Reese’s anger flashed.
“He does not need to testify,” the judge scolded the panel. “If he does not testify, I will also instruct you that you will not hold that against him.” The man was later selected as a juror.
There are two alternate jurors on the panel, a man and a woman. Two jurors are African-American. One is Hispanic.
Jurors appeared focused on the day’s testimony. Some took notes on small clipboards provided by the court.
Cooper’s mother, Denise Cooper, sat behind her son in the first bench on the defense side of the room Friday. The Andrewses’ parents sat on the prosecution side. Dan Kokora, Michelle Andrews’ father, leaned forward during much of the testimony. Barbara Andrews, Steven Andrews’ mother, could be seen dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
Court resumes at 9 a.m. Monday, when Balke, the crime scene manager, continues his testimony.