Cooper sentenced to life in prison for double murder
Convicted murderer Fred Cooper will spend the rest of his life behind prison bars, a Lee County Circuit Court judge ordered Monday.
“It is the intention of this court that you never again be able to look at the light of day except through steel bars and barbed wire,” Judge Thomas S. Reese told Cooper.
Cooper showed little emotion as the sentence was delivered. He stood before the bench, handcuffed and clad in an orange jail jumpsuit. He stared directly ahead. Four deputies surrounded him and his attorneys.
The 30-year-old former Bonita Springs motorcycle mechanic was convicted of killing Steven and Michelle Andrews as they slept in their Gateway bedroom in December 2005.
A Pinellas County jury on March 3 found him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed burglary. Days later, a majority of the jurors recommended that he serve a life sentence. He could have received the death penalty.
Instead, Cooper received two life sentences, one for each murder, and 25 years for the burglary. He will serve the three sentences consecutively and will receive no parole.
Only one family member of the victims was present at the sentencing. In a statement before the court, Russell Andrews, father of Steven, told Reese that the killings frightened the Gateway community in which his son and daughter-in-law lived and shattered community ties once intact.
His grandson, Steven and Michelle’s son Lukasz, who was 2 years old at the time of the murders, would suffer the most, he said.
“He is part of a loving family but is deprived of knowing his mom and dad except in pictures and stories,” he said.
Andrews never spoke to Cooper, whose back was to him. Cooper only looked forward as Andrews spoke.
Cooper’s mother, Denise Cooper, and sister, Angela Cox, were both in the courtroom. Neither spoke to the court, and neither could be reach for comment later.
Cooper was escorted out of the courtroom, and he will soon be transferred to a Department of Corrections reception facility. Corrections officers will decide where he should be sent, based on his crime, behavior and sentence.
Monday’s hearing was something of a foregone conclusion. Case law all but bound Reese to uphold the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence. Cooper, who has maintained his innocence, was not expected to speak.
Before the sentencing, Reese denied a request by Cooper’s attorneys for a new trial. In a pair of motions, Deputy Public Defender Ken Garber cited nine reasons the case should be overturned, including a phone call between Cooper and his longtime girlfriend being deemed inadmissible.
The defense claimed the phone call was central to the reason Cooper initially lied to detectives in interviews. Kellie Ballew, Cooper’s longtime girlfriend, asked him during the call to come to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and provide her with an alibi for the killings.
Cooper was detectives’ real target; Ballew was the means to get him to talk.
“Sometimes the rules of evidence have to give way to important constitutional issues,” Garber said during his request.
Reese disagreed, and he denied the motion.
Monday ends a 3-year-plus ordeal for family members, investigators and prosecutors convinced of Cooper’s guilt from the day the bodies were found. Steven was shot to death as he lay in bed; Michelle was severely beaten and then asphyxiated to death.
Cooper became the immediate suspect on the day the bodies were found, when detectives learned Ballew had broken off their relationship and begun an affair with Steven.
The prosecution’s case relied on limited DNA evidence coupled with witness accounts placing Cooper in the neighborhood and other evidence showing he was in Gateway on the night the Andrewses were likely killed.
Cooper claimed he visited Michelle the night before the bodies were found and that the pair had sex in a vehicle in her driveway, an account that would seem to explain the inconsistencies in his original story and the DNA evidence.
But prosecutors poked holes in the story and attacked its “common sense,” a term they used throughout the trial.
“We told (family members) this was going to be a very long haul,” Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek said after the hearing.
He gave family members an estimate of 2 1/2 years, he said.
Cooper’s first trial, in October, ended in a hung jury after 32 hours of deliberations. The prosecution reloaded for the second trial, in St. Petersburg, and received a conviction after six hours. Jurors later said they were decided from the beginning of deliberations.
Lee County detective Walter Ryan, the lead investigator in the case, said a new jury and an improved case made the difference.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “It’s a great sense of closure to the family.”
In his statement, Russell Andrews told Reese that he agreed with jurors’ recommendation of life.
“But it won’t bring back Steven and Michelle,” he added.