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Possible parole haunts families

Thomas Blasi killed two in 1981, the jury said. But the verdict was botched and Blasi was convicted only of attempted murder.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


They lost loved ones to a murderer. But the families of Beatrice Egan and Thomas Hollywood should have at least had justice.

They came oh so close.

The suspect was captured within hours of the shooting. A Pasco jury took just 90 minutes to decide he was guilty of first-degree murder, and members spoke openly of their eagerness to recommend the death penalty.

That was nearly 22 years ago. By now, for whatever it would be worth, the Egan and Hollywood families should have had the satisfaction of seeing Thomas Francis Blasi executed.

That hasn't happened.

It will never happen.

Not only is Blasi still alive, he could be back on the street by April Fool's Day.

* * *

The victims' families, who already have seen so much slip away, will travel once again to Tallahassee on Wednesday, to stand before the Florida Parole Commission and try to prevent what to them would be the ultimate injustice.

The hearing will be the fifth one the families have attended. The relatives come from as far as New York. They've spent thousands over the years on airfare and hotels, and they've come to hate Tallahassee, because of what it represents for them.

But at least they have always left town knowing that Blasi would be locked away for a few more years.

This time could be different.

A parole examiner interviewed Blasi in January and wrote a glowing report. Blasi helped his cause by writing, for the first time, a letter in which he apologized to the families of his victims and took responsibility for his "vile acts."

The parole examiner recommended Blasi be set free.

"This makes me very bitter, very bitter," said Nadine Hollywood, 70, who was left a widow. "This man should have been executed. Now we've got to go through all this again just to keep him in prison."

* * *

Feb. 10, 1981.

Thomas Hollywood wasn't supposed to work that night. A retired New York City police officer, Hollywood, 51, had recently moved with his family to Pasco County. He had a regular golf game and worked part-time as a salesman at the Denim Den clothing store on U.S. 19 in Holiday.

That night, he was filling in for a co-worker.

As Hollywood closed the store just before 8 p.m., Blasi drove up in a gold Pontiac Trans Am, got out and pulled a gun. Hollywood confronted Blasi in the parking lot. Blasi fired once into Hollywood's stomach and jumped back in his car. As other people watched, he drove by and fired four more shots at the fallen Hollywood.

Beatrice Egan was one of those witnesses. Egan, the head waitress at Fat Boy's Bar-B-Q next door, had rushed outside to help.

As she knelt over the dying Hollywood, Blasi circled around the parking lot and opened fire again. Egan, 48, was shot in the chest and neck. She died a few hours later.

Witness descriptions of the Trans Am led detectives to Blasi the next day.

* * *

Nadine Hollywood had just finished a pot roast dinner and was watching Hill Street Blues on television when one of her daughters rushed in with the news. Her husband was dead.

"Back then, I thought it couldn't get any worse," she said last week. "But it has. It's been a nightmare ever since."

* * *

The trial lasted a week. Blasi, then 22, took the stand and pinned blame on a hitchhiker. He said the hitchhiker held him at gunpoint and forced him to rob the Denim Den. It was the hitchhiker, Blasi testified, who shot Hollywood and Egan.

The jury wasn't convinced. They deliberated just 90 minutes before agreeing that Blasi was guilty of first-degree murder. The forewoman signed the verdict forms, and the jury returned to the courtroom.

But they had committed an unthinkable error.

Jurors had 18 verdict forms from which to choose. They accidentally selected the ones for attempted first-degree murder with a firearm.

None of the jurors caught the mistake when the court clerk read the verdict.

They learned of their blunder on the bus ride back to their motel, when they asked a deputy when they would return to court to recommend the death penalty for Blasi. Told that they had convicted Blasi only of attempted murder, the jurors reacted with shock.

A judge held an emergency hearing the next day. The deputy testified that jurors told him on the bus, "That's not the verdict we wanted." Jurors told the judge they didn't notice the word "attempted" on the verdict forms. They also didn't hear the court clerk say "attempted" when the verdict was read.

They said they chose the verdict that included the word "firearm" because they wanted to convict Blasi of the worst possible crime. They wanted a verdict that would ensure the death penalty.

Circuit Judge Edward H. Bergstrom Jr., who has since retired, ruled he did not have the authority to change the botched verdict.

He gave Blasi the maximum sentence for the crimes: 203 years in prison.

Bergstrom also added an unusual condition to the sentence: He said the courts would retain jurisdiction over Blasi for 66 years.

That means that regardless of what the parole board decides on Wednesday, Blasi isn't going anywhere without the approval of a Pasco judge. If the judge says Blasi stays in prison, that's it.

* * *

The victims' families were in the courtroom for the verdict. At first, they didn't realize what had happened. Ever since, they've wondered: How could John Blasi, of all people, catch such a lucky break?

"He got the break of a lifetime," said Kelly Landy, Beatrice Egan's niece. "That's the reason he's still breathing. He doesn't deserve any more breaks."

* * *

Blasi, now 43, has spent half his life in prison. Under today's sentencing laws, which require inmates to serve 85 percent of their prison terms, he would die there.

Blasi, however, benefitted from a bygone era of Florida sentencing rules designed to ease the pressure on overcrowded prisons. He has managed to become eligible for parole 181 years before the end of his sentence, thanks to good behavior and a series of prison jobs.

Years ago, prison officials established a potential release date for Blasi: April 1, 2003. At each of the previous parole hearings, the commission has voted to leave Blasi's release where it was.

Which is why Wednesday's parole board hearing, six weeks before Blasi's potential release date, is so significant. The commission has two options: vote to parole Blasi or set a new release date.

In recommending that Blasi be released on April 1, a parole examiner cited the inmate's "outstanding" work record in prison and his successful completion of life skills and faith programs. There is no description of Blasi's crimes or the mixup over the verdict forms.

For his part, Blasi submitted a letter that said, in part:

"There aren't enough words to convey the remorse and pain I feel over the vile acts that I committed . . . " he wrote. "I realize that there is nothing I could ever do or say that will bring back the victims or lessen the pain of the victims' families. . . . I only ask for your forgiveness so that I can live the rest of my life with some degree of peace."

* * *

Liz Hollywood-Trentacosta would like to have some peace, too. But 22 years after losing her father to murder, she doesn't think peace is possible for her, regardless of what happens on Wednesday. If Blasi is turned down, there will be more parole hearings.

She doesn't even want to consider the possibility that Blasi will someday be a free man.

"This is something that can never go away," she said. "We can never be just a normal family."

* * *

The hearing on Wednesday won't last long. Each side -- the Egan and Hollywood families, and people speaking on Blasi's behalf -- will have 10 minutes.

Thomas Hollywood's wife and four of his six children will be there. Beatrice Egan will be represented by her two brothers and her sister, along with a handful of nieces and nephews. Both families have been working on their speeches for weeks.

For them, it's not whether John Blasi has been a model prisoner, or even whether society will be safe with Blasi walking the streets.

John Blasi, they say, owes a debt to society.

"He may be a model prisoner now, but it's too late," said Steve Visco, Beatrice Egan's nephew. "My Aunt Bea and Mr. Hollywood were model citizens who contributed to the community. John Blasi took them away, and he owes a lot."

Said Nadine Hollywood: "This man should never be allowed out. He mentions he wants peace of mind, well, I have a big grudge against him because he changed my life. He took my husband. My six children lost their father."

Blasi's parents will be at the hearing, too, to speak on their son's behalf.

"He is no danger at all," said his mother, Sandy Blasi. "He has been through hell in prison. I know (the victims' families) have suffered. But we've suffered, too. We lost a son through this. He's our only son. He missed the best years of his manhood."

Should he be released, Blasi plans to spend the next year at a faith-based halfway house in Ocala, Time for Freedom. He told his parole examiner that he wants to work as a commercial artist.

"He is by all definitions the best risk the parole commission could ever take," said Bernie DeCastro, the director of Time for Freedom, who has visited Blasi in prison several times.

"I know inmates, and there's plenty of guys I wouldn't go to bat for in front of the parole commission, said DeCastro, who spent 18 years in prison for armed robbery. "I'm no bleeding heart liberal, but I'll vouch for John."

* * *

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney for Pasco and Pinellas counties, will be at Wednesday's hearing to oppose Blasi's release.

If Blasi prevails, sending the case to a Pasco judge for review, Bartlett said he will not give up. He said he will file a motion urging the court to keep Blasi in prison. He will make sure, he said, that the judge knows the details of the murders, the bizarre outcome of the trial, and most importantly, what the victims' families have been through.

"It's been a recurring nightmare for the families, and my heart goes out to them," Bartlett said. "It's a continuing battle to get justice."

No one knows that better than Nadine Slomski, one of Thomas Hollywood's four daughters.

"It's very emotional, very painful and very stressful," she said. "But this time will be the worst. This is the big one."

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