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Somehow, death came to her door

Cautious and shy, friends say Danielle Cipriani always played it safe. Now the stranger who stabbed her 88 times faces the death penalty.

By BABITA PERSAUD
Published October 3, 2003

WEST SHORE PALMS - She was a safe person. Working late at night in downtown Tampa, leaving the WFLA-Ch. 8 building around midnight, Danielle Cipriani wouldn't just walk across the street to the parking garage. She asked a friend or security guard to escort her.

A single female, living on her own, she wasn't the kind to take chances. Not the kind to open the door late at night for a stranger, no matter how he pleaded. She was in the news business, heard crime reports daily, knew about a world of dangerous people.

Yet, in the wee hours of Saturday, July 7, 2001, a stranger did come to Cipriani's door, enter her apartment somehow and fatally stabbed her 88 times. Wednesday starts the penalty phase of the first-degree murder trial of Melvin Givens, a 27-year-old who takes medication for schizophrenia. He faces the death penality.

Although Givens and Cipriani, 31, lived less than two miles from each other - Cipriani on Fig Street near West Shore Plaza and Givens off Lois Avenue - there is no indication the two knew each other. Givens didn't even know her name. How he entered the unit remains a mystery. Tampa police found no evidence of a break-in. No broken glass. No signs of a struggle near the door of her condominium. A TPD spokeswoman said shortly after the murder that Cipriani must have let her guard down. Her friends find that hard to believe. Not the Danielle they know.

"She was a very safe person," said Geoff Cortelyou, a co-worker. "She would not have taken that kind of risk."

"She wouldn't open that door," said Chris Smith, a friend who also worked with Cipriani.

* * *

The job brought her to Tampa.

Originally from New Jersey, Cipriani grew up in Cape Coral, lived with her mother and had three brothers. She loved working in live TV news. But not in front of the camera. She was much too shy, quiet and reserved for the spotlight. She prefered to be behind-the-scenes, diligent, conscientious and careful. She directed a Fort Myers newscast before joining WFLA in 1997.

Cortelyou, now a production manager at WPEC News 12 in West Palm Beach, interviewed Cipriani when he was at WFLA and could tell right away she had "quiet confidence." He hired her for the technical director spot, where she worked in the control room and was responsible for switching between camera shots and going to video.

Shortly after, she moved up to weekend director for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, calling the shots on what video and graphics should be aired. She worked on a team of six and although shy, she wasn't cowardly. She stood up for her crew when a producer got an attitude during the live newscast. Don't yell at my crew, she warned.

"It's rare in the TV station to find someone with absolutely no ego, but that was Danielle," said Cortelyou.

Chris Smith was an intern when he first met Cipriani. He was sitting in the break room one Sunday, eating his dinner and watching The Simpsons. She walked in and they started talking. It soon became habitual. During Sunday dinner breaks, they would eat, talk and watch The Simpsons.

"She was a good listener," said Smith, 26.

During days off, Cipriani drove to Cape Coral to visit relatives. Almost every Sunday, she went to Palma Ceia United Methodist Church on Bay to Bay Boulevard and "was a key member in our contemporary worship service," said Dr. Earle Rabb, senior pastor.

She volunteered to run the projector that flashed the graphics on a screen during hymns and the sermon. One Sunday, Rabb and others enticed her to take the spotlight. Cipriani hesitated, then finally, she stepped in front of the screen. Church members handed her a bouquet of fresh flowers and she blushed.

"We wanted her to be properly recognized," said Rabb.

Cipriani wasn't the type to go to clubs. She prefered dinners with friends and co-workers at Spaghetti Warehouse. During breaks at work, she read romance novels at her desk. She wore Teddy bear charms and had an eye for spotting rainbows in the drizzle.

She was "an angel," said Smith.

On July 6, 2001, a Friday, Cipriani ate dinner with friends and then left for home. She said she had things to do.

* * *

Melvin Givens lived in small one-story home on busy N Lois Avenue with his mother and grandmother. An air-conditioning unit hangs from the front window. Snake plants in clay pots fill the front yard. White plastic chairs are lined up neatly along the carport.

Givens, unemployed, has a 10th-grade education and has been arrested previously on charges of burglary, theft, prowling, trespassing and resisting arrest. He told detectives he has paranoid schizophrenia and depression. He hadn't taken his medication for weeks.

That night, he sat smoking cigarettes on the porch, waiting for his mother, who was getting paid and would buy him beer. When she didn't show, Givens took off, walking toward West Shore Plaza, about two miles away.

He saw the movie Baby Boy.

The movie stars Tyrese Gibson as Jody, 20, who lives with his mother and is unemployed, much like Givens.

Jody fights with his mother's boyfriend, has sex with his girlfriends and rides around the neighborhood on a bike, since he has no car. He has nightmares of wearing an orange jumpsuit and landing in jail.

The movie begins with Jody as a fetus. As a grown man, his mother and girlfriends ask him: "When are you going to grow up?"

In the end, Jody shoots his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend and doesn't get caught.

After the movie, Givens hung around the theater and made small talk about high schools with patrons. He drank two 32-oz beers. Then, he left, walking across West Shore Boulevard, past the Payless Shoe Source and Citgo gas station, toward W Fig Street, a cut through to Lois Avenue, where he lived.

He was drawn to one unit because the lights were on inside. He watched a woman through the blinds. He saw her sitting in a chair, wearing a robe, watching television. She was alone.

* * *

He tied her hands and feet with a knotted T-shirt and went downstairs, where he found an 8-inch butcher knife in a kitchen drawer. To hide his fingerprints, he wrapped a towel around the knife.

* * *

It was 4 p.m. Saturday, and Smith, on the job at WFLA, walked back toward Cipriani's desk. She wasn't there. He assumed she had stepped out to the restroom. Forty-five minutes later, closer to the newscast, he walked back to her desk again with co-worker Ben Eytalis.

Cipriani was never late. Always punctual. Now, she was nowhere in sight. Eytalis telephoned her complex and got the answering machine. They called the boss, who came in and did the newscast. The crew worried. She's never late, said Smith. Maybe she was in a car accident. Maybe she was unconscious at the hospital and "we just didn't know yet," he thought.

The 6 p.m. newscast ended and Smith and Eytalis hopped in a car and drove down Kennedy Boulevard. It was raining. They turned right on West Shore Boulevard and then right again near the Payless Shoe Source. Smith knew the complex, but didn't know exactly which two-story unit was hers. They saw her dark purple Camaro. Inside was her employee ID.

"This was not good," said Smith.

They began knocking on doors. Smith went to one unit. It was late evening and the woman wouldn't open her door.

"Who is it?" she said.

"Is Danielle there?" Smith asked.

"Danielle lives across the street," shouted the woman, through the closed door.

Smith and Eytalis went across the street and spoke to Cipriani's neighbor, who said he heard noises from her condo around 1:45 a.m.

The co-workers knocked on Cipriani's door. The door was already opened. They were surprised.

They walked cautiously inside. Smith saw papers scattered on the kitchen floor, schedule changes from work. A purse and keys on a table. A vacuum cleaner in the center of the living room. Everything was clean. The air conditioning was on. But he felt "something was wrong."

He wanted to go upstairs, but Eytalis stopped him. They didn't know who was up there. They called the police.

Cipriani was found in her bedroom, near the foot of her bed, curled up in a fetal position. She had 88 wounds on her body. A gash near her eye. A bruise on the inner part of her thigh. Cuts on her fingers and arms. She was stabbed in the chest and 24 times in the back.

Police found no evidence of a forced entry. Only an aluminum filing cabinet knocked over upstairs. The peephole on her front door was dirty. Groceries bought the previous day from Publix were in the kitchen. They also found a romance novel with a bookmark in it.

Smith, who never saw the body, telephoned work. A homicide unit is here, he told them.

"You just felt a chill go through you at that point," said Cortelyou.

* * *

Givens wasn't connected to Cipriani's murder until a week later, when he was already in jail.

After the murder, Givens stole music CDs, a bottle of Smirnoff Vodka, $25 cash and gold charms of a Teddy bear and a Superman symbol from Cipriani's home. He swiped a 12-oz bottle of Pepsi from the refrigerator and took her phone, because he had touched it.

Around 8:30 a.m., he was spotted in Beach Park, taking a bike from an open garage belonging to criminal defense attorney Rick Terrana. Neighbors saw Givens and chased him. Terrana heard the commotion and hopped on another bike. He caught Givens, who was arrested and put in jail.

Terrana later told the Times that Givens reeked of alcohol and "had that crazed look in his eye."

At Cipriani's condo, detectives found a fingerprint on a plastic cup and a lotion bottle that matched Givens. At Givens' home, they found a T-shirt stained with Cipriani's blood stuffed into a cinder block. In Given's CD player, they found one of Cipriani's CDs: The Police.

* * *

During the two-week trial in August, prosecutor Pam Bondi called Cipriani's murder "an indescribable night of terror."

Defense attorney Harvey Hyman argued the stabbing was the frenzied act of a paranoid schizophrenic off his medication. He wanted second-degree murder. There was no premediation and no physical evidence of rape, he said. A jury found Givens guilty of first-degree murder and armed burglary. Jurors couldn't agree on whether he had raped Cipriani.

Givens didn't take the stand. He sat in the courtroom and showed no emotion, except when one of his lawyers gave him some LifeSavers candies. Then, he became animated.

His statement comes from a two-hour taped interview with Tampa Police Detectives J.D. Tindall and Louis Adan, conducted at the Falkenburg Road Jail and played in court.

On the tape, Givens speaks in a monotone, in half sentences peppered with "ums." He tells detectives he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

He talks about seeing a woman through the blinds. He said he asked to use the phone and she let him in willingly.

Later, when pressed by detectives, he admitted he forced his way in.

"I didn't really ask," he said. "I guess I just tried, um, tried using force against her."

"What did you want her to do?" Adan asked.

"That, I, um, to just have sex," Givens said.

Adan asked him why he stabbed her.

"I don't know," said Givens.

"Were you angry, Melvin?" Tindall asked. "Were you angry at her or were you angry at someone else?"

"Um, at myself," Givens said.

Givens' mental condition will become a point of discussion during the sentencing phase. Florida law does not ban imposing a death sentence on the mentally disabled, although judges may consider such evidence as a mitigating factor. Public defender Deborah Goins will handle the death-penalty phase for Givens. A jury reconvenes on Oct. 8.

Cipriani's friends doubt she even opened the door for Givens. It wasn't in her nature.

Maybe he sneaked in and surprised her, Smith said.

Maybe she was upstairs. If she was downstairs, there would have been broken items on the floor, said Smith. She would have defended herself.

Or maybe she was going back and forth to her car, said Smith, and had the door unlocked for a second.

"I've done that," he said.

During the trial, Smith saw Given's grandmother in the lobby.

"I wanted so bad to sit there and talk to her and ask her: What was he thinking? What is he like?" Smith said. "There's got to be a reason why he did it. I want to understand."

- Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 11:55:16]

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