Murder suspect has violent past
The man accused of killing Sarah Lunde has served time for aggravated assault and rape and has faced other accusations.
By BRADY DENNIS
Published April 19, 2005
TAMPA - David Onstott, charged with the murder of 13-year-old Sarah Lunde, has a lengthy history of violence against women, broken marriages, failure to pay child support and, in one case, an alleged sexual attraction to a former wife's teenage daughter.
Public records in Florida and Michigan dating back to 1986, along with interviews with people involved, reveal a man troubled since his teenage days:
--He once beat a man with a baseball bat; later, he was accused of attacking another man with a machete.
--He allegedly stalked a former girlfriend in 1995, scaring her so badly that she moved to a different city and got an unlisted phone number.
--He spent six years in prison after raping a woman that same year.
--He physically abused one of his wives and allegedly wrote love letters to her teenage daughter.
--He drank heavily and used cocaine.
Now the 36-year-old Ruskin man faces his most serious charge: first-degree murder. Investigators say Onstott, who had dated Lunde's mother, Kelly May, confessed to choking Lunde to death and dumping her body in an abandoned fish pond near her home.
Officials have not said whether he sexually abused the girl. But they have hinted that Onstott likely will face the death penalty.
Even so, his arrest Sunday marks the latest in a string of criminal behavior that began during his days in Michigan and followed him to Florida.
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Onstott first tangled with the law in July 1986. He had just turned 18. He and two other teenagers in Flint, Mich., beat a boy with baseball bats and a 7-pound steel pipe.
"It's the only time I ever really got my ass whipped," said Lonnie Lamay, who suffered a broken hand and arm, a cut lip and shattered teeth. "It was a pretty vicious attack."
The original charge was assault with intent to murder, but Onstott pleaded to a lesser charge of aggravated assault. He was sentenced to six months in jail.
About the same time, Onstott fathered his first child with a girl named Robin Hincka. The couple's 17-year-old daughter recently had a baby of her own, making Onstott a 36-year-old grandfather.
"He was never violent with me," said Hincka, who asked that her current married name not be used. "As soon as he found out I was pregnant, he got on his knee and asked me to marry him."
She declined and didn't see Onstott again for five years. Even now, she said, he owes her $17,000 in child support. It was a pattern he would repeat.
Records show he has fathered at least three children by different women and has defaulted on thousands of dollars in child support payments for each one.
While his child support payments stacked up, so did his arrests. He racked up DUIs in Michigan and Florida, as well as charges for cocaine possession.
But most troubling were his unstable relationships with wives and girlfriends.
Hillsborough County records show that in 1989, at age 20, he married a 36-year-old woman named Wanda Ruth Rice. They had a son in February 1991. But it was a short, troubled marriage.
By December of that year, Rice had filed for divorce, claiming that Onstott was "a violent man who physically abused (me) throughout the marriage." She said that he pushed and cursed at her 10-year-old son.
And she alleged that Onstott had "expressed sexual attraction" to her teenage daughter, going so far as to enter the girl's bedroom while she was sleeping and once writing her "a love letter."
In April 1995, back in Michigan, a judge issued a restraining order against Onstott after he stalked a former girlfriend, according to court records. Reached Monday by phone, the woman's husband said Onstott would show up drunk at her door, shouting and cursing. He also became violent at times.
The husband, who asked that he and his wife not be named, said the incidents forced them to get an unlisted phone number and move to another Michigan city, which he wouldn't reveal. They still worry.
"You're always looking over your shoulder," the man said. Asked about Onstott being charged with Sarah Lunde's murder, he said: "Thank God they have the death penalty in Florida. He is not a good guy."
In June 1995, Onstott was arrested on charges of raping a Hillsborough County woman. She testified that he knocked on her door, asked to use the bathroom, then threw her to the floor and sexually assaulted her. A jury convicted him.
In a letter to the court, Onstott pleaded for leniency in his rape sentence.
"I am a hard working person and have been so all my life," he wrote. "I have set goals to better myself.... I know that if I were to have my sentence reduced, I could help the police in my town of Ruskin put away the cocaine dealers ... because I know their sources."
He also wrote that he had three children to support and that "it's very important to me that I get back to being a father."
Instead, he spent the next six years in a Florida prison.
He was released in 2001 and, barely a year later, was arrested again, accused of hitting a man across the face with a machete. He was acquitted of the charges.
More recently, Onstott married again. Records show that in October 2003 in Ruskin he wed Rhonda Elaine Crouse, who declined to comment Monday. She lives barely a quarter-mile from where Sarah Lunde's body was found. Crouse and Onstott still appear to be legally married.
But that didn't keep him from having multiple girlfriends in the past year, including Sarah Lunde's mother.
Only weeks ago, a former girlfriend was granted an injunction against Onstott, forbidding him to come near her for a year. The woman, Melissa Ann Hartman, wrote in a Hillsborough court affidavit that she was "conned by his smooth exterior."
"It took me a while to figure out this man was dangerous," she wrote.
Hartman told a judge that Onstott abused alcohol and drugs and that his violent past worried her. "I am a single mother with a 9-year-old girl and I want to have a safe life for us," Hartman wrote.
"David is violent and seriously unstable and honestly I am scared to death of him."
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His arms and legs shackled, Onstott made his first appearance in court Monday on the murder charge. He said nothing.
He remains in the Hillsborough County jail without bail, and Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober vowed to try the case himself. He declined to say yet whether he will seek the death penalty.
"I can assure you we are fairly evaluating that situation," Ober said.
Meanwhile, the case on Monday had already reached the halls of the state Capitol.
Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, was working to have Sarah's name added to the Jessica Lunsford Act, a proposal that would require sexual offenders to wear electronic monitors. It is named after the 9-year-old Homosassa girl who was abducted and murdered in February.
"It's sad that we're having to take these actions, but I think they are necessary," Reagan said. "I do believe we're going to have to strengthen the way we deal with people who are sexual offenders."
The proposal is scheduled to be heard on the floor of the House today.
In Ruskin on Monday, investigators drained the pond where Sarah's body was found, scouring the area for clues.
Nearby, at Beth Shields Middle School, grief counselors spent the day offering support to dozens of children grieving the loss of their sixth-grade classmate. Students have begun a collection and started brainstorming ways they might memorialize her.
New benches, maybe. Or perhaps a tree in her honor.
For now, they continue to wear the ribbons they wore last week when they hoped for her safe return. Green ribbons, Sarah's favorite color.
--Times staff writers Jeff Testerman, Jamie Thompson, Carrie Johnson and Letitia Stein contributed to this report.