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Testimony begins in Big Lots murder trial

This was not the first time Charles C. Peterson robbed a discount store, the prosecution said.

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published July 22, 2005

LARGO - The employees at the Tyrone-area Big Lots store were closing up on Christmas Eve 1997 and looking forward to spending the evening with their families and friends. But then a man emerged from the shadows.

He had strolled in before closing, pretending to be a customer. Then he hid. When the doors were locked, he slipped a nylon sock over his head, pulled gloves over his hands and took out a gun.

One employee was bound. Others were forced to lie on the ground. A clerk, 48-year-old John Cardoso, was shot dead.

Testimony began Thursday in the trial of Charles C. Peterson, a former hotel chef charged with the robbery and murder. If convicted, Peterson could face the death penalty.

Though there isn't a bevy of evidence directly connecting Peterson to the murder, DNA evidence has connected him to a very similar Tampa Family Dollar store robbery on Valentine's Day 1997 in which two clerks were raped. He also is suspected in a number of other similar hold-ups in the mid 1990s.

"This was not the first time nor the last the defendant would commit a robbery on a discount store," prosecutor Doug Crow told jurors in opening statements Thursday.

Besides his method of entry, the robber in multiple cases demanded the "big money." He tied up his female victims and called them names. He put the gun to their heads and told them not to look at him. He exited out the back of the stores.

Peterson became a suspect in the robberies after news reports about the hold-ups noted the perpetrator's unique, duck-like walk. Someone called the police saying they thought it was Peterson.

Knowing they had the robber's DNA from the Family Dollar rapes, police began tailing Peterson. When they saw him spit while stopped at a red light, they moved in and sopped up the saliva. It matched the DNA in the rapes.

Peterson was charged with that crime, for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2001.

In addition, a Big Lots employee picked Peterson's picture out of a photo lineup and said she was sure - though not 100 percent - that he was the robber. A customer who was in the store around closing claimed to see Peterson inside the store, though that customer also couldn't be 100 percent sure.

Testimony is expected to last about two weeks.

Peterson's defense attorneys did not make an opening statement Thursday, instead reserving their right to make a statement after the state rests its case.

[Last modified July 22, 2005, 00:32:15]

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