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Mom: Killings turned lives into 'endless pit of pain'

As the jury in the Xbox slayings starts to consider the death penalty or life in prison for the three defendants, the relatives of the six people who died tell about the lost dreams and their own anguish.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 28, 2006


ST. AUGUSTINE - They spoke of lost dreams. Marriages that will never happen. Grandchildren that will never be born. Destroyed futures, destroyed careers and destroyed lives.

Relatives of six murder victims gave tearful testimony Thursday about their anguish and pain before a jury that must decide whether three men convicted this week of the killings should receive life in prison or death by lethal injection.

Troy Victorino, 29, and Jerone Hunter and Anthony Salas, both 20, were convicted of six counts of first-degree murder for the slayings in August 2004. Prosecutors said Victorino organized the revenge killings because he became angry that one of the victims kept his Xbox video system and some clothing.

"Our lives have become an endless pit of pain," said Tina Gonzalez, mother of victim Robert "Tito" Gonzalez. "There is no greater pain than to lose a son. My last kiss was placed on a cold casket."

Several relatives showed pictures of their children: Jonathan Gleason in a theatrical production, Erin Belanger as a bridesmaid at her sister's wedding and with her boyfriend Francisco Ayo Roman, Michelle Nathan in her Burger King uniform, others at family gatherings and birthday parties. They testified about their sense of loss and the horrific deaths of their loved ones from the men swinging baseball bats inside a Deltona home.

"I stand outside at night and look at the stars and talk to her," said Kay Shukwit, Nathan's mother. "She wasn't just my daughter. She was my best friend."

Bill Belanger talked about the death of his only child, who kept Victorino's belongings after she had him evicted for being a squatter in her grandmother's vacant home.

"Erin's brutal murder was the worst horror that I or any other family member could have imagined," said Belanger, who told the jury he had to seek professional help to cope with the loss.

Gleason's mother, Patricia, and his sister, Melissa, told jurors that he was an honor student, dancer and musician and had dreams of becoming a doctor and serving the poor.

"He was so much more than the broken, battered body you saw pictured," said Melissa Gleason, referring the gruesome autopsy photos shown to the jury.

"What a loss the world has suffered," his mother said. "He was wise beyond his years."

Nancy Cordero, who described herself as Anthony Vega's little sister, told jurors she looked up to her brother, describing him as "my own Superman."

In his opening statement in the penalty phase, State Attorney John Tanner told jurors the prosecution would present five aggravating factors for all three defendants as it tries to secure the death penalty.

Those include a conviction in another capital felony; the slayings occurred during a burglary; there was a plan to eliminate witnesses; they were heinous, atrocious and cruel; and they were done in a cold and calculated manner.

In addition, Victorino's attorneys agreed to a stipulation that he was on felony probation for the crime of aggravated battery when the slayings occurred.

Jeff Dowdy, one of Victorino's attorneys, said they would put on medical experts to testify about a brain scan on their client.

A doctor for the defense testified that the scan showed abnormalities in the section of Victorino's brain that controls judgment and decisionmaking.

"We're going to be asking you to spare Mr. Victorino's life," Dowdy said.

Attorneys for Salas and Hunter plan to make their opening statements at the start of their cases in the penalty phase.

Victorino denied even being at the home when the massacre occurred, although DNA evidence linked him to the scene.

Both Salas and Hunter testified they hit some victims with bats, but denied striking any of the fatal head blows.

A fourth defendant, Robert Cannon, 20, pleaded guilty in October to all the charges. But when he took the stand early in the trial, he refused to testify and said he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because he was innocent. Chief Circuit Judge Bill Parsons hasn't decided whether he will allow the change.