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Storer: 'My first thought was death'

The restaurateur, on trial on charges of running down a robber, may learn the jury’s ruling today.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published August 2, 2006


TAMPA — Even as he chased the man who robbed him down an empty city  street, Lawrence Storer told jurors Wednesday that he didn’t intend to kill him.


He just wanted to keep him from getting away.

“I believed the police were on their way,” Storer said. “I look back at it now, I don’t understand why I’m chasing someone with a gun.”

But after deliberating for nearly three hours Wednesday, jurors still hadn’t decided whether to find Storer guilty of manslaughter in the 2003 death of 24-year-old Shantavious Wilson.

Shortly after 6 p.m., Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer sent the panel home, saying she wanted them to reach a decision that was “well thought-out and free from any pressure of time.” They will resume deliberations at 9 a.m. today.

For Storer, who discussed his actions the night of Wilson’s death publicly for the first time Wednesday, it meant another long night before his fate would be decided. If found guilty, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

“At first it was a release,” Storer said of his testimony, as he left the courthouse. “But the pressure of waiting is hard.”

Wednesday morning, the judge and lawyers for both sides took up the unresolved question of how much jurors could hear about an armed robbery Wilson pleaded guilty to in 1998.

Before jurors were allowed in the courtroom, the victim in the 1998 case took the witness stand and described the details of the robbery of her coin laundry by two young men. However, she identified Wilson as the man who pulled a gun on her, changing the story she originally gave police.

The contradictory statements convinced Judge Fleischer to bar the victim from testifying in front of the jury. However, lawyers from both sides agreed to read jurors a short statement saying Wilson participated in a 1998 armed robbery with another person, but did not carry or use a gun.

Then Storer took the stand.

During more than two hours of testimony, the 35-year-old restaurateur spoke in quiet, deliberate tones.

With prompting from his attorney, John Fitzgibbons, Storer described the long hours he spent working at his downtown restaurant, Sumos Thai, 301 E Twiggs Street. He said he sometimes went without sleep for days at a time, spending his nights renovating the 700-square-foot space.

By 11:30 p.m. the night of October 29, 2003, Storer was preparing for another night of renovations. He set out his tools and was changing his shoes inside his Ford Explorer when Wilson thrust a gun into the driver’s side window.

The large, silver gun would later turn out to be a pellet gun.

Storer said he was terrified.

“My first thought was death, obviously, and then my child,” he said. “You’re going to die and you’re not going to get to say good-bye.”

As he got out of  the truck, Storer hid his wallet – which contained $2,000 – in a rear wheel well. Assistant State Attorney Jalal Harb said the act showed Storer knew exactly what he was doing that night.

“It became very clear to you what the man was after was money,” Harb said. “You had the presence of mind to mitigate, lessen the damage, by hiding the $2,000.”

Storer said he was in a state of shock and acting on instinct.

As Wilson’s threats grew louder, Storer grabbed a black bag out of his truck and began searching for the day’s take from the restaurant’s cash register. He said he felt like an Al-Qaida hostage pleading for his life as he asked Wilson not to kill him.

When he wasn’t able to find the money, Wilson ordered Storer into the restaurant. There, Storer handed him a bag of change: $15.23 in all. Wilson left the restaurant, telling Storer to stay by the door.

Once Wilson left, Storer grabbed a cordless phone and dialed 911. The rest, he said, was a blur.

“I never imagined I would follow, in my words, a vicious criminal with a gun,” Storer said. “But I was. I believed I was doing it with the help of the 911 call, expecting someone to be there immediately.”

Storer jumped into his Explorer, still talking to the 911 dispatcher on his the cordless telephone, and tore after Wilson. The chase ended on Polk Street, with Wilson’s body flying 39 feet from where the truck  struck him. A surveillance tape showed Storer standing over Wilson’s lifeless body, pointing his finger and shouting at him.

Storer said he thought Wilson was still conscious at that point and told him: “You’re caught. You’re not getting away with this.”

In his closing statement, Fitzgibbons argued Storer was a hard-working family man who never intended to hurt anyone. He was so strongly provoked by the robbery, his actions amounted to an excusable homicide, Fitzgibbons said.

“Lawrence Storer did not ask to be put in this situation,” Fitzgibbons said. “He did not start his day or end his day asking to be here.”

But Harb told jurors Storer’s behavior that night -- from hiding his wallet to speeding up after he spotted Wilson-- was deliberate.

“This was a man behind the wheel on a mission,” Harb said. “A man behind the wheel who was upset.”
 

 

[Last modified August 2, 2006, 22:55:03]


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