tampabay.com

He's not guilty of attacking Pizza Hut guy

But Benjamin Jablon is found guilty of taking pizza from a crime.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published March 16, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Benjamin Jablon, one of the two young men from Spring Hill accused of beating nearly to death Pizza Hut deliveryman Russell Sanford last March, was found not guilty Wednesday night of attempted murder, armed robbery, aggravated battery and grand theft auto.

Jurors took not quite two hours to make their decision.

Jablon, 20, was found guilty only of petty theft for taking some of the pizza gotten from the crime. Circuit Judge Jack Springstead sentenced him to 60 days in Hernando County Jail. That time and then some has been served since last March as he's waited for trial.

"Based on the evidence, I think it was the only verdict they could've come up with," said Robert Attridge, one of Jablon's two attorneys from New Port Richey.

"This whole year I knew he didn't do it," father Jimmy Jablon said. "I knew he was innocent."

The father of the victim? Not pleased.

"I'm just aggravated at the whole damn thing," Ken Sanford said. "If the kid's not guilty, the kid's not guilty, but there was stuff that just wasn't brought out.

"I can't be mad at the kid and his family," he added, "but I'm mad at the system for the way things went. People bungled stuff."

All of this started March 28, 2006, when some pizzas and Pepsis were ordered to an address at a dark cul-de-sac. Sanford got there and was attacked with a metal bat. His car, his money, the pizza were all stolen in one of the more notorious crimes in recent Hernando County history.

Sanford says he staggered for more than a mile to get help and was flown to Tampa with a fractured skull. Jablon was charged along with Devin Politis. Politis, 18, pleaded guilty last month and got 15 years in prison, and part of that deal was that he would testify against Jablon.

The three-day trial hinged on questionable work from the investigators on the case and some fine, well-compensated work done by Jablon's defense attorneys, and it was clear to some that other people could've been charged in this case. Prosecutor Bill Catto had very little to work with. But ultimately it came down to this: Were Politis' words believable enough to put Jablon in prison for the rest of his life, or might this have been some sort of initiation for Politis for the gang called Folk Nation?

There was no physical evidence linking Jablon to the crime. Politis was the crux of the state's case.

Wednesday morning, Politis, in handcuffs, shackles and a red jail jumpsuit, took the stand and swore to tell the truth.

It did not go well.

"His story was a total lie," juror Al Berger said Thursday afternoon.

The story went like this: Politis went over to his mother's house. Jablon was dating his sister. His sister needed money. He said Jablon started talking about robbing a pizza man. He said he thought he was joking and didn't think it was going to happen but followed Jablon because he was "an idiot kid." He said they found the bat in a ditch and that Jablon asked to use his cell phone and made the call to the Pizza Hut on U.S. 19.

He said Jablon wanted him to hit Sanford with the bat but that he got "scared" and Jablon took the bat and "did it himself."

The defense's cross examination was a ruthless 55 minutes.

Attridge picked Politis apart, pointing out inconsistencies on when he made phone calls, and to whom, and how detailed the plans were, what they were, and distances covered on foot in remarkably short periods of time after the crime, and on and on.

"Were you lying then," Attridge asked Politis at one point, "or are you lying now?"

Attridge asked Politis if he was lying to protect himself and point the finger at Jablon.

Politis said yes.

He was asked about Folk Nation. He said he knew "a little bit."

Was he trying to become a member?

"No sir."

Did he know that one initiation rite was a random act of violence?

"It's not random," Politis said. "It's all for a reason."

Berger, the juror, said Attridge "nailed" Politis.

A group of other teens who are members of Folk Nation were "persons of interest" early in the investigation. They said they were at Wal-Mart at the time of the attack to buy a car stereo. That didn't jibe - no car stereos were bought there that night, and the security video doesn't show them coming into the store. But they weren't charged.

The defense called some of those guys Wednesday. One testified that Politis was trying to become a member of Folk Nation. Another came to court dressed in a baggy T-shirt that said THUG LIFE.

He was asked if he had ever witnessed a Folk Nation initiation rite.

His answer was yes.

He was asked if he knew Benjamin Jablon.

His answer was no.

The jurors went out at 6:59 and came back into the courtroom about 10 minutes before 9.

The Jablons sat in the third row. They held hands and sat still. Benjamin Jablon and his attorneys rose to hear the court clerk read the verdict at 8:52 p.m.

Jimmy Jablon pumped his fist. Terri Jablon let out three low sobs and put her head on her husband's chest. The court clerk read the verdicts on the rest of the charges, and when she was done Benjamin Jablon hugged his attorneys and rubbed his eyes with his right sleeve, and then with his hands, and then again, and then still.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.