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From the start, eyes were on son

PLANT CITY- But 16 months later, the strawberry farmer's slaying remains unsolved.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published May 4, 2007


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Michael White faced detectives in the gray-walled interrogation room.

The night before his father's murder, he said, the two of them worked till dawn in the family's strawberry field to keep their plants from freezing.

"That was my last memory, " White said.

Across the table, Detective Charles Keene stared at him.

"No, " Keene said. "Your last memory should be you ringing the doorbell, him opening the door and you cutting loose with that SKS rifle."

"I did not kill my father, " White said.

"Yes you did, " Keene said. "Yes you did."

As confident as Keene sounded that day - and as much evidence as the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office found against Michael White - the murder of 61-year-old strawberry farmer Bruce White remains unsolved 16 months later.

But stacks of documents recently made public show how close authorities came to charging the son with the crime.

- - -

The Whites' 70-acre farm is south of Plant City, down a long dirt drive. On a hot spring day, the breeze from the fields smells like strawberry cobbler. It remains a private place; in fact, no members of the White family agreed to comment for this story.

Michael, 36, grew up here. His high-school sweetheart and first wife, Leslie Cox, remembers him as the "good kid, " shy and polite, who quit school at 16 to work on the farm.

But by the time he was 35, Michael had mostly stopped doing farm work. He had been married and divorced twice, had a few brushes with the law. His mother, Frances, gave him about $20, 000 to open a nail salon.

In December 2005, just weeks before the murder, Frances noticed that her son looked "funny." He told her he had intestinal cancer and was taking the painkiller OxyContin.

At Christmas, Frances' older daughter Tonya gave her a different explanation: He's on cocaine, she told her mother.

- - -

Frances White woke to gunshots.

It was still dark on Jan. 9, 2006, just before 6 a.m. Frances stood still, listening. Then she heard groaning. She walked out of the bedroom. Her husband was lying by the open front door, bleeding.

She ran to the kitchen for the phone. The 911 operator told her to press a towel to the wound.

The phone beeped: incoming call. It was Michael.

He was nearby, driving to his parents' house to return a borrowed truck, he would say later. He'd heard gunfire. "Your father's been shot, " Frances said.

Michael White's account of what he did next would strike the detectives as odd.

Although he was close to the house, he turned and drove back to his trailer to get a handgun. He drove around the property, looking for intruders.

Only then did he go to his mother's side.

Soon, his sister arrived, too. Then the paramedics. All the while, Bruce White was bleeding to death in his wife's arms. She kept telling him he wasn't going to die.

Later, she would tell the detectives that she never thought to ask her husband who had shot him.

- - -

"Listen to me, brother, " Detective Keene told Michael in the interrogation room.

"If we paint the picture the way it stands right now, it does not look good for you. You have got to explain your involvement in this."

"Uh-huh, " Michael said.

A few days before the murder, Michael reported his rental Ford Mustang stolen, with his SKS rifle in the trunk.

Deputies found spent SKS cartridges at the Whites' front door, and cartridges from the same rifle in Michael's trailer.

On Jan. 23rd, detectives found the missing Mustang at the home of John "Booty" Thornton, Michael's childhood buddy. Thornton would later tell them that Michael asked him to hide it.

The rifle never turned up.

"Look at me in the eyes, " Keene said. "Your SKS rifle is the one that was used on your father."

Maybe Thornton killed Bruce White, Keene said. After all, he could have taken the rifle. And matching cartridges were also found at Thornton's father's place.

"You did it or he did it, " Keene said.

"Well, I damned sure didn't do it, " Michael said.

There was more. Before the murder Michael had forged Bruce White's name on more than $300, 000 worth of checks.

Frances White discovered the theft in December, although she said she never told her husband.

Michael said his father let him forge the checks.

"I'm gonna prove that you lied, " Keene said. "But I will tell you this. You're gonna carry this around for the rest of your life, unless you let it out."

"I didn't do anything, " Michael said. "And that's the truth."

- - -

Michael agreed to take a polygraph test. He arrived at the right time, but then went back to the car for his ID, and drove away.

They set up another appointment for the next morning. Again, Michael showed up. Again, he left without taking the test.

His behavior was suspicious, and the circumstantial evidence against him was considerable. But it wasn't enough.

Whom should they charge? Michael White or John Thornton? The investigation had not revealed who had the rifle or who fired it. It could have been either one.

Instead, on Feb. 16, 2006, Michael White was arrested for forging checks. From jail, he asked to speak to detectives.

This time, Michael confessed to the forgeries. He did it, he said, because he was being threatened by an extortionist named "Frank Capalli" and his associate "DeAngelo."

Detectives were unable to locate anyone by those names.

- - -

Even with a guilty plea, state attorneys found they could not press for jail time. The primary victim of the theft - Bruce White - was dead. And Frances White refused to cooperate with prosecutors, asking that her son not go to jail.

"It has got to be hard for her, " said Tom Palermo, the prosecutor who handled the case. "Frances White has lost her husband, and I'm possibly going to take away her son."

Instead of jail, Michael White received five years' probation.

- - -

In the days after the killing, Frances dreamed of her dead husband.

The two of them were in the car, going somewhere. Bruce was falling asleep. Wake up, wake up, Frances called to him.

But he didn't wake up - she did.

"When I wake up now, I don't go back to sleep, " she told the detectives in the days after the murder.

One of them asked Frances whether she thought her son had anything to do with her husband's death.

"I hope he didn't, " Frances White said.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 07:04:43]


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