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Jury to weigh: life or death

Defense attorneys may argue Timothy Permenter was mentally ill when he killed his girlfriend in '03.

By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 16, 2007

Timothy Permenter faces a potential death penalty in Karen Pannell's murder.

Karen Pannell was found stabbed to death in her apartment.

It's been more than four years since Karen Pannell's family last heard from her in a call home to Georgia on a Friday evening.

A couple of hours later, she was stabbed 16 times in her Oldsmar villa, and her killer scrawled another man's name in her blood on the wall.

Today, jurors will return to a Pinellas County courtroom to consider whether to recommend that Pannell's boyfriend, Timothy Permenter, die for her Oct. 10, 2003, murder.

Permenter, 40, was convicted of first-degree murder in Pannell's death last month. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty because they say Pannell, stabbed mostly in the neck and heart, died in an especially heinous and cruel way.

To try to spare Permenter's life, defense attorneys may argue that Permenter was mentally ill.

A forensic psychologist said in a deposition that Permenter likely knew killing Pannell was a crime, but he meets two statutory requirements that can mitigate against a death sentence.

Permenter was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance, Robert Berland said in the deposition. Also, his capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was substantially impaired.

Whether Circuit Judge R. Timothy Peters sentences Permenter to life in prison or death, his fate will be easier than Pannell's, her family says.

"The way it went for us was horrible," said her stepmother, Yvonne Pannell. Permenter "is not going to have it the same way."

* * *

During the first six days of the trial, witnesses recounted how the lives of Pannell and Permenter became tragically intertwined after they met at a car dealership in Clearwater four years ago.

Pannell, 39, was a "military brat" born in Germany who grew up to work in customer service for American Airlines at Tampa International Airport.

She settled in the Tampa Bay area in the early 1990s. Divorced, she was an attractive woman who had modeled. She was beloved by a network of friends from the airport.

Pannell's mother died of cancer long ago. Her stepmother and father, Ralph Pannell, live in Macon, Ga. Pannell, who had five brothers, remained close to her family.

"She was the glue that kept all of us together," said her oldest brother, Mike Pannell of Augusta, Ga. "She made sure we were all at family gatherings."

Pannell met Permenter when she went to the Lokey car dealership on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard to shop for a new car. He was a salesman.

Permenter was born in St. Petersburg and attended Clearwater High School. His mother, a teen when Permenter was born, raised him with her parents.

Permenter's grandfather was former Clearwater Mayor Alex D. Finch, a lawyer who was murdered by a client in 1989 in his Clearwater office.

The year after his grandfather's violent death, Permenter himself was headed for trouble.

In 1990, he owned a chain of escort services and was involved in a turf war with a business competitor. In 1991, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder as a result of a shootout in Leon County.

* * *

After his parole in 2002, jobs were hard to come by because of his criminal record, which included 16 felonies, said his mother, Donna Finch, 57, of Clearwater.

But she was happy when he landed the job at Lokey. He also got an apartment on U.S. 19.

When Pannell bought her Jetta, she forgot her work badge in her old car. Her salesman was not available, so she called Permenter to get it. They started spending time together.

Permenter testified that he spent Monday through Wednesday nights at Pannell's villa and gave her injections because she was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis.

But their romance lasted only a few months.

* * *

By late September 2003, Pannell had learned of his violent criminal record, prosecutors said. She wanted to break up.

Eleven days before she died, he went to her villa on Montego Court. Pannell called 911.

Permenter told Pinellas County sheriff's detectives that he was at her house again on Oct. 10, her last evening alive, but he left by 7:30 p.m.

When investigators asked him about the last time he had contact with her, Permenter said, "I know exactly what time."

He pointed to a call on his cell phone at 7:47 p.m. that he said Pannell made to him after he left her house.

But Pizza Hut driver Richard Davis testified that he made a delivery to Pannell's house close to 9 p.m. and saw Permenter in the living room.

Sean Sparks, a T-Mobile engineer, testified that a call that Permenter said he made from U.S. 19 at 9:32 p.m. was likely made from near Pannell's house. The call bounced off a cell tower a third of a mile away from her house.

And three of Pannell's neighbors testified they saw Permenter's BMW outside her home about 10 p.m., 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Permenter killed Pannell after 9 p.m., prosecutors alleged. He left her house likely after 10 p.m., heading to New Port Richey to visit a friend.

Permenter went to see George Solomon to establish an alibi, prosecutors argued. Solomon testified that Permenter confessed to him at a gas station.

Permenter told investigators that once he left Pannell's house he did not return until the following day about 10 a.m.

He said he walked a couple of steps inside her house and saw her lying in the kitchen. He walked out and called 911.

Permenter also called Catherine Mallet, Pannell's co-worker at the airport, and told her that Pannell had been stabbed.

Permenter might have gotten away with the murder had it not been for writing "Roc" - the name of one of her ex-boyfriends - on the wall with Pannell's blood, prosecutors said.

Investigators concluded the killer had to be someone close to Pannell who knew she had an ex-boyfriend by that name. The killer was trying to point investigators in the wrong direction.

Permenter "got too cute when he put 'Roc' on the wall," said Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery.

* * *

It was difficult "balancing reliving this whole thing in a trial against preserving Karen's memory," said her brother Mike Pannell, 53.

But one detail of Permenter's story was true, said Yvonne Pannell. Pannell was talking to her father on the phone the evening she was killed.

She called Georgia at 7:37 p.m.

"He'll never forget his birthday," said Yvonne Pannell, 67. "That's the last time Karen spoke with him."

Jose Cardenas can be reached at or 727 445-4224.

[Last modified November 15, 2007, 23:32:53]

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