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20 years later, slaying suspect in court

Prosectors say they finally have a suspect who fits the bloody footprints left behind in a 1980 killing of a Belleair man.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2000


LARGO -- It's been almost 20 years to the day since Gerald Hollinger's body, slashed and stabbed 40 times, was found in his Belleair home.

After two decades of blind alleys, false leads and one of the most-vexing whodunits in Belleair history, a defendant finally sat in court Tuesday, fighting to save his life: Paul John Fitzpatrick, a 42-year-old unemployed painter from Massachusetts.

The story of Hollinger's Feb. 8, 1980, slaying and the eventual arrest of the man prosecutors say killed him combines dogged police work and blind investigative luck in identifying a suspect who for decades was nothing more than a series of bloody footprints on Hollinger's carpeted floor.

Those footprints, prosecutors now say, belong to Fitzpatrick.

Opening statements and testimony in Fitzpatrick's trial on a first-degree murder charge began Tuesday as prosecutor Glenn Martin detailed to jurors how police tied Fitzpatrick to the crime using fingerprints and testimony of a one-time buddy who turned on the Massachusetts man.

That man, Paul Brown, told police that Fitzpatrick once said to him, "I slit a guy's throat."

Fitzpatrick, arrested in 1996, faces the death penalty if convicted in a trial expected to last through the week.

Assistant Public Defenders Bob McClure and Kandice Friesen, however, said three other men, all with criminal records, were once considered suspects in the killing and may have killed the art teacher.

All the men, McClure said, had a homosexual relationship with Hollinger, 43, and can be connected to the crime scene.

"Only Paul Fitzpatrick remains a suspect in this case," McClure said.

Hollinger's mail carrier, Robert Hill, who is now retired, noticed that Hollinger hadn't picked up his mail early one February morning in 1980.

"I looked down on the ground and saw red footprints," Hill testified. "Very strange."

Looking into a window, Hill saw Hollinger lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor.

Fitting a pair of feet into those prints proved elusive. "We didn't know where to look," said Martin.

Unbeknownst to police investigators, Fitzpatrick and Brown had recently taken a bus to Clearwater from their native Massachusetts. Both men, who lived in the Boston area, were fleeing the state because they had robbed a man there.

In that robbery, Martin said, Fitzpatrick held a knife to the man's throat.

At some point while in Florida, Brown and Fitzpatrick separated. During that separation, Martin said, Fitzpatrick killed Hollinger to get more money. The men then returned to Massachusetts.

Police in Florida, however, knew nothing about the killer, prosecutors say.

Hollinger's car, a 1979 Cadillac Eldorado, was found abandoned on the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Police found plenty of fingerprints in the car and Hollinger's house. They also found a receipt for a Tampa motel for Feb. 2-8, 1980.

A motel registration card yielded two aliases Fitzpatrick and Brown used, and a fake driver's license number.

The clues were a dead end.

Then in 1995, sheriff's Sgt. Mike Ring reopened the case on a fluke. Police in Jacksonville had arrested someone for robbing gay men. Suspecting a link, Ring reopened Hollinger's murder case. No link to the Jacksonville case was found.

But Ring, a former police officer from Massachusetts, recognized the fake license number from the hotel as a Social Security number from Massachusetts.

So Ring shipped fingerprints off to the state and, before long, found a match in Fitzpatrick, who had an arrest record there.

The Social Security number was two digits off from Fitzpatrick's own, police say.

The footprints were later matched to Fitzpatrick. But Martin said the big break for police came when Brown provided information against his boyhood friend linking him to the crime.

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