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Estranged husband slices wife's face, deputies say

After the attack, the man took his 3-year-old son, shot into a home and stole a car, officials say.

By MELANIE AVE and CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


LUTZ -- Danita O'Neill knew her estranged husband was dangerous.

The 33-year-old Lutz woman filed for a protective order in August against her husband of three years, and wrote, "I am very, very sure that James will kill me if he has a chance again."

On Monday, officials say he almost did.

James O'Neill drove to his wife's secluded Hanna Road home about 10 p.m., walked through the gate and knocked on her door, according to Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. When she opened the door, deputies said, he sliced her face numerous times with a box cutter, in what officials and emergency doctors called one of the most horrific attacks they've seen.

Next, deputies said, O'Neill grabbed the couple's 3-year-old son, drove to Pasco County and shot up one couple's home before stealing another man's car at gunpoint. He was arrested just past midnight after wandering through an orange grove.

The boy, uninjured but for scratches from the trees, was taken into protective custody. O'Neill, a 35-year-old electrician with no prior arrests around Tampa Bay, was being held without bail Tuesday at the Pasco County Jail, facing numerous charges there and in Hillsborough.

Mrs. O'Neill remained in critical condition late Tuesday at Tampa General Hospital.

Although Mrs. O'Neill had a restraining order against her husband, it was not enough to keep her safe.

"An injunction is only a piece of paper," said Henry Hower, a lawyer with Bay Area Legal Services who often represents battered women.

The family moved to Florida from Baton Rouge, La., in 1997 to be near James O'Neill's parents in Pasco County, said Danita O'Neill's sister Rae Anne Chapman of Texas.

James O'Neill's parents could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mrs. O'Neill, a program assistant at the University of South Florida, moved out of the couple's home at 7701 Bay Pines Drive in Wesley Chapel after an argument Aug. 22, according to court records.

The two disagreed about how to discipline their son, Liam. Mrs. O'Neill wrote that O'Neill locked the boy in his room and grabbed her around the neck.

"He told me I had five minutes to live, but he couldn't decide how to kill me (without a bloody mess)," she wrote in a petition seeking the restraining order. "He told me that he knew if he let me go, then I would leave him and he would go to jail so I had to die."

O'Neill denied the allegations. But a domestic violence injunction was issued forbidding him from coming within 250 feet of his wife. Soon after the incident, she moved out.

There were other confrontations, but no other violence, until Monday.

Neighbors in the nearby Wildwood subdivision said they heard Mrs. O'Neill yelling and called 911.

"It was continuous screaming," said Marshall Edgren, who lives about 100 feet from Mrs. O'Neill. "It sounded like she was yelling, "Help me.' "

After the attack, O'Neill loaded his son into his blue Dodge van and drove north to State Road 52. According to Pasco sheriff's office reports, this is what happened next:

Around 11 p.m., the van broke down just west of San Antonio. Leaving Liam in the van, O'Neill walked to a nearby house, armed with a shotgun. Hank and Tina Leggett were watching television in their bedroom, when they heard three blasts at the front door.

As she watched O'Neill through a window, Tina Leggett called 911.

"I saw him walking back toward his car, stumbling like he was drunk," Leggett, 37, said Tuesday. "We assumed he was going back to reload."

O'Neill returned to his van, picked up the boy and started walking east along SR 52.

A few hundred yards later O'Neill put down his son and entered another home as a guest was leaving. He fired into the ceiling, then pointed the gun at 79-year-old Raymond Richter and demanded a car. O'Neill drove off in Richter's gray Ford Crown Victoria. He picked up his son, then headed east on SR 52 toward San Antonio. But the gear shift stuck, and O'Neill soon abandoned the car.

With his son in one arm and the shotgun in the other, he started walking.

But as O'Neill roamed some orange groves, deputies and their dogs spread out across the area. A Pasco deputy found O'Neill shortly after midnight.

After a brief standoff, O'Neill released the boy and put down the loaded shotgun, said Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll.

O'Neill was charged in Pasco with home invasion robbery, aggravated assault, attempted kidnapping, carjacking, shooting into an occupied dwelling and possession of marijuana. Hillsborough officials are seeking a charge of attempted murder.


-- Staff writer Amy Herdy contributed to this report.

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