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    Roten: 'I just wasn't thinking'

    Tapes from the night of the shooting are played and a detective testifies that Jessy Joe Roten lied about his beliefs.

    By JOUNICE L. NEALY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2000


    LARGO -- Just hours after a biracial girl was shot to death, detectives questioned Jessy Joe Roten about the tattoos that covered his arms, and he denied the markings had anything to do with being a skinhead.

    Roten initially told detectives that "WWC" stood for the initials of a friend in Texas who died of cancer. One tattoo was "just a design I like," he told detectives. The number "88" stood for the year that a book was published, Roten said at the time.

    But investigators found clues that convinced them Roten was lying. So they interviewed him again and learned the true meaning of the tattoos:

    "WWC" stood for White Working Class, not the initials of a dead friend. The "88" actually stood for "Heil Hitler." And he was a skinhead who embraced racist beliefs, according to investigators.

    On Friday, Roten's taped conversations about the tattoos, his beliefs and his whereabouts the night of the shooting were played for the jury.

    Roten, 19, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Ashley Mance, 6. He also is charged with attempted second-degree murder in the wounding of Ashley's twin sister, Aleesha, and their half sister, Jailene Jones. On the tape, Roten denied that the shooting was racially motivated and said the gun accidentally fired. He heard a little girl scream and then he ran away, he told investigators.

    "I did not want to kill anybody," Roten said. "I just wasn't thinking."

    Detectives began recording these conversations less than 10 hours after Ashley died April 3, 1999. "I have not the foggiest clue who would want to do that," Roten told detectives during the first interview.

    During a second interview soon after, he said, "I didn't mean to shoot her."

    Prosecutors say that Roten, a self-proclaimed skinhead, fired a Chinese assault weapon into the home of an interracial couple just north of St. Petersburg on the other end of Roten's block. The attorneys also say that the felonies are hate crimes, which means Roten could face up to life in prison if convicted.

    Terry Mance, who is black, and Tracy Mance, who is white, were in the house at the time of the shooting along with the couple's daughter, his twin daughters and the twins' half sister.

    Defense attorneys have argued that the shooting was an accident and that Roten should be held responsible for his negligence, not murder.

    James Beining, a Pinellas County sheriff's detective who testified Friday, said that Roten's story began to change after investigators found the rifle wrapped in white plastic bags inside a fiberglass restaurant-style booth that was in his parents' garage.

    Prosecutors said Roten's story then unraveled even more. Detectives found bullets in a black bomber jacket, a Confederate flag and a Nazi flag, and a note scribbled on the back of his bedroom door with a swastika and his name.

    Still, Roten denied that he targeted the Mance home because of their race. He walked to the opposite end of the block because he didn't want to wake up his parents with the sound of gunfire, he said.

    "It doesn't make any sense to me either," Roten told detectives. "I'm sorry for lying to you earlier."

    When Roten's mother told him that a girl down the street had been killed, "Naturally, I freaked out," Roten said. "I really wish I could give that child's life back."

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