THE KILLER INSIDE 


;I've followed the case of the Deltona mass murders as closely as anyone in Central Florida. I've read almost every court document, and I attended every day of the trial in St. Augustine. I talked to cops, relatives and lawyers. I even toured the house where the gruesome killings took place in August 2004.

;

I'm not related to any of the victims or the convicted killers. But the case is personal nonetheless. When I was 20 years old, someone came to my father's Winter Park home one evening and killed him with a shotgun blast. When I found out, all I could say was, "Who would do such a thing?"

;I never found out. No arrests were ever made. ;

;Three decades have only deepened the emptiness that results from an unpunished crime. My father's murder rated a blurb in the newspaper and an almost nonexistent police investigation. Every few years, I open this personal cold case up and although police have a few leads, their efforts always taper off in the face of new homicides.

;

;When Dad died, everyone in my family wanted the guilty person to be sentenced to death. I never felt that way; another violent death, state-sanctioned or not, sickened me.

;

;I want to understand a different kind of pain: the pain that can drive someone to commit murder. If I can understand that, perhaps what has been hidden from me will become clear. Maybe then I can have some closure.

;

;There are some parallels between my father's murder and the slayings of Erin Belanger, 22; her boyfriend, Francisco "Flaco" Ayo Roman, 30; Michelle Nathan, 19; her boyfriend, Anthony Vega, 34; Roberto "Tito" Gonzalez, 28; and Jonathan Gleason, 17.

;

;Both cases were brutal. In Winter Park, my father was shot through a kitchen window. In Deltona, someone kicked in the front door, leaving a distinctive boot print, and beat those inside to death with baseball bats.

;

;Both crimes were incongruous. My father was a Navy veteran, a businessman and grandfather who lived in a tony cul-de-sac in Winter Park Pines. The victims in Deltona were nice kids who worked at a Burger King.

;

;And both crimes happened early in the morning, in residential neighborhoods with no significant distance between property lines. In both cases, no one heard much of anything, as hard as that is to believe.

;

;The biggest difference between the two cases, of course, is that the Volusia County police seemed to have the Deltona case solved in no time at all. Led by Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson, cops accumulated thousands of pages of written records, audio tapes, videotapes, compact discs, physical evidence, shoe prints, fingerprints, DNA analysis and transcripts of testimony pertaining to the crime, which the media labeled "the Xbox murders," implying that the killing was all over a game console.

;

;Troy Victorino, then a 27-year-old convicted felon and reputed member of the Latin Kings, was tagged as the ringleader. According to Brandon Graham, a state witness and an original conspirator in the plot, Victorino recruited teenagers Jerone Hunter, Michael Salas and Robert "Anthony" Cannon as his accomplices, gave them a hand-drawn map of the Telford Lane house and told them where everyone was sleeping.

;

;Salas, Hunter and Cannon confessed. Victorino never did. He was adamant in his denials of complicity. At the time of this writing, Victorino, Hunter and Salas had been convicted of first-degree murder but not yet sentenced. Cannon changed his plea during the trial. His fate is not yet known.

;;

;The first time I talked to Victorino was in May of 2006. He called me collect from the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Sanford. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was an inmate there. I got my number to him that way and told him I was a freelance writer wanting to do a story about the Deltona massacre.

;

;"I'm skeptical of the media," he said on the phone that day in a soft voice with a trace of a Spanish accent. "And I can't talk about the case."

;

;"OK," I said. That was fine with me, actually. I was more interested in the why than the who, what, when, where and how. "We can do biographical data."

;

;Victorino put me on his visitors list for June. I asked him if he wanted me to bring anything. What does one bring a high-risk criminal during a visit? Cigarettes? Magazines?

;

;"Naw," he said. "I don't smoke. And I'm already reading a book."

;

;"What book?" I asked.

;

;"The Informant," he said.

;

;His mother, Sharon Victorino, called me a few days later. I quickly discovered that Troy consulted her about most of his decisions, and that he took her advice seriously. It was clear she was screening me. We agreed to meet at a restaurant in Lake Mary.

;

;Sharon Elizabeth Victorino is a tall, statuesque woman with auburn hair who works at a bank. She dresses professionally with a touch of jauntiness; dangling earrings in her double-pierced ears, a conservative black outfit with accents of leopard print. A devout Jehovah's Witness, she has held herself together, though her husband is terminally ill and on dialysis, she herself suffers from hypertension and her oldest son is a convicted murderer facing the death penalty.

;

;"Troy is the big brother of the family," Sharon informed me solemnly. She brought family photographs of her enormously tall brood to our meeting. She studied one picture of Troy as a toddler inclining a curly head toward his baby brother and tears came to her eyes. "This is how I remember him," she said. "The innocence." Then she got down to business.

;

;"This has nothing to do with an Xbox. I have five sons; we never owned an Xbox. This is all because my son is a big, scary black guy. If he were a basketball player, he'd be a hero. And because we live in Volusia County. If I lived 10 miles away, none of this might have happened.

;

;"The night before he was arrested, he came over for dinner," she continued. "Chinese food. He ate off my plate. That was Troy. After dinner, he was watching the news on TV. He said to me, ‘Mom, I bet you 50 dollars within 24 hours they'll be wanting to talk to me.' I took pictures of him because I was afraid."

;

;She pushed the snapshot she took that night toward me. It showed Troy in his mother's home posing indulgently, like any son, looking down into the lens as it captured his last night of freedom.

;

;"I'm not coming to the prosecution portion of the trial," Sharon said. "And when I come for the defense, I'm wearing a red wig. His lawyers are confused. They are trying to mitigate, not litigate."

;

;She was wrong about that. I had already talked to her son's lawyers and they were working diligently to get him freed. "We're trying to prove Troy's innocence," Michael Nielsen, of Dowdy and Nielsen, told me, "not just save him from the death penalty."

;

;As we said goodbye, Sharon looked me straight in the eye. "I am absolutely convinced of his innocence," she said.

;

;Troy's day in court came and went and she never showed up, not even in a red wig. During the trial Troy said, "I can't eat, I can't sleep. I don't want to be at this trial. I don't want my family at this trial."

;;

I don't know why Sharon and Troy agreed to let me visit him in jail. If either had wanted to tell their stories to any newspaper or TV station, there would have been plenty of chances to do so. Victorino told me his lawyers were against him talking to anyone, but I think he was also scared of the intense scrutiny of major media outlets. Since I was a freelancer, I was only loosely connected to the media. I had fewer resources to check out his version of events. And I'm physically small, nonthreatening and friendly, which probably helped too.

;

I made it clear to both Sharon and Troy that I had no interest in trying to vindicate him. She thanked me for not treating her like a monster. He thanked me for "being on the fence" and at least willing to listen to his side.

;;

; The John E. Polk Correctional Facility has two entrances for visitors. The entrance with the flagpole in front is for seeing high-risk prisoners. The first time I went, a man wearing jeans and tats and not much else was wandering around claiming to be a bondsman. Eventually, a man in army fatigues led him off.

;

; I visited Victorino three times in prison for about 90 minutes each time. I wasn't allowed to take anything in except my car keys and my driver's license, so when I left I would write down as much as I could remember of our conversations.

;

; The hallway of the prison was always relatively empty. The rules are clearly posted: no food, no tobacco, no chewing gum, no excessive emotion. There were a few women waiting to see other prisoners: a fiancee, some teenagers and a mother.

;

; "This is a bad place," the mother said. "There are bad people in here." That her son might be one of them didn't seem to occur to her. "He doesn't have clean underwear," she told me.

;

; Visitors are separated from prisoners by glass, and they speak to one another through a phone receiver. On one of my visits I noticed a Frito bag in the corner of the dirty floor, in spite of the "no food" rule, and a full handprint on the glass panel, in spite of the rule against showing too much emotion.

;

; When Victorino showed up on the other side of the glass, he wore a white prison jumpsuit and shackles on his hands and feet. Everyone makes such a big deal out of what a giant Troy is: 6 feet, 7 inches tall and 270 pounds. I never really noticed. What I noticed were his eyes, which were ringed as though he never slept, and his depressed expression. The only time I ever saw him smile was when he testified at the trial about going to a bar on Thursday nights.

;

; Victorino has spaces between his teeth and, at 29, he is losing his hair. He always greeted me formally, saying, "Good evening," or "Good morning," or "Good afternoon." I didn't talk a lot during our meetings. In a strange way, the fact that I wasn't there to clear his name made it easier for him to talk. His status as a public outcast and the media's depiction of him as a fiend are sources of misery to him. Over and over he told me, "I'm not a monster."

;

; Victorino has a disconcerting presence. He often broke eye contact and looked at a point just over my head. "I have a bad habit of doing that," he apologized once. Another time he said, "I just saw my sister. Her boyfriend is here. He was arrested."

;

; "Do you want me to leave so you can talk to her?" I asked.

;

; "No. She has issues." He didn't elaborate untill later. "I'm not as close to my brothers and my sister. All I have is my mom and she's not well. She doesn't take care of herself."

;

; He held the phone receiver with both of his shackled hands. Throughout our conversations, he frequently dropped it. The phone, in fact, kept clicking and shorting out. All of our conversations were, of course, recorded by the prison.

;

; "My mom and I are friends," Troy continued. "She doesn't have many people to talk to, so she talks to me. She told me to meet with you."

;

; Victorino grew up in Jamaica, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens, in New York City. The oldest of six siblings, he recalls that he didn't have a lot of friends as a kid. "My brothers and my sister were my friends. I was a big brother. My mom would send us out to play. That was fine. My aunt used to live across the street in 1987. I'd throw pebbles at her window so she'd buzz us up. Once, I saw a woman jump out the window. I was 8 or 9. I'd never seen nothing like that before."

;

; According to court documents, when Victorino was 9, he was sent to a psychiatric facility because of concerns he was suicidal. He was diagnosed with a manic-depressive disorder and kept there, involuntarily, for a month. The confinement was traumatic to him. "My mom left me in that place," he said. "They strapped me down. Then I went somewhere for a month. All the other kids had toys, but I didn't have any; my mother didn't want me getting too comfortable there. … I understand what happened. But still, she left me there. I just wanted to go home."

;

; According to court papers filed in April 2006, Victorino was examined by three mental health experts while in prison who concluded that he suffers from "frontal lobe brain injury," a marker for schizophrenia. The report states, "The Defendant was physically and mentally abused by family members as a child. The Defendant may have cognitive, as well as environmental, learning disabilities and negatively affected personality traits." A brain scan used to evaluate people who have memory problems, brain tumors or seizure disorders came back "abnormal."

;

; In 1987, Sharon moved the family to Deltona after Troy's psychiatric commitment. She didn't have much money, so she bought a starter home on one of Deltona's distinctive curved streets and the family fixed it up.

;

; "But I wish we'd stayed in New York," Victorino told me. "Dad stayed in New York when we moved. He joined us later. Dad is Dad. I love him to death, but Deltona was like culture shock."

;

; After a string of misdemeanors, Victorino was arrested at age 15 for grand theft auto and arson involving a neighbor's car. He wrote motions for appeal from the Mayo Correctional Institution, where he was incarcerated, and he also wrote to a judge, proclaiming his innocence. "I deny the charges. I haven't stolen nothing the last couple of months. The people that accused me of stealing the car was the people that stole the car. And I have witnesses to testify to that."

;

; That's a common thread running through Victorino's encounters with the legal system: He didn't do it, someone else did.

;

; His second felony arrest occurred eight weeks after he was released, in 1996, when he was convicted of beating Michael Stern with a walking stick, crushing the boy's face and permanently damaging his eye. According to newspaper reports, Stern had a hot-rodded Honda that Troy liked.

;

; Victorino said he was set up. "I went to this party with my wife, and someone high up in the Latin Kings made me call him out. I went back inside, I didn't see what happened. I took the rap for someone else. A guy on death row now. A guy with a long arm."

;

; It was October of 2003 before he got out of prison. "I should've left Deltona. I tried to move to Sanford. I was on probation, you understand? I had to have a job and a place to live. And all my business was in Deltona. I custom-built cars, everything, the stereos, paint. Deltona is my home. But I wanted to go to a halfway house when I got out of jail. I was scared of violating my probation. I needed help. But there was nothing. They told me the governor cut funding for those places because they didn't help his daughter. Not that I have a drug problem. I have a drinking problem."

;

; In fact, that's his alibi for the night of the Deltona murders. Victorino says he was drinking at Papa Joe's, a pizza-and-pool place in Deltona, from 11 p.m. until around 12:15 a.m., when Cannon and Hunter picked him up. He said he drank a lot, that he was "stumbling around."

;

; It's a thin alibi. In court Victorino listed 13 witnesses to confirm that he was at the bar that night, but only two showed up to testify on his behalf. Prosecutors quickly established that one of the two was drunk and the other was infatuated with him.

;

; Perhaps the most incriminating piece of evidence against Victorino was the boot print found on the door of the house at 3106 Telford Lane, a print that matches a pair of his Lugz boots. His explanation for that was simple: Someone else had worn them. He said he "had a bad habit of taking off my boots and putting them on the porch when he got home."

;

; During my last visit with Victorino he seemed angry. "All the time, I've gotten the blunt end of the stick. The media are scum. The way they paint me as though I'm some kind of monster. The way they portray my family; we're hard-working people. I've been locked up for two years for something I ; didn't even do. There was no conspiracy; I barely even knew Cannon and Salas."

;

; Visibly agitated, he continued. "Since I got divorced from my ex-wife, nothing good has happened to me. I was engaged to this girl who lived in DeBary Villas. She had two little boys. I took care of them, it was like they were mine, brought them toys. You think I'd risk losing them for this? For an Xbox? They have jailhouse tours here for kids. One girl said to me, ‘When you get out of here, I'll get you an Xbox.' I said, ‘You don't understand. You've got it wrong. I got a ride with some people, I was seen with some people who committed a murder. It only takes a minute to get into the system.'"

;

; Troy hasn't convinced many people he's innocent. Bill Belanger, father of murder victim Erin Belanger, told me, "Biggest thing with Troy, he's going to be found guilty, get the death sentence. When those cell doors close, he's going to realize he can no longer manipulate anyone. … At that point where he realizes, ‘I can't do it any more,' well, I wish I could be a fly on the wall at that moment."

;

; During an interview in a Deltona church, his co-defendant's pastor said, "I've gone to visit Jerone. I can sit here with him just like I'm sitting with you, face-to-face, as his pastor, no glass panel, no phones. I told him we can't outdo God's love no matter how awful our actions and words. But as far as Troy is concerned? I wish they'd take him out back before they inject him, if he sticks to his story."

;

; Victorino never thought he would be acquitted; "It doesn't look good," he told me before the verdict came in. If he had been, he was going to leave. "I'll just go away. I won't take nothing, not even my license. This drama is just crazy, it's had so many turns. But six people are dead. They want someone to pay. That's their job."

;

; After my last visit, he called collect several times from the Flagler County Correctional Facility, but he never said much. He told me that it was cleaner than the one in Sanford, but that he was in lockdown and he liked it that way. "One of my co-defendants tried to talk to me today," he said once. "Salas. He was talking about Star Wars I just ignored him."

;

; He conferred with his lawyers during jury selection because "three heads are better than two," and he chatted about jurors he liked. "We lost one yesterday that we wanted, but that was out of our control," he said once. "Three guys in the back row … they already made up their minds," he said another time. He wanted me to know about the secret route and the safety precautions in and out of court. "They make a big show of taking me to the courthouse, six cops. And they block off the streets like I'm President Bush."

;

; People ask me if Victorino shows any remorse. The simple answer is no. He does get emotional when talking about Erin Belanger, but only as to her fate, as if it were entirely disconnected from his own. He'll probably never confess.

;

; "I'll just appeal," he told me before the guilty verdict came in. "Maybe a decade. Maybe two decades. There is probably a good law library at Starke."

;

; I spent a lot of time reading about the victims, and in particular about Erin Belanger. Erin, who lost her job because she dyed her hair pink; Erin, who loved Flaco even though they spoke different languages; Erin, for whom Florida was a way of finding herself, of finding her direction in life; Erin, the head of the household, the person who brought everyone together; Erin, who was beaten so badly that even dental records didn't help in identifying her.

;

; Who would do such a thing?

;

; The other day I was thinking about Erin when I opened my front door. A young tree in the yard was lying in the grass. The dog days of summer storms are upon us again. I think it was struck by lightning.

; feedback@orlandoweekly.com

More by Elizabeth Randall

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