Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Florida man pleads guilty to shooting, killing 5 women at bank in 2019

- By Curt Anderson

ST. PETERSBURG — A Florida man has pleaded guilty to fatally shooting five women at a small-town bank branch in 2019 and will face either life in prison or a death sentence during the penalty phase next year.

Court records show 25-year-old Zephen Xaver entered guilty pleas Tuesday to five counts of first-degree murder. He had previously pleaded not guilty, with a trial initially set for January in Sebring, southeast of Tampa.

Now, a Highlands County judge has set the penalty portion of the case to begin Jan. 16, 2024.

Xaver admitted shooting four employees of a SunTrust Bank branch and one customer on Jan. 23, 2019. All five female victims were ordered to lie on the floor and then were shot one by one, investigat­ors said. They added that robbery did not appear to be a motive and that Xaver had no connection to the victims.

“We believe it was a random act,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said shortly after the slayings. “Aside from perhaps driving by and seeing it was a bank, we have no known evidence that he targeted this bank for any particular reason.”

Investigat­ors said Xaver called 911 from the bank and told a dispatcher what he had done, then refused to come out of the bank building when heavily-armed police arrived. After a two-hour standoff, Xaver finally surrendere­d and was taken into custody where he has remained ever since.

The four SunTrust employees slain that day were Ana Piñon-Williams, Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez and Jessica Montague. The customer who died was Cynthia Watson. Police said one employee who was in a back break room escaped the carnage.

There were troubling signs that Xaver, who previously lived in Indiana, was fascinated with guns and killing people. A former girlfriend said after the killings that Xaver described having dreams while still in high school of hurting other students.

“He got kicked out of school for having a dream that he killed everybody in his class, and he’s been threatenin­g this for so long, and he’s been having dreams about it and everything,” the ex-girlfriend, Alex Gerlach, said after the Florida killings.

School officials in Bremen, Indiana, contacted police in 2014 after Xaver reported the dream and his mother agreed to take him to a behavioral health center, according to police records. No other action was taken. Police in Michigan released informatio­n about a 2017 incident in which he was messaging a girl in that state about “possibly thinking of suicide by cop and taking hostages.”

Prior to the shootings, Xaver trained for about two months to be a correction­al officer at the nearby Avon Park Correction­al Institutio­n. He resigned two weeks before the bank killings.

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