Monday, April 23, 2007

Community awaits justice

April 23, 2007

Twenty years after rampage, Cruse sits on death row
BY JOHN A. TORRES, Florida Today

Two decades ago today, William Byran Cruse killed six and wounded 14 duringa shooting spree in Palm Bay. Two years later, he was sentenced to death.

But as Cruse, the oldest person on Florida's death row, turns 80 this year,officials say it's unlikely he'll be executed before his natural life ends.

Despite an insanity defense at trial, it wasn't until five years ago thatthe courts declared him incompetent, which stalled his execution.

"You can see he's a madman," said State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, whoprosecuted Cruse in 1989. "Whether or not he will ever be competent to be executed is questionable. Certainly I have my doubts that we will ever get to that point."

"That likelihood angers some, who think Cruse has lived too long since hismurderous rampage on April 23, 1987.

"Don't have a death penalty if you're not going to use it," said SatelliteBeach resident Ronald Grogan Sr., whose son was one of two Palm Bay policeofficers killed by Cruse.

"The system is not doing what it's supposed to do," he said. "When he wassent to prison, he wasn't like he is now. But if you leave somebody in therefor 20 years, anyone is going to go bats."

But others, including the woman the killer took as a hostage, believe Cruse was insane from the start.

"If he's not going to be executed, then it's a crying shame that he wasn't found insane and hospitalized for the last 20 years," said Robin Mucha, who still lives in Brevard.

Also adding to the possibility that Cruse's execution won't go forward: a moratorium imposed on the Florida death penalty late last year because of complications with an execution. The governor's office is reviewing a report issued in March, and a decision is expected soon.

Nightmare begins

Late that Thursday afternoon 20 years ago, Cruse, a 59-year-old retired librarian, stormed out of his home on Palm Bay's Creel Road to confront teens bouncing a basketball in a neighbor's driveway. He was holding a shotgun.

Police said he had run-ins with them before, and he fired and wounded a 14-year-old boy. Then Cruse went back inside and retrieved an assault rifle. He continued to fire shots at his neighbors' homes as he drove away.

Cruse took his white Toyota Tercel to the corner of Palm Bay Road and Babcock Street, where he opened fire on two Florida Tech students, killing both. Two other men were shot and injured as well.

Cruse then drove his car farther south. There he shot and killed 67-year-old Ruth Greene, who was leaving the Publix Supermarket. Cruse drove across Babcock and stopped at Winn-Dixie.

Officer Gerry Johnson arrived at the store and was shot in the leg. He emptied his revolver at Cruse, but missed.

Johnson scrambled from his car and tried to reload. Cruse stalked after him and shot him in the head.

In the weeks before he snapped, police would learn that Cruse was taunted by neighborhood children and often argued with them. There was an indecency report filed, and Cruse, who hated homosexuals, later would tell investigators that Publix employees thought he was gay."

'A little shootout'

Just before he killed the officer, Cruse took aim at Ruben Torres, a 39-year-old mailman at the time, who had stopped at Winn-Dixie to buy shrimp for dinner. When Torres went to the front of the store to pay, he saw employees and other customers on the floor and Cruse in the parking lot.

"I looked toward the glass doors, and I guess William Cruse saw me because he shot at me right through the doors and everything I had in my hand went flying," Torres recalled. "After that I crawled up to the window and saw him walking across the parking lot. I don't know where I got the strength from, but I took the doors off the track and got out of the store."

As Cruse killed Johnson, Torres ran to his car and ducked."I got my gun out of my glove compartment and we started a little shootout, he said. "I was shooting at him and he was shooting at me."

When Torres' went back to his car for more ammunition, a police officer stopped him, thinking he was a second gunman.

Originally criticized, Torres since has been credited with distracting Cruse, which allowed people to escape from Winn-Dixie. He still has the nickel-plated, silver-handled pistol he used that night.

"Nobody ever called me a hero, they called me a vigilante," he said.

Tear gas ends siege

When Officer Ron Grogan arrived at the scene, Cruse shot eight times through the windshield, killing him. The officer had been married only two months.

Cruse then ran into Winn-Dixie, firing at people fleeing through a back exit. He shot 52-year-old Lester Watson in the back.

Forty-five minutes after firing shots at his neighbors, Cruse found two women hiding in the restroom. One he let go; the other, Robin Mucha, would become his hostage.

The siege ended six hours later when Cruse released Mucha and came out soon after, as tear-gas canisters were shot into the store.

Cruse's defense from Day One was insanity -- something that Wolfinger, in the last case he prosecuted himself before a jury, and his staff worked hard to dispel.

"It was obvious that there's something wrong and that he wasn't operating on all cylinders, but that's not insanity," Wolfinger said.

Cruse's next competency hearing is scheduled for July. He did not respond to an interview request by FLORIDA TODAY.

No visitors in years

During his 18 years on death row, Cruse has spent 23 hours a day in his cell, said Gretl Plessinger, Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman. He is allowed a shower every other day.

She said Cruse has had no visitors in years. His parents are listed as dead, and his wife returned to her native Turkey after the killings. She suffered from Parkinson's disease.

Cruse's sister in Kentucky, where he grew up and spent most of his adult life, has not visited. He moved to Brevard in 1985.

Cruse has well surpassed the average length of stay for death row inmates of nearly 13 years and he was older than the average age of a death row inmate-- 44 -- when he was convicted in 1989.

Carolyn Snurkowski, spokeswoman for the state attorney general, said execution is still a possibility.

"We have had individuals before who need help and get hospitalized and then go back to being on death row," she said.

Police frustrated

Uniformed police officers in Palm Bay wear a blue ribbon with the names of the two fallen officers, credited with saving dozens of lives that night.

"It's a sad state for our society that you have a person seen by over 100 people commit this crime," said Palm Bay Deputy Chief Doug Muldoon, who was an officer at the crime scene. "Here we are 20 years later, you have family members that have been deceased that never saw justice done."

Capt. Doug Dechenne, the lead negotiator for Palm Bay's SWAT Team takes his frustration a step further.

"I think we'd all agree that there are persons who have committed such heinous crimes that they no longer deserve to live amongst" he said. "Cruse is one of those that justice will be served if and when he is put to death.

"I would put my name up to be the one that pushes the button."

Source : Florida Today

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