Friday, August 29, 2008

Accused killer of Customs agent bonds out of jail

By Brian Haas

5:08 PM EDT, August 29, 2008

A 65-year-old retired truck driver accused of killing a federal agent after a road rage incident has bonded out of a Broward County jail.

James Wonder had been held without bond on an initial charge of premeditated murder in the Aug. 5 shooting death of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Donald Pettit.

But a Broward County grand jury Thursday elected to indict him on the lesser charge of manslaughter. That lesser charge made Wonder eligible for $10,000 bond.

His attorneys had hoped to bond him out of jail as soon as possible because they say he requires dialysis treatments.

Instead of life in prison or even the death penalty, Wonder faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if found guilty. His attorneys plan to argue he killed the agent in self-defense.

Wonder killed Pettit, 52, in a Pembroke Pines post office parking lot after the two argued, police said. Pettit's 12-year-old was in his car and witnessed the shooting, according to authorities.

Wonder pulled into the lot and Pettit followed in his car, where the two continued a dispute they had begun while driving.

Wonder's lawyers acknowledge their client shot Pettit, but said they will prove he was not the aggressor.

"James Wonder went into that post office with letters in his hand -- mail," said defense attorney Frank Maister. "One of them was an official letter that had to be hand-delivered there. We have not been provided with any information that Mr. Pettit had any legitimate business in that parking lot."

Pettit's family could not be reached for comment, and attempts to reach Customs and Border Protection were unsuccessful.

Pettit left a wife and two daughters.

Wonder was arrested the day after the shooting at a Davie dialysis center where he was receiving treatment.

Police said the suspect had rented a car and darkened his hair to avoid being captured.

Wonder's arrest was announced with great fanfare by authorities, but local lawyers said he may be able to make a strong claim under Florida law that he was within his rights to shoot Pettit.

The state's self-defense laws allow people to use deadly force if they are in fear of death or great bodily harm.

Criminal defense attorney Fred Haddad said he would have been shocked if Wonder had been charged with anything more severe than manslaughter.

He said the possibility that Pettit was the aggressor in a road rage incident would provide Wonder a strong defense.

Maister said there should have been no indictment by grand jurors in the first place.

"We're a little bit disappointed that they came back with any indictment at all," Maister said. "We thought that this was absolutely self defense."

Brian Haas can be reached at or 954-356-4597.

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