Saturday, August 23, 2008

David Onstott gets life in prison in 13-year-old Sarah Michelle Lunde's slaying

By Colleen Jenkins, Times Staff Writer

Published Friday, August 22, 2008 8:49 PM


TAMPA — Minutes before David Lee Onstott received a life sentence Friday for second-degree murder, authorities released the taped confession that jurors never heard.

Its contents could put to rest any lingering questions about whether Onstott killed 13-year-old Sarah Michelle Lunde.

"I did it," he told detectives.

And then, "I'm guilty of murder."

The 22-minute interview began at 9:54 p.m. on April 16, 2005, hours after searchers found Sarah's decomposed body on an abandoned fish farm a half-mile from her home in Ruskin. It wasn't played at trial because Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta ruled that detectives ignored Onstott's requests for an attorney.

Onstott, 40, didn't offer many new details on the tape, saying he had been drunk and may have smoked pot before finding Sarah home alone early April 10.

"What happened?" Sheriff's Detective Steve Lewis asked.

"Argument broke out, one thing led to another," Onstott said.

"I think I did choke her," he added.

• • •

During Onstott's nearly two-week trial, which ended Thursday evening with guilty verdicts of second-degree murder and battery, a former jail deputy testified that Onstott told him he choked the girl, heard her gasp for air and then he blacked out.

Backed by that testimony, prosecutors argued that Onstott, 40, had gone to Sarah's home hoping to have sex with her mother but choked Sarah and killed her with crushing blows to her head.

Onstott's attorneys said he was innocent. No physical or forensic evidence tied him to the crime.

The circumstantial evidence proved enough to convince 12 jurors of Onstott's guilt.

Ficarrotta praised the jury as one of the hardest working he had ever seen. They deliberated nearly 13 hours over two days.

Reached by phone Friday, juror Gregg McGlasson said much of their discussion Thursday focused on the secretly recorded conversation Onstott had with his mother the same day Sarah was found. Prosecutors provided a transcript that included Onstott telling his mother, "I killed her." The defense disputed that interpretation.

McGlasson said most jurors thought the statement sounded more like "I feel it." They listened again and again and decided to ignore the transcript.

Jurors did not give much weight to Onstott telling his estranged wife that he had now broken every one of the Ten Commandments, McGlasson said.

Onstott's statements to the jail deputy, however, played "a big part" in the conviction.

McGlasson felt Onstott "got what he deserved" with the life sentence, but juror Marygrace Lowe said the lack of evidence left her less sure.

"It broke my heart when I found that he was sentenced to life in prison," she said Friday.

• • •

Before getting sentenced Friday morning, Onstott spoke to Sarah Lunde's mother, Kelly May.

"For what it's worth — I'm sure she don't want to hear it — Kelly, you know, my condolences," Onstott said. "I'm sorry."

May shook her head.

"No you're not," she said.

Assistant Public Defender John Skye told the judge that Onstott, a construction worker and father of four, had paid for his past mistakes. He spent about six years in prison for a 1995 sexual battery conviction.

"I would ask you, quite frankly, not to throw Mr. Onstott away," Skye said.

Ficarrotta sentenced Onstott to life in prison anyway, plus a concurrent five years for failing to report as a sex offender. In jail since his April 2005 arrest, he received time served for the battery conviction.

The life term is the same punishment Onstott would have faced had he been convicted of first-degree murder as charged.

Beneath an umbrella in a summer shower outside the courthouse, May said she had not heard Onstott's confession. Already certain of his guilt, she said she didn't need to.

"He's not sorry," she said. "He's sorry he got caught."

Another grieving parent stood behind her in support: Mark Lunsford, whose 9-year-old daughter Jessica was kidnapped, raped and murdered in February 2005 in Homosassa. Her killer now sits on death row.

Prosecutors took the death penalty off the table in Onstott's case after losing his key confession. May doesn't begrudge the decision.

"Life in prison," she said, "is death."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.

>>fast facts

Excerpts from Onstott's confession

Confession told to Hillsborough sheriff's detectives. To read the transcript and listen to the report, go to

Detective Steve Lewis: Did you choke her?

Onstott: I think I did choke her.


Lewis: Did you have sex with her?

Onstott: Not that I remember.


Lewis: Can you tell me a reason why this happened?

Onstott: The sad part is, no.

Lewis: Were you intoxicated at the time?

Onstott: I was drunk.


Lewis: Is there anything else you can think of David?

Onstott: It's not who I am. (He starts to cry.)

Lewis: Is there anything you'd like to say to her family?

Onstott: I'm so sorry.

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