By TOM STAIK
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 10:46 AM EDT
Three days before jury selection was scheduled to begin in his trial, murder suspect Joshua Lee Altersberger changed his plea to guilty in the roadside shooting death of Florida Highway Patrolman Sgt. Nicholas Sottile.
Attorneys for Altersberger, 21, alerted prosecutors at noon Friday that their client intended to plead guilty, according to Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin. The hearing was held around 3:30 p.m., at the Polk County Courthouse in Bartow before Judge Michael J. Hunter.
"He made a short statement where he said, 'I'm doing it because I wanted to take responsibility and man up to what I did,'" Houchin said. "I think we had such a strong case that he did not want to go through the trial."
Altersberger shot and killed Sottile during a traffic stop alongside an orange grove on northbound U.S. 27 just north of Lake Placid in southern Highlands County. Sottile, a 24-year veteran of the state’s trooper corp, stopped a 2003 Toyota Camry driven by Altersberger for traffic violations.
His passenger, Quintin Jerome Kinder, of Bainsbridge, Georgia fled after the vehicle stopped.
Officials say, Altersberger fired several shots at the officer as he stood by the passenger window of the car and then fled the scene on foot.
Sottile was able to make several frantic calls for help on his police radio, and died a short time later at Florida Hospital Lake Placid after undergoing emergency surgery.
“(Altersberger) said he wanted to kill a cop,” Kinder later told investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after he and Altersberger were found after an all-night manhunt. Altersberger was found more than 20 miles away at a Sebring home. Kinder was located in a grove near the shooting scene.
Kinder was charged with trespassing in a grove and transferred to Bainsbridge, Georgia to serve violation of probation charges. Georgia officials inadvertently released the man, but the star witness in the Sottile murder case was quickly recaptured.
Despite the change in plea, the state attorney’s office still intends to seek the death penalty.
Jury selection has been slated March 23. Jurors will begin to hear testimony on the events of Jan. 12, 2007 on March 30 to decide if the sentence should be life in prison or death.