State wants death penalty for man accused of execution-style killings of 5 people inside Florida bank

Zephen Xaver

SEBRING, Fla. (AP) — The State of Florida has filed notice it intends to seek the death penalty for the 21-year-old man accused of taking over a SunTrust Bank branch in Florida, making five women inside lie down on the lobby floor and then shooting them in the backs of their heads.

A grand jury indicted Zephen Xaver this week of five counts of first-degree murder in connection with the murders on January 23 in Sebring, Florida. State Attorney Brian Haas said at a news conference Friday that he had reached the “unquestionable conclusion” that he should seek the death penalty.

Authorities say they found no indication Xaver intended to rob the bank during the attack and no apparent connections between him and the bank or the victims.

Zephen Xaver
Zephen Xaver (Source: Highland County Sheriff's Office)

All the victims were found in the bank’s lobby, lying face down with gunshots to the backs of their heads. Shell casings from Xaver’s 9mm handgun were scattered on the floor, according to an affidavit.

Another customer, Victor Sparks, was quoted by the Highlands News-Sun as saying that he found the door locked during the attack, peered inside and saw people lying on the floor while someone walked around and between them. He turned and stepped away and heard gunfire. He said police arrived within two minutes after he and his wife called 911.

In his call to 911 dispatchers, Xaver said, “I have shot five people,” according to police.

But he refused to surrender and would not allow officers to reach the victims, Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said. After more than an hour of negotiations, the chief ordered a SWAT team in. They used an armored vehicle to break through the front doors. Xaver was found in an office in the rear.

By then, all the victims were already dead, the chief said.

Zephen Xaver
Zephen Xaver (Source: Highlands County Sheriff's Office)

Xaver was arrested in a beige T-shirt depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. On Thursday, he wore a black-and-white striped prison uniform as he was appointed a public defender and ordered held without bond.

His father said he's "heartbroken for the victims" and that his son "wasn't raised to be like this."

"He's always been a good kid. He's had his troubles, but he has never hurt anyone ever before. This is a total shock," Josh Xaver told CNN. The Associated Press sought interviews with both of Xaver's parents but received no immediate response.

The shootings were not a shock to Alex Gerlach, who identified herself as Xaver's former girlfriend. She said he's long been fascinated with the idea of killing, but no one took her warnings about him seriously. For some reason, he "always hated people and wanted everybody to die," Gerlach told WSBT-TV in South Bend, Indiana, near his former home in Plymouth, Indiana.

"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," she said. "Every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate that it had to come to this."

Gerlach was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that Xaver said he purchased a gun last week and "no one thought anything of it" because he had always liked guns.

Xaver had no apparent criminal record in the areas where he's lived in Indiana and Florida, and his school records are spotty. Two school districts in northern Indiana said he attended for several years but did not graduate. Xaver also briefly studied online. A spokeswoman for Salt Lake City-based Stevens-Henager College confirmed that he was enrolled from September to December before withdrawing last year.

In Florida, he tried to be a prison guard. Department of Corrections records show he was hired as a trainee at Avon Park Correctional Institution on Nov. 2 and resigned Jan. 9. No disciplinary issues were reported.

Public records and neighbors say Xaver and his mother had moved to Sebring in the fall from Plymouth, Indiana. They lived in a pre-fabricated home about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) from the bank. No one answered the door Wednesday night after police searched the home.

John Larose, who lives next door, said Xaver kept to himself, but he could hear him playing and yelling at video games in the middle of the night.

The bank attack was at least the fourth mass shooting in Florida resulting in five or more dead in the past three years. A gunman killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub in 2016. Five died at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2017, and 17 died in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a Fort Lauderdale suburb.

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This story has been edited to correct the name of the Highlands News-Sun newspaper.

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Associated Press Writer David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

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