Peace sought as trial nears

1998 killing of friends during Fla. vacation haunts survivors

Death penalty case

January 21, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

It's been nearly three years since Matthew Wichita and Kevans B. Hall II died, three years since Seth Qubeck was stabbed, three years since the Columbia men's spring fling to Florida turned bloody.

It's been 33 months, to be exact, of delays and legal maneuvering and motions and depositions and rulings.

And it's all come to this: Dozens of witnesses and maybe a hundred exhibits, and three brothers who grew up together, raised each other and, beginning tomorrow, will be tried together in a Daytona Beach courtroom. If convicted, they face the death penalty.

Christine Neperud has been waiting for this day for a long time, waiting for these last three of seven defendants to be tried, waiting for a chance to start a new chapter in her life, as she calls it - one without her son, Matthew, but with his memory.

Jill Carter has also been waiting - waiting for a chance to heal and to sleep, without the nightmare that always seems to feature her son, Kevans.

The mothers are heading to Florida to sit through what promises to be a month or more of testimony. And Neperud, for one, is worried that she will hear frightening details about her son's last moments. She also is worried that the three brothers - Jonathan, Christopher and Joshua Trull - will be found not guilty of murder.

"I just want justice to be served," Neperud said. "I'm scared to death something is going to go wrong. Somebody didn't dot an `i' or cross a `t.'"

The 10-day spring break in New Smyrna Beach was supposed to give five Columbia friends, all Oakland Mills High School alumni, a chance to blow off some steam and, along the way, exercise a few unwritten - but no less obvious - spring break rights: the right to party, to have fun, to soak up the sun, to flirt.

Wichita and Hall weren't supposed to die.

They were supposed to come home: Matthew Wichita, 21, to play basketball and transfer from Howard Community College to Villa Julie College; Kevans Hall, 23, to pack for an anticipated move to Florida. Hall, also a Howard Community College student, had told his mother he was taking her with him.

Instead, a series of disputes - none of which involved the Columbia men at first - sparked a confrontation halfway through their trip. Wichita, Hall and Qubeck inserted themselves into the fray at the behest of a 14-year-old girl's father, who worried that some locals were harassing his daughter.

A first scuffle at the Ocean Palms Beach Club, where the Columbia men were staying, involved only fists. The three Volusia County young men who were involved would later call for reinforcements - including Joshua's brothers, Jonathan and Christopher, according to court records and depositions. This time, they brought weapons - knives, bats and a sock weighted with a cue ball.

Wichita collapsed and died at the scene of the attack, not far from their room, 113. Hall was pronounced dead at nearby Bert Fish Medical Center. Qubeck, now 23, spent nearly three weeks in a hospital recovering from 17 stab wounds.

Seven men were charged. Four have pleaded guilty to lesser charges - three to attempted first-degree murder, which carries a maximum 30-year penalty. If they cooperate during the trial, prosecutors have said they will bring their behavior to the judge's attention when they are sentenced, prosecutor Noah McKinnon said.

As for the Trull brothers, he said, the decision to seek the death penalty against all three arose from their alleged roles in the attack.

Jonathan, 30, and Christopher, 27, are accused of the killings and of leading the way up the stairs to Ocean Palms, where they first encountered Seth Qubeck outside Room 101; both Trulls were armed with knives the night of the attack, April 16, 1998, according to witness depositions. Joshua Trull, 20, is accused of wielding a bat and calling his brothers in.

Absent the brothers, "there would have been no death," McKinnon said.

Jonathan Trull's lawyer, Gerard Keating, disagrees and offers this account:

Jonathan did not go to Ocean Palms that night to kill anyone, and the oldest brother did not have a knife, despite witness statements to the contrary, Keating said. He was there only as Joshua's father figure - to talk to Ocean Palms officials about the earlier scuffle, which had left his brother battered, Keating said. At the time of the killings, Jonathan Trull was raising Joshua, then 17, according to court documents.

Jonathan did fight, but only with his fists, Keating maintains. He plans to argue that others, including at least some of the four who have pleaded, did the killing. According to court depositions, however, blood was on Jonathan's clothing, and he is said to have told a friend that "he must have stabbed some guy 20 times."

Christopher's lawyer, Peyton Quarles, would not talk about his defense plans. Joshua's lawyer, Jeffrey Dees, did not return calls for comment. The lawyers are preparing separate defenses.

Disbelief in the community

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