By Curt Anderson
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WPTV) — A Florida man has pleaded guilty to fatally shooting five women at a small-town bank branch in 2019 and will face either life in prison or a death sentence during the penalty phase next year.
Court records show 25-year-old Zephen Xaver entered guilty pleas Tuesday to five counts of first-degree murder. He had previously pleaded not guilty, with a trial initially set for January in Sebring, located about 84 miles southeast of Tampa.
Now, a Highlands County judge has set the penalty portion of the case to begin Jan. 16, 2024.
Xaver admitted shooting four employees of a SunTrust Bank branch and one customer on Jan. 23, 2019. All five female victims were ordered to lie on the floor and then were shot one by one, investigators said. They added that robbery did not appear to be a motive and that Xaver had no connection to the victims.
“We believe it was a random act,” Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said shortly after the slayings. “Aside from perhaps driving by and seeing it was a bank, we have no known evidence that he targeted this bank for any particular reason.”
Investigators said Xaver called 911 from the bank and told a dispatcher what he had done, then refused to come out of the bank building when heavily-armed police arrived. After a two-hour standoff, Xaver finally surrendered and was taken into custody where he has remained ever since.
The four SunTrust employees slain that day were Ana Piñon-Williams, Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez and Jessica Montague. The customer who died was Cynthia Watson. Police said one employee who was in a back break room escaped the carnage.
There were troubling signs that Xaver, who previously lived in Indiana, was fascinated with guns and killing people. A former girlfriend said after the killings that Xaver described having dreams while still in high school of hurting other students.
“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,” the ex-girlfriend, Alex Gerlach, said after the Florida killings.
School officials in Bremen, Indiana, contacted police in 2014 after Xaver reported the dream and his mother agreed to take him to a behavioral health center, according to police records. No other action was taken. Police in Michigan released information about a 2017 incident in which he was messaging a girl in that state about “possibly thinking of suicide by cop and taking hostages.”
Prior to the shootings, Xaver trained for about two months to be a correctional officer at the nearby Avon Park Correctional Institution. He resigned two weeks before the bank killings.
This story was originally published March 15, 2023 by WPTV in West Palm Beach, an E.W. Scripps Company.