JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Disclaimer: Some may find the details included in this story to be graphic in nature. Discretion is advised.
Attorneys delivered opening statements Tuesday in the trial of Ronnie Hyde, the former youth pastor charged with the 1994 murder of a teenage boy, whose dismembered remains weren’t identified until 2016.
Prosecutors say there’s DNA and other evidence that links Hyde to the murder, but the defense team says there’s nothing that proves Hyde killed Laster. Hyde says he’s innocent.
Prosecutor Alan Mizrahi laid out the physical evidence against Hyde, including his DNA, which was found on a flannel shirt recovered from the Lake City dumpster where Fred Laster’s severed torso was found in 1994. Mizrahi said that Hyde was almost caught in the act of disposing of the body and that his distinctive car was spotted driving away by a witness.
Defense attorney Ann Finnell told the jury that Hyde had nothing to do with Laster’s death and that common sense will lead them to that conclusion. She said that Laster, a high school dropout, was trying to find his way in 1994 and would sometimes wander off.
The jurors on Tuesday also saw grim photos of evidence from Laster’s death, including his torso.
The state showed evidence photos from June 5, 1994, the day Laster’s upper body was found behind a dumpster at a BP gas station. Brian Retz was a detective for Columbia County Sheriff’s Office at the time.
“The head had been cut off, the hands had been cut off, both legs had been cut off, so it was just the torso of the body,” said Retz.
Laster’s family said Hyde picked Laster up that same week and never saw him again.
Calvin Finner, a deputy for the case, said it appeared the teen had been killed recently.
Other items were found at the scene in addition to red flannel shirt, including knives, a black plastic bag, blood-stained bed foam, orange gloves with Laster’s DNA and stickers typically used in the bottom of a tub.
In cross-examination, the defense said this is not enough to connect Hyde to the murder and dismemberment of Laster’s body.
Finner testified that the Tristar knives found at the scene were popular at the time of the murder, so anyone could’ve had those knives, and that the gloves were tainted.
“There were so many places that sold them, no way to pinpoint,” Finner said.
Finner was then asked, “Did you come to learn the gloves had been contaminated at FDLE?”
“Yes, not until years later did I learn that the fingerprint examiner used a dirty fingerprint brush to try and lift the fingerprints,” Finner said.
Another witness, forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Hayney, said Laster’s body was cut with more than one knife.
“There were 25 sharp force trauma impacts with a total of 71 cut marks,” she said.
It has not been confirmed that those knives belonged to Hyde.
It was also revealed that detectives had considered several serial killers, but none were linked to this crime. The defense said anyone could’ve killed Laster.
The jurors will continue to hear testimony from both sides. Court will resume at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
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Hyde, 65, of Jacksonville Beach, was brought inside the courtroom Monday, and the judge reiterated that the state is not seeking the death penalty.
The court started with a group of about 50 potential jurors on Monday, and when asked by the judge if they had knowledge of the case due to media coverage, quite a few hands shot up, and attorneys worked to determine whether those men and women had already formed an opinion. By the end of the day a jury was seated and now they will hear from several witnesses this week. Two of those witnesses are scheduled to be Laster’s family members, including his brother, Travis.
Hyde has also been charged with dozens of counts of child pornography. Those proceedings are being kept separate from the murder case.
This trial is expected to last a week, starting Monday and finishing Friday.