JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After less than three hours of deliberations, the jury returned with a guilty verdict Friday against a former youth pastor accused of killing and dismembering a 16-year-old boy in 1994.
In an unusual move, Ronnie Hyde told Judge Tatiana Salvador he was ready to be sentenced immediately as Fred Laster’s five siblings watched from the front row. They had left a seat open for their slain brother.
After a tear-filled statement from Laster’s brother, Travis, who recounted all that “Freddy’s” family was deprived of by his murder, Salvador handed down the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
“He was loved. He was loved dearly. He had a grandmother who on her death bed questioned what happened to Freddy. She died nearly hours later not knowing. We have our brothers and sisters who have wondered what happened to Freddy,” Travis said. “We lost a future with our brother. We lost a brother that we don’t get to call on the weekends and ask, ‘Hey, did you see the ball game?’ We lost a brother, like, ‘Hey, Freddy, did you write a new song? We like the last one you wrote. Did you get anything when you were out of town?’”
The family also provided this statement:
“We never gave up hope. This has been a long, emotional road and we are grateful there is finally justice for Fred. We miss him dearly and miss the future we will never have with him. We would like to thank everyone who over the past 20+ years served a role to secure today’s outcome. Specifically, we would like to thank the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office; Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office; Jacksonville Beach Police Department; FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement; the State Attorney’s Office and prosecutors Alan Mizrahi and Terence Martin; Angela Judah, Agent Abbi Beccaccio; and Detective Jimmy Watson. We love you, Fred.”
After surprising many in court Thursday when he opted to take the stand in his own defense, Hyde faced a contentious cross-examination Friday morning from prosecutor Alan Mizrahi, who grilled Hyde about his account of the last time he saw Laster.
Laster’s dismembered remains were found in June 1994 behind a dumpster at a BP gas station in Columbia County with Hyde’s DNA “all over that dumpster,” according to Mizrahi.
Prosecutors contended that Hyde and Laster had been together the day before the remains were found. Hyde denied that, saying the last time he saw the teen was on May 30, 1994, when he jumped out of his car because he did not want to go back to his grandmother’s house.
Prosecutor: You knew that he did not want to go home. Yet your testimony is he got into your car voluntarily.
Prosecutor: To go home? You told him you were taking him home.
Hyde: He knew where he was going.
Prosecutor: So he jumps out in the middle of nowhere, correct?
Hyde: It was a heavily wooded area.
Prosecutor: After dark?
Hyde: Yes, sir, after dark in June.
Later, Mizrahi asked Hyde why he hadn’t called 911 after the teen jumped out of his vehicle.
Hyde: Because it wasn’t an emergency?
Prosecutor: You think a 16-year-old running toward woods by himself isn’t an emergency?
Hyde: No, sir, I don’t.
Molly Sasso, an attorney who is not affiliated with the case, said the statement from Hyde was telling.
“Why wouldn’t you? Hey, there’s somebody in trouble. You know, why wouldn’t you reach out?” Sasso said. “I think, you know, that’s not something you can really convict somebody on, but it definitely forms that impression in the jurors mind that, like, that’s not natural behavior.”
During the cross-examination, Salvador had to stop Mizrahi several times and admonished both men for repeatedly talking over each other. She told them to behave better in the courtroom.
Mizrahi also questioned Hyde about a garage sale Hyde said he was having around the time Laster disappeared.
Hyde: Eventually I gave in to him because he refused to return to his grandmother’s house, get a good night’s sleep and work on the garage sale and that would make him feel better.
Prosecutor: The garage sale is not on your calendar.
Hyde: But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have one.
Hyde maintained his innocence throughout, saying: “Mr. Mizrahi, I never hurt that boy. I’ve never hurt him. I would never hurt him.”
Hyde’s cousin took the stand Thursday, reading from journal entries where Hyde asked forgiveness from Laster.
When asked why he’d want forgiveness from Laster, Hyde said Thursday...
Hyde: Maybe I didn’t try to do enough to figure out why he went to Heron… and what was so… what was so urgent about him leaving the area.
Defense attorney: Do you know anything more than what you’ve told us about Fred Laster’s death?
Hyde: No I don’t.
Defense attorney: Would you have ever harmed that child?
Hyde: Oh no… never. I couldn’t.”
Hyde said after Laster jumped from his car in 1994 that he went home and saw a family member, Travis -- Laster’s brother -- the following morning, and he said he told Travis what had happened.
It also came out in court Thursday that Hyde had declared Laster as a dependent foster child on his taxes -- in the years after Laster disappeared.
Mizrahi grilled Hyde on that point on the stand Friday, saying he lied to the federal government, which Hyde denied.
During closing arguments, one of Hyde’s defense attorneys said there was no definitive evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Hyde is responsible for Laster’s murder. She talked about how Laster was a lost, vulnerable boy -- and given his family situation -- it was reasonable to believe Hyde’s story that he jumped out of his car and ran away. She said the trial has been “much to do about nothing.”
“I want to be clear, the death of Fred Laster has been terrible, but the evidence against Ronnie Hyde is just not there. The evidence is that Ron Hyde did nothing wrong. Nothing,” she said to the jury. “The state has made a fuss about stickers and knives. They are all things I could get in my grandmother’s house right now, and there is much to do about nothing and that is because Ron Hyde is innocent.”
The jury disagreed, returning a few hours later with a verdict of guilty.
Gruesome evidence shown
Earlier in the week, prosecutors laid out key evidence through grim testimony that they said pointed to the former youth pastor and counselor’s guilt.
Jurors were shown footage of the crime scene and a look at physical evidence, including knives, a black plastic bag, a bloody bed cushion, a red flannel shirt, orange gloves with Laster’s DNA and sticks typically used in the bottom of a bathtub. Prosecutors say DNA from the red shirt was matched to Hyde.
When questioned about some of those items found at the crime scene, including the red flannel shirt with his DNA, Hyde testified his father had similar shirts and he may have given it to Laster at some point.
He also talked about egg crate mattresses -- like the blood-soaked one found at the crime scene. Hyde said he gave Laster one to use for camping.
During his closing argument, Mizrahi said, “DNA has no bias. It has no agenda,” and that Hyde is “all over that dumpster.”
Also among the state’s gruesome evidence photos were pictures of Laster’s upper body that was found 27 years and 10 months ago behind the dumpster at a BP gas station in Lake City. 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.
Mizrahi said it’s hard to hear those details.
“The shock and disturbing concept that a human being can take a bread knife and saw through someone’s neck, wrist, femurs -- it is hard to fathom and it makes us angry. It makes us disgusted, and it makes it hard to know that we’re a part of the human race,” Mizrahi said during his closing argument Friday.
He said the fact that Laster was dismembered pointed to him being killed by someone he knew.
“You have to protect the victim’s identity because they’re connected to you. A random serial killer isn’t going to care. If Fred Laster’s found behind a dumpster, guess who they’re going to talk to? Him!” Mizrahi said as he pointed at Hyde.
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Hyde has also been charged with dozens of counts of child pornography. Those proceedings are being kept separate from the murder case.