CLEARWATER - They've been best friends since fifth grade. They've sold crack cocaine together.
Now, both will spend the rest of their lives behind bars for their part in the slaying of a 42-year-old prostitute whose body was discovered in Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg on Christmas Day, 2011.
After deliberating for about an hour and 45 minutes, a jury on Friday found Santonio Smith and Letrell McKnight, both 23, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Stacia Berman. Circuit Judge R. Timothy Peters sentenced them to life in prison without any chance of parole.
The pair showed little reaction to the verdict and sentence, but friends and family members who had been watching the trial were visibly devastated. A friend of Smith's, a young woman, started crying. Another young woman, a cousin, put her face in her hand. Others walked out.
No relatives of Berman showed up during the weeklong trial.
Smith and McKnight were convicted of killing Berman, a crack-addicted prostitute who often hung out at their apartment at 527 Eighth St. N., after Smith discovered some shoes he had bought for one or more of his children as Christmas gifts were missing.
"For shoes. Really?" Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub said in mock disbelief during closing arguments Friday. "A pair of Jordans for one life."
After Berman was summoned back to the apartment to answer for the missing children's shoes, Smith, McKnight and another man set upon Berman with a "pack mentality," Assistant State Attorney Theodora Komninos told jurors in closing arguments.
Smith, who earlier in the day slapped Berman because she took some crack cocaine from him, was the first to attack her, with the others then joining in.
They then dragged her to an upstairs apartment, with Smith returning to retrieve an iron. When Berman returned downstairs, she had burn marks on her body and some skin was peeling off, Komninos told jurors. Smith then threw her into a television.
The sole witness was a crack addict named Daryl Davis who had come to the apartment to loan his mother's Chrysler 300 to the suspects in return for some of the drug. Berman approached Davis for help after she came downstairs. He froze.
"Don't let them hurt me," the prosecutor said she told Davis.
The trio then took Berman to a different apartment, where they poured bleach on her, Komninos told jurors. They ran out of bleach and went to a Walgreen's to get more.
They then wrapped an electrical cord around her neck, the prosecutor said. There were multiple ligature marks on Berman's neck, indicating the cord was repeatedly loosened and tightened.
In the end, the suspects used the cord to wrap two plastic Walgreen's bags around Berman's head before loading her into the trunk of the Chrysler 300 David loaned them, and dumping her body into Lake Maggiore.
The bags were the same ones McKnight was given by a Walgreen's employee when he purchased the bleach and cleaning products, and a receipt for the purchase was found in the bags after Berman's body was fished out of Lake Maggiore.
Despite the suspects' efforts to clean up after themselves, Berman's blood was found splattered on a wall in one of the apartments. In addition, Smith agreed to talk to an investigator, and he admitted to many aspects of the crime.
After he and his cohorts dumped her body into the lake, Smith went clubbing, illustrating his lack of remorse, the prosecutor said. McKnight was similarly cavalier about the murder, telling a fellow inmate at the Pinellas County Jail the dispute was "over a crackhead and some shoes."
John Trevena, McKnight's attorney, said Daryl Davis, the crack addict who Trevena described as the prosecutors' "main guy," lacked credibility because he was using the drug at the time Berman was slain. Davis often changed his story as to McKnight's involvement, Trevena said.
The same credibility problem existed with the woman who said she saw the three load the body into the back of the Chrysler 300, Trevena said. She was smoking marijuana. The jail inmate lacked credibility, too, Trevena said.
Keith Hammond, Smith's attorney, noted his client cooperated with detectives, acknowledging to investigators he beat Berman. But after the beating, the only suspect seen physically assaulting Berman was a third suspect, Hammond said.
That would be Darryl Williams, 36. Williams was supposed to go on trial at the same time as Smith and McKnight, but he had been representing himself until Monday. When he decided he wanted representation, his newly appointed attorney asked for more time, so he was separated from the other two.
Both Hammond and Trevena had urged jurors to consider the defendants separately. But Schaub suggested they be considered as a group. "They were the Three Musketeers that day," Schaub said.