Largo cold case drive-by shooting trial begins
CLEARWATER - Prosecutors had a bit of a conundrum Wednesday as Lloyd Neal’s second-degree murder trial got under way. Neal, 23, was charged in the Oct. 29, 2006, drive-by shooting death of Hoeschele Thomas in Largo after an investigator linked the bullet that killed him to a drive-by shooting in Clearwater a few weeks later. Prosecutors wanted to let jurors know about the Nov. 18, 2006, shooting because the same .380-caliber handgun was used in both crimes, Assistant State Attorney Michael Marr said outside court. But Neal’s defense attorney, Keith Hammond, argued against it, and Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico agreed. Of the three people in the car during the drive-by shooting in Clearwater, where no one was injured, two or three had guns, Hammond said outside court. Neal was said to be one of them but he was never charged, according to Hammond.The judge’s ruling put prosecutors in the unenviable position of presenting their case against Neal without being able to discuss the sequence of events that led to charges being filed against him in 2011. Assistant State Attorney Christopher Klemawesch abided by Federico’s ruling in his opening statement Wednesday and didn’t mention the second drive-by shooting. On the night Thomas, 48, was killed, he was taking a walk in his neighborhood in Largo when a reddish-maroon Jeep Cherokee pulled up, Klemawesch told jurors. The passenger and Thomas exchanged words, and a single shot was fired. Neighbors heard it and found him writhing in pain in the road, unable to identify his assailant. “This defendant murdered Mr. Thomas because he didn’t like something Mr. Thomas said to him,” Klemawesch told jurors. Prosecutors plan to introduce as evidence the .380-caliber bullet that killed Thomas and have the driver of the Jeep Cherokee testify. During the roadside exchange, Thomas was asked whether he wanted to buy any drugs and refused, Pinellas County sheriff’s investigators have said. Hammond, in his opening statement, told the jury to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. The driver, Jerald Grouse, had prior felony convictions and cases pending against him now, he said. Thomas’ death went unsolved for years until Pinellas sheriff’s Detective John Spoor reconsidered it as part of a cold-case initiative. He found a Florida Department of Law Enforcement ballistics report that linked the two drive-by shootings. Neal, already serving a life sentence for a murder that occurred the year after the drive-by shootings, was then charged in 2011. As chance would have it, Spoor was one of the first detectives on the scene of Thomas’ killing and the first to spy the bullet that killed him.