CLEARWATER — After he was kicked out of the house in Clearwater because he was suspected of stealing, Dominic Panzino went on a “downward spiral,” in the words of Assistant State Attorney David Tobiassen, and decided to steal from the 91-year-old woman next door.
Panzino, who worked at a wholesale meat company, went to Kathryn S. Schroepfor’s home ostensibly to use the telephone. Schroepfor was on the telephone with one of her three daughters, but she brought the conversation to a close because a neighbor had arrived, and he needed something.
While she was getting a drink for Panzino in the kitchen, however, he started rifling through her purse, Tobiassen said. Schroepfor caught him, and they struggled over the purse, with Panzino beating her in the chest, neck and face before finally strangling her, the prosecutor said. She was found the next day by her adult son, who had Down syndrome and who visited her every weekend.
Panzino, who was tracked to Massachusetts and eventually charged with first-degree murder, was facing the death penalty in the May 25, 2012, slaying at 110 Orangeview Ave.
On Thursday, Panzino pleaded guilty to the murder charge, along with three others, on the condition he would spend the rest of his life in prison instead.
Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone noted during the court proceeding there were five aggravating factors associated with the crime — those that under the law tip the balance toward a death sentence — when all that is needed is one.
Panzino, 38, has a criminal background that includes convictions for strong arm battery and assault on a law enforcement officer, he killed Schroepfor for pecuniary gain, Schroepfor was vulnerable because of her age, the act was cold and calculated, and it was also heinous.
“She didn’t deserve that,” one of her seven grandchildren wrote in a letter Assistant State Attorney Christopher Ballard read aloud. “All she did her whole life was try to be kind to people.”
“When I think what her last few minutes were like, I can hardly breathe,” the granddaughter had written.
Susan Madden, one of Schroepfor’s three daughters, read her own statement.
“I want the defendant to know her last two kindnesses were to you,” Madden read, referring to the offer of her telephone and the drink she was getting for him. “You had no right to put your hands on my mom.”
In a one-sentence statement, Panzino said he was sorry.
“I want to apologize for the pain and suffering I’ve caused the family,” he said.
After he killed Schroepfor, Panzino took her credit cards and checks and went on a spending spree, calling 1-900 numbers, buying beer and food, and attempting to get cash, Tobiassen said outside court. At one point, he was smoking crack with a prostitute who thought it was odd he had identification belonging to an elderly woman, the prosecutor said.
Eventually, he broke into Midwestern Meats, where he worked, took the keys to a van and stole it, fleeing the area and then the state, Tobiassen said.
In addition to first-degree murder, Panzino pleaded guilty to grand theft of a motor vehicle, burglary and scheme to defraud.
Outside court, Madden described Schroepfor as a former stay-at-home mother and a devout Catholic who went to church every weekend, watched Mass on television every day, and had several rosaries laid out in her home. She also grew roses.
She remained in Clearwater while her daughters lived elsewhere because she wanted to be near her mentally-challenged son, Madden said.
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