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Citrus Park triple shootings were ‘brazen’

By Ray Reyes
Published: May 7, 2013 Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:57 AM
Jason Burnett, left, and Gary Honish were charged in the slayings.

When the gunfire began Sunday morning, the three women who lived in the small, brown stucco home in Citrus Park scrambled for their lives.

One woman was shot before she could make it outside, witnesses said. Another ran for the back door; she was mortally wounded before she reached it.

The third, investigators said, managed to run a block away and, drenched in blood, collapsed near a utility pole.

Adding to the shock: The carnage took place about 150 feet away from what should be an ideal crime deterrent — a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office substation.

The house is about 50 feet east of Gunn Highway. The sheriff’s substation, and its parking lot full of patrol cars, can be seen from the home’s driveway.

Maj. Ray Lawton, who oversees the sheriff’s District III and whose office is in the station at 7202 Gunn Highway, said Sunday’s home invasion robbery shows “crime can happen anywhere.”

“You don’t know what goes on in the privacy of a home,” said Lawton, whose patrol district covers northwest Hillsborough. “Shocked? Not really, not with all my years in law enforcement. But the crime, it was kind of brazen.”

Deputies said Jason Burnett, 37, of Tampa, went to the home at 7420 Manhattan Drive to rob its occupants of money and drugs.

Burnett was driven there about 11 a.m. Sunday by Gary Honish, deputies said. Honish, 47, knew the women and had “previous narcotic transactions with them,” the sheriff’s office said.

Honish told Burnett the women would be a good target because they would have drugs and cash, investigators said.

Neighbors said they heard several gunshots.

When deputies arrived, they found Fern Giddings, 56, dead inside the house. Her friend Nell Mason, 52, was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she later died.

Mason’s daughter, Christina Soto, 35, was shot several times but was able to run out of the house and reach a utility pole, where a witness found her, deputies said. Soto was in critical condition Monday, the sheriff’s office said.

Giddings was a cancer survivor and had prescribed medication, her sister said, which could have made her a target.

“I know my sister had prescription drugs,” Denise Chertoff, 52, said. “She had lung cancer. She had to take medicine for that.”

Chertoff said another occupant told her the women tried to fight back against the robbers.

The suspects “went there to rob them and there was resistance,” Chertoff said.

When the first shots were fired, he said, Giddings “was trying to run outside, to the back door, and she was shot in the back.”

Chertoff said her sister was a phlebotomist but couldn’t work because of her medical problems. Giddings moved into the home about three weeks ago.

The three-bedroom, two-bath home has a tarnished reputation in the working-class neighborhood.

“There’s been some calls regarding the house there,” Lawton said. “It’s not a residence we’re unfamiliar with.”

Deputies have been called to the house 15 times since the beginning of the year, according to the sheriff’s office. The calls include domestic disturbances, criminal mischief and one assault.

Neighbor Brittany Mellon said the neighborhood has its share of crime and that deputies were often at the house where the shooting occurred.

Neighbors said cars often came and went from the single story house, although the occupants seldom left.

Chertoff said she doesn’t think her sister was involved in any illegal activity.

“I don’t know about that house and I don’t know any of those people who lived there,” Chertoff said. “I don’t know why she moved there. I do know she was a good person. She came across as hard and tough, but inside she had a heart of gold.”

Mason’s ex-boyfriend said news of the home invasion rattled him.

“My God, I don’t know what to say,” said John McFadden, 57, who dated Mason from 1988 to 1997. “This is unbelievable. You don’t think it’s going to happen to people you know.”

McFadden said he and Mason have a son, 18-year-old Chaz Mason.

“I don’t expect this for anybody,” McFadden said. “A home invasion, you can’t predict that. I’m in shock.”

Deputies arrested Burnett and Honish hours after the shooting. A gun believed to have been used in the slaying was recovered, they said.

Burnett is charged with two counts of murder and attempted murder, robbery/home invasion and aggravated assault. He is being held without bail at Hillsborough County Jail.

Honish is charged with being an accessory after the fact, deputies said.

Burnett, who investigators said has a lengthy criminal history, is also the suspect of two home invasion robberies that took place in Pasco County about an hour before the killing in Citrus Park.

Pasco deputies said Burnett entered a home at 14339 Tifton Lane through an unlocked door about 9:45 a.m., walked into a bedroom and demanded money from a woman, but left with just her cellphone.

Deputies said he also forced his way into a home at 1518 Rowland Drive about 15 minutes later and demanded money and guns from a man.

Burnett struck the man on the head with a gun, deputies said.

Criminal charges are being sought against Burnett in both cases, Pasco investigators said.