TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — With 8-foot stone walls and a guarded gate securing the Tampa area’s most exclusive homes, the Avila neighborhood is a wealthy enclave home to famous sports figures like baseball’s Lou Piniella and former NFL coach Tony Dungy. That’s why authorities figured it was unlikely someone got in from the outside and gunned down a retired a physician and his wife at their 7,000-square-foot mansion.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said Hector Rivera, 76, and his 55-year-old wife Debra knew their attacker: it was the man they employed as Debra Rivera’s driver and personal assistant. Julian Ospina-Florez, 31, is charged with two counts of attempted murder and appeared in court Wednesday morning.
Ospina-Florez didn’t speak during the brief appearance, but Circuit Judge Walter Heinrich noted that the case against him is based largely on circumstantial evidence, with no witnesses and no confession. Prosecutors are expected to file a formal request that he be held without bail, and a hearing could occur before the week is out. He’ll be held without bail until then.
Ospina-Florez has denied the killings, telling deputies that an unknown man burst into the home and attacked him, tied him up and left him in a bathroom. But investigators say he was not injured and there are no signs of forced entry. The sheriff’s office said Ospina-Florez owns a 9mm handgun that was found in a drawer in the Rivera mansion and bought ammunition last month that was found in his car. Security video showed no unknown people entering the tightly guarded neighborhood from the outside.
In a newly filed motion, prosecutors say while detectives did not find blood on Ospina-Florez’s shoes, they say he was wearing bloody socks at the crime scene.
Gee, in a news conference late Tuesday, said Ospina-Florez recently had a falling out with Debra Rivera. He is accused of shooting her with a 9mm handgun several times in a bathroom Monday night. Then, according to Gee, he fatally shot Hector Rivera in the driveway as he was returning home from watching a football game at a neighbor’s house, carrying a plate of food for his wife.
“It was a very brutal killing,” Gee said. “He was definitely making sure that no one was leaving that residence.”
Debra Rivera worked from home selling jewelry, handbags and accessories. Ospina-Florez, originally from Medellin, Colombia, worked for her company for about a year as an assistant and driver. Before the shooting, the sheriff’s office said, he’d driven her back to the four-bedroom, six-bathroom home from a trade show in Sarasota. Gee said Debra Rivera had “become distrustful” of Ospina-Florez. She had recently reported a theft of some jewelry to deputies, but investigators haven’t tied him to it.
“She thought he was stealing from her, so their relationship was diminishing,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter said Wednesday, declining to discuss details. Ospina-Florez isn’t talking to investigators, so they don’t have his side of it, she said.
Carter said investigators were searching his residence to see if any of Rivera’s property is there.
According to police records, Florez — who was born in Colombia but came to the U.S. in 1999 and is a naturalized citizen — was arrested in 2004 on burglary and battery charges but the case did not go to trial and was never sentenced.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that Avila has 395 homes on 900 acres of greenspace and lakes. The golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, draws celebrities to an annual tournament hosted by New York Yankees star, Derek Jeter, a former resident. Property records show the Rivera home has an assessed value of $1.1. million.