By Frank Fernandez
A jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts, finding that Luis Toledo killed his wife and her two children, and tampered with evidence by disposing of their bodies.
Toledo then said he wanted to waive his right to argue why he should not be sentenced to death.
The deliberations began at about 9:25 a.m. Friday in the case against the Deltona man. Toledo, 35, is charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Yessenia Suarez, 28, and two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her children Thalia Otto, 9, and Michael Elijah Otto, 8.
It took the jury about eight hours to reach a verdict.
Family members of Suarez and the children hugged and cried in the courtroom after the jury left. Then just outside the courtroom they embraced in a circle and sobbed as they held each other.
After the jury had left the room, Toledo told the judge he wanted to say something. Toledo said he wanted to waive mitigation, meaning he would not argue to the jury why his life should be spared. The judge told Toledo to think it over and wait for a less emotional time and consult his attorneys before making a decision.
Toledo did not appear to react as he heard the verdict read.
About five hours into the deliberations jurors asked to watch again two videos of Toledo’s interviews with police. The first interview played had to do with Toledo’s request that deputies take him home and then loosen his cuffs so he could pretend to try to escape and they could shoot him. For the second video prosecutors played portions of Toledo telling police how he punched his wife in the throat after he said she attacked him. He said she died from that punch. Then Toledo goes on to say how he heard his neighbor Tyshawn Jackson kill the kids with an ax in the bathroom.
The families of the victims had to endure Toledo’s grisly descriptions of the deaths again. Michael Otto, the kids’ father, sat in the courtroom, his head in his hand, looking down at the floor. Felicita Perez, Suarez’s mother, was flanked by relatives and a victim’s advocate who gave her a hug afterward.
Jackson has not been charged in the murders and investigators said Toledo killed all three.
After the videos were played Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano sent the jury of nine women and three men back to deliberate. The foreperson is juror 105, a man.
Zambrano sent the panel to begin deliberations about 9:25 a.m. Friday. Toledo patted one of his attorneys, Jeff Deen, on the back before he returned to a holding area at the Richard O. Watson Judicial Center. On Thursday after closing arguments, Toledo smiled and shook Deen’s hand.
Zambrano asked the panel to give him about an hour’s notice if they believed they would not reach a verdict today so he could arrange for a bus and hotel rooms. The jury must be sequestered during deliberations.
Earlier in the day, at about 10:45 a.m., the jury let the judge know they had three questions. They actually were all requests. First, the jurors asked that lunch be ordered. The other two requests were not so easy. Jurors asked for a timeline shown during the trial. But the timeline was illustrative and not in evidence. They also asked for a map showing an overview of the area involved in the investigation.
Zambrano consulted with attorneys and then replied via a note that the timeline was not in evidence and jurors would have to look at the evidence they had to form a timeline. He replied that they already had maps that were in evidence but that another map that was shown during the trial was not in evidence.
If the jury convicts Toledo of killing Suarez, he faces up to life in prison. If convicted of killing either of the children, Toledo could face the death penalty.
In that case, jurors, including the two alternates, would have to return next week for the penalty phase, in which prosecutors list aggravating circumstances on why Toledo should get the death penalty and defense attorneys list mitigators on why he should not.
Under a new law this year, jurors would have to unanimously recommend death for the judge to have the option of sending Toledo to death row.
Toledo also faces up to five years in prison if he is convicted of tampering with evidence. Toledo has been held at the Volusia County Branch Jail without bail for four years, since he was arrested on Oct. 23, 2013, the day the mother and her two children vanished from their home at 317 Covent Gardens Place in Deltona.
The day before the family vanished Toledo had angrily confronted his wife at work about an affair she was having with a coworker at American K9. That affair “lit the fuse” to the murders, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors Mark Johnson and Ryan Will emphasized during the trial that there has been no trace of the family since then. Suarez’s large and close family have not heard from her or her children since then. Suarez’s bank account was untouched. The children had perfect attendance at school until Oct. 23, 2013.
Investigators found 14 spots of Thalia Otto’s blood in the master bathroom and a closet door. They found her blood on one of Toledo’s boots that was fished out of a dumpster. They found her blood on the trunk mat of her mother’s Honda Accord.
Toledo told detectives on Oct. 23, 2013, that he had slept in his car and then walked into the house to find his family gone, the kids’ backpacks still in the house. He said he did not know where they were.
But someone else was talking to investigators: Toledo’s neighbor, Tyshawn Jackson. He told them that Toledo had woken him up at 6:11 a.m. that day asking for help in moving Suarez’s car. Jackson said he thought it was a short trip, perhaps to Suarez’s mother’s house, Felicita Perez who lived in the neighborhood. But instead, Toledo drove about 30 minutes into Lake Mary where he left Suarez’s Accord in a Publix Shopping Center. Jackson said Toledo wiped the car down.
Toledo then got in his Saturn with Jackson and drove to a dumpster behind some apartments where he dumped the trunk mat from the Accord, a bottle of Mean Green, some of his clothes and his boots. Then he drove back to Deltona.
But along the way, Jackson said a frantic-acting Toledo turned to him and said, “I snapped.”
After he was confronted with some of the information from Jackson, Toledo changed his story. He told investigators he had invited Jackson into the house to play video games at 3 a.m. Suarez was angered by that.
He said Suarez attacked him, grabbing him from behind, punching him in the chest and hitting him in the face. Toledo said he struck out hitting her in the throat. Toledo said she died looking at him gasping for air. He said the kids came out asking what was wrong with mommy.
Toledo said Jackson then took the kids into a bathroom and killed them by hitting each one in the head with an ax.
He said Jackson, who was on probation, wanted to eliminate the kids as witnesses.
Investigators said Toledo said something else but it was not recorded.
It is this: “I’ll never tell you where the bodies are.”