" /> Two sides ready evidence for Stoddart trial » Marco Eagle

Two sides ready evidence for Stoddart trial

Evidence of the fury that took place inside the apartment before Sonia Lopez was killed lay across the floor in several rooms.

Broken vases and dishes strewn about. Personal belongings destroyed.

Lopez's body, with gunshot wounds in her head and chest, laid on the bedroom floor in front of the closet.

Lopez was 27 when she died on New Year's Day 2003. Two of her children watched as she was shot to death inside the East Naples apartment she shared with her boyfriend.

That boyfriend, Bruce Stoddart, 34, is charged with her slaying and could face life in prison. His trial begins today in Collier County Circuit Court.

Stoddart is charged with first-degree murder and is accused of shooting Lopez seven times. Prosecutor Dave Scuderi said the state wouldn't seek the death penalty if Stoddart is convicted.

Stoddart's trial could last four or five days. Each side has about 40 witnesses but may call fewer than half that many.

Scuderi said Friday he may introduce as evidence Stoddart's confessions to the shooting in a 911 call and in his statement to investigators after he was taken into custody outside his Vista Garden Way apartment.

Defense attorney Lee Hollander won't comment on the theory of defense he and co-counsel Yale Freeman will use. But Hollander cautioned against the 911 call and the statement as being sure-fire ways to convict Stoddart. The statement in particular could be useful to the defense, Hollander said, even though some of what Stoddart said may also damage his case.

"It's damaging but it's also exculpatory. It supports our theory of the facts," Hollander said.

Stoddart's statement isn't public record, but the investigator's reports detail what led to Lopez's death.

Stoddart and Lopez ate at an East Naples restaurant and then stopped at Albertsons to buy alcohol on New Year's Eve.

They returned home and spent the evening with Lopez's children - ages 12, 9 and 6 - and some neighbors. Just before midnight, the couple went outside to celebrate the new year and drank champagne. While neighbors shot off fireworks, Stoddart and a neighbor fired Stoddart's shotgun and .40-caliber Glock handgun into the air.

The frivolities ended after midnight.

Stoddart told detectives he and Lopez argued about her relationship with another man, with whom she'd shared champagne earlier in the evening. After the shooting, Lopez's family insisted the man was a long-time friend, but nothing more.

The couple argued inside the apartment. Stoddart's blood-alcohol level was never tested, but Lopez's was more than 0.20 percent, well over the level at which a person in Florida is considered drunk.

As they fought, the couple broke vases and dishes. Personal belongings were destroyed, although there's disagreement about who destroyed whose things.

The children remained in their bedroom during the feud but peeked out the door as the argument raged, investigators said.

Stoddart then got his handgun and shot Lopez in the stomach, then shot her in the head several more times, according to the arrest report. He left the gun in her lap and left the apartment.

Two of the children watched the shooting and ran to a relative's nearby apartment. The victim's sisters lived in the same complex. Stoddart dialed 911, identifying himself and his girlfriend and telling dispatchers where the shooting happened.

What happened from there will remain an issue for legal wrangling during the trial.

Lopez's two children gave eyewitness statements to investigators shortly after the shooting. Each gave very specific versions of what they saw.

But Stoddart's defense attorney told the judge in May that the children gave vastly different accounts in their recent depositions, which are interviews witnesses have with the attorneys before a trial is held.

Scuderi insists the two sets of statements aren't substantially different from each other, but Freeman described the disparities to the judge.

The 12-year-old son originally told deputies Stoddart pushed Lopez in the hallway, fought with her and shot her there before chasing her into a bedroom. The child said Stoddart shot, missed, then shot again, hitting Lopez. But the child told the attorneys the entire conflict occurred in the bedroom, where Stoddart shot Lopez, shoved her into a closet and shot her repeatedly.

The 14-year-old's earlier version to deputies closely matches her brother's second description to the attorneys. But in her deposition, she brought in new elements, Freeman said. She told the attorneys Stoddart shot Lopez, stopped, put the gun to his own head, looked at the kids and then returned to shooting his girlfriend to death.

A second important trial issue will center on the ruling by Senior Judge William Blackwell that investigators acted on a faulty search warrant.

The ruling allows for only those items in plain view of the deputies responding to the 911 to be used as evidence. The gun, several shellcasings, the mess inside the apartment and the photographs of Lopez's body are allowed. Other shell casings and any crime-scene analysis are not allowed.

Stoddart has remained in Collier County jail without bond since Jan. 1, 2003.

Authorities said the couple didn't have any known relationship problems, although neighbors said about two weeks before the slaying the two had argued loudly outside the apartment.

Stoddart, who was born in Jamaica, worked for Time-Warner Cable. Lopez worked at Victoria's Secret in Naples. Neighbors said the couple liked to barbecue and go to the beach.

Neighbors later described Lopez as someone who was quiet and fastidious about her children, who remain in the care of relatives.

© 2005 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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