Law enforcement officials offered scant details Thursday about their investigation into Wednesday’s mass murder in a Sebring bank that left five women dead because the alleged shooter has few to offer and a new state law allows them to withhold information about crime victims.
In a Thursday press conference, Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund and Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman said they have no idea why Zephen Xaver, 21, shot four employees and one customer at the SunTrust Bank shortly after noon Wednesday.
The officials said there is no indication Xaver intended to rob the bank and no apparent connection to the women or the bank. They described his firearm generically as a 9 mm handgun, but otherwise did not address its specifics or if Xaver had legally obtained it.
Xaver "knowingly and intentionally took the lives of five of our fellow community members, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our co-workers," Hoglund said.
In his first appearance via video conference from the Highlands County Jail Thursday, Xaver was formally charged five counts of premeditated homicide in the first degree and denied bail. If convicted on any of the five counts, he would be eligible for the death penalty.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, Xaver entered and locked the bank around 12:30 p.m. forced customers to lie on the floor and began shooting. He then called 911 and said, “I have shot five people,” before barricading himself inside.
Local police and sheriff’s deputies quickly surrounded the bank. When negotiations stalled, the Highlands County SWAT team entered the bank and Xaver – who was wearing a bulletproof vest – surrendered.
The five victims were the only people Xaver encountered in the bank. A male employee in the bank’s break room when Xaver began shooting escaped out a back door.
According to the affidavit, Xaver moved to Sebring with his mother in the fall from Plymouth, Ind., a small town south of South Bend, the home of Notre Dame University. He had resigned on Jan. 9 from a two-month stint as a correctional officer trainee without explanation.
Officials identified three of the five victims after their families said they wanted the names released to the public. Two victims' names are being withheld in accordance to Marcy's Law, which allows crime victims and their families to shield that information from the public.
Some law enforcement agencies are withholding information about crime victims, including the names of two killed Wednesday in Sebring, in accordance to their interpretation of Marsy’s Law, a crime victims’ rights measure modeled after a California law that 62 percent of Florida voters approved in November as Amendment 6.
Marsy's Law incorporates 11 rights into the state constitution, including the consideration of a victim’s safety when authorities set bail or pretrial release for the accused, informing a victim of developments in the prosecution and releasing victim’s names and other information to the public.
Since the amendment took effect on Jan. 8, some police agencies around the state have stopped releasing basic information about crime victims, opting to do so as a matter of policy rather than at the discretion of victims and their families.
Several instances in which victims’ information was withheld have already drawn criticism from open government advocates. In Tallahassee, police provided few details about a body – the victim of an apparent traffic crash – found in the middle of a neighborhood roundabout. Tampa authorities declined to provide information about two people shot dead near the Busch Gardens theme park.
In both instances, police cited a provision in Amendment 6 to protect the victim's right "to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim."
Open government advocates say the Legislature needs to address the provision so it complies with the state’s open records laws.