Sebring bank shooting: Jurors hear 911 call as gunman's sentencing trial gets underway

The sentencing trial for Zephen Xaver, a man who pleaded guilty to shooting and killing five women at a Sebring Suntrust bank in 2019, got underway on Monday. A jury will decide if Xaver will be sentenced to death or spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

The state gave its opening statements to a 13-member jury, made up of nine women and four men, shortly after 9 a.m. 

Attorney Bonde Johnson explained that on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, around 12:32 p.m., Xaver walked into Suntrust Bank armed with a 9mm handgun and was wearing a tactical vest. 

He went on to state that surveillance video showed Xaver walking inside the bank and showing employee Marysol Lopez a gun he had hidden in his hoodie. 

The video then showed Lopez and her colleague walking from behind the teller’s desk with their hands up into the lobby. That’s where two other employees were helping a customer. 

After ordering Lopez to lock the doors to the bank, the attorney said Xaver forced the women to lay face-down on the floor and proceeded to shoot them execution-style. 

After the shooting, Xaver called 911. 

Kristin Johnson, the 911 operator who took Xaver’s call, was the first person to testify. Shortly after taking the stand, the entire 911 conversation was played for the jury. 

On the recording, Xaver can be heard telling Johnson, "I just killed five people. It’s about to be six…I didn’t think I could do it, but yep."

When Johnson asked Xaver why he killed them and why he wanted to kill himself, he replied, "I’ve wanted to die since I was nine, and I’ve wanted to kill since I was 11."


Kristin Johnson, the woman who answered the 911 call Xaver made from the bank, was the first person to take the stand on Monday. 

Throughout the call, Johnson kept telling him she wanted to help him and was sending help to the bank. 

Xaver kept telling her the gun was in his hand against his head. 

He told her that the victims asked him why, but he didn’t give them an answer. Then he shot them. 

Xaver told her that the voices told him to do it about a week ago, and they talked to him every minute of every hour.

He also said that he quit his job as a corrections officer trainee because the voices were telling him to hurt the inmates. 


Pictured: Zephen Xaver sits in a courtroom as his sentencing trial gets underway. 

Johnson asked him multiple times for his name, but he wouldn’t tell her. The only thing he would say was that his name would be on his body. 

RELATED: Sebring bank shooting suspect pleads guilty to 2019 murders

Eventually, he told Johnson that he had gone into one of the back rooms and added that having the gun to his head kept the voices quiet. 

The call ended when Xaver agreed to talk to a negotiator.

After a two-hour standoff, Highlands County deputies moved in with an armored vehicle and took Xaver into custody.

Police said they haven't found any connection between suspect Xaver and the victims. It also did not appear that there had been any attempt to rob the bank.

On Monday, the jurors also watched video of Xaver taking money out of the Suntrust bank a few weeks earlier. Prosecutors say the day after he withdrew $300, he purchased the gun he used to kill the five women. However, they said he bought the gun with a credit card and did not disclose full details on the paperwork needed to purchase the firearm.

On Monday afternoon, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Steven Ritenour and FDLE Special Agent John King took the stand. 

Ritenour described how he took evidence off Xaver’s phone and social media accounts, while King described the victim’s bullet wounds and explained how they were identified. 

Jurors also watched surveillance video that was taken from the bank’s cameras.  

Xaver's public defender made a motion for a mistrial shortly after the video was played because an audience member had an emotional reaction to the testimony, and it was revealed that a therapy K-9 with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office was present. Her motion was denied. 

Who is Zephen Xaver? 

The man police say shot and killed five people in a Sebring, Florida SunTrust bank was described by a woman who knew him as "normal" and "well-mannered."

Sharon Spillane, a friend of Xaver’s parents, told FOX 13 in 2019 that she never in a million years saw this coming. 

"We’ve cooked together, I’ve been in their house, we’ve watched movies. They’re a very normal family," Spillane said. "He had a job, and he was very quiet and very well-mannered. Anytime that I saw him, he was very well-mannered, always good posture and well-spoken."

However, Xaver’s ex-girlfriend paints a different picture. In a previous interview with FOX 13, Alex Gerlach said Xaver was obsessed with guns and knives.

"The only thing I can remember is him talking about guns and wanting guns," Gerlach said in a 2019 interview. "He wants to hurt people physically."

According to Gerlach, she met Xaver in a psychiatric hospital in 2013. She said they dated off and on for about two years.

Pictured: Zephen Xaver

Pictured: Zephen Xaver

"At one point, my mother was terrified because she thought he was going to physically harm me," explained Gerlach, who described Xaver as a troubled teen. "For some reason, he always hated people and wanted everybody to die."

Gerlach said Xaver continued to make chilling comments over the years and said one week before the shooting he sent her a picture of him holding a gun.

"I've been scared for years and every single person I've told has not taken it seriously, and it's very unfortunate it had to come to this," she said in 2019.

Documents provided by the Bremen Police Department in Indiana state officers went to Xaver's high school in 2014, after school officials said he was having disturbing thoughts.

The documents state Xaver told school officials he had dreams of hurting his classmates. According to the police report, Xaver's mother agreed to take her son to a behavioral health center.

The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Xaver was a correctional officer trainee with Avon Park Correctional Institution for about two months. He resigned two weeks before the shooting.

Sebring shooting victims

Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Debra Cook and Ana Piñon-Williams were working at the SunTrust branch on U.S. 27 when Xaver opened fire. A customer, Cynthia Watson, was also killed in the attack. 

Following the shooting, Piñon-Williams' brother-in-law made a public statement on behalf of the family. He said the mother of seven was devoted to her family and her faith, "truly a light in this world."

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"Loving her was easy. Living without her will be hard. Our family will not only survive, but we will thrive," Tim Williams said.

Bank employee Marisol Lopez, 55, leaves behind her husband and two children. Her Facebook profile picture shows her smiling with a loved one. That smile is how longtime neighbor Gil Osborne said he will remember her.

"She had the best personality, always friendly, always smiling and always generous," Osborne told FOX 13 News in an earlier interview.

Officials said there was another employee in the bank at the time of the shooting. Law enforcement did not name the employee, but said the person was in a back room when shots were fired. They were able to escape and call for help.

What happened to the Sebring SunTrust Bank building?

SunTrust decided not to reopen the bank where the massacre took place and had the building torn down five months later. 

"I think it’s a good thing. I couldn’t imagine walking into the building myself," Sebring resident Jake McClelland said in an interview with FOX 13 in 2019.

"When you drive by, and you happen to look on that side of the road, you know, it’s always in the back of your mind," said resident Joe Minshew.

One year after the shooting, a new park, honoring the five lives lost, was dedicated on the land where the bank once stood

Reflection Park features a memorial with a pentagon-shaped plaque with sunbeams from the SunTrust bank logo emblazoned on it. Each side of the plaque represents one of the five lives lost during the massacre. On it, a plaque reads, "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it." 

Death penalty case

Xaver’s trial will be one of the first high-profile cases in Florida where the death penalty sentence no longer hinges on a unanimous jury verdict.

Florida lawmakers made the change in 2023, shortly after jurors spared the life of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooter in a 9-3 decision.

Florida law now states that a defendant may be sentenced to death if at least 8 of the 12 jurors recommend execution. 

State Attorney Brian Haas says all five of the victims‘ families support seeking the death penalty in this case. 

The state has a potential 117 witnesses to call. 

Xaver's sentencing trial is expected to take several weeks.  

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