Saunders convicted; could get life

OKEECHOBEE — After being found guilty on eight felony charges Wednesday afternoon, Mark Saunders could now spend the rest of his life in prison.

A six-member jury spent just over 40 minutes to find Saunders, 35, guilty of home invasion robbery with a firearm, grand theft-auto, fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, unlawful possession of a bulletproof vest, burglary of a dwelling while armed and grand theft.

Once the jury had finished their deliberation, they were told they still had one more decision to make.

Mark J. Saunders, 35

Because Florida law will not allow prosecutors to mention the fact that Saunders has a long history of felony convictions, the state asked the jury to find him guilty on one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Before the jury started their deliberation, assistant state attorney Don Richardson put Jackie Moore on the witness stand. Mrs. Moore, a crime scene technician and fingerprint expert at the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), was called on to verify that she had taken Saunders’ fingerprints Tuesday.

She was then asked to testify that those prints matched the prints attached to certified copies of Saunders’ felony convictions in Leon, Okeechobee and Wakulla counties.

After hearing Mrs. Moore’s testimony, it took the jury less than five minutes to find Saunders on that eighth count.

Saunders has felony convictions on such charges as grand theft, dealing in stolen property, fraudulent use of a credit card, grand theft-firearm, felony battery, giving false information to a pawnbroker and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Assistant state attorney Ashley Albright pointed out Saunders was last sent to prison in 2008 when he was convicted in Okeechobee County on charges of grand theft-firearm, grand theft and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to a term of eight years on March 7, 2008.

He was then released from prison Sept. 16, 2014.

On May 12, 2015, Saunders burglarized the home of a former OCSO deputy and stole a bulletproof vest, an OCSO polo shirt and hat, and some of the deputy’s credit cards. That deputy currently works for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

During his testimony Thursday morning, the deputy told Mr. Albright that when he came home he found his whole house had been ransacked. Also, there were several guns lying on a love seat that Saunders was apparently going to come back and steal, along with a box full of other items.

Also found in the deputy’s home was a plastic gun case for a 9mm handgun which, said the deputy, did not belong to him.

When Saunders realized he couldn’t carry everything, he saw an F-250 pickup parked across the street, pointed out Mr. Albright.

“He gathered up what he wanted and put them by the door to steal,” said the prosecutor to the jury during his closing argument. “He saw the F-250 across the street and said ‘Here’s my opportunity.’ He planned on going back to take the other things from the (deputy’s) house.

“But, when he encountered resistance he ran,” added Mr. Albright.

Testimony in the two-day trial described how Saunders walked into the home of Albert and Shannon Davis, put his 9mm handgun to the head of Mr. Davis and demanded the ignition keys to the blue 2008 F-250 parked in the driveway.

That truck was owned by Frank DeCarlo III who was at the Davis home visiting his girlfriend.

Now, Saunders had to change his plans. As he sped away in the pickup, Mr. DeCarlo grabbed the keys to his girlfriend’s Volkswagen and gave chase.

When Saunders reached the intersection of U.S. 441 North and Orange Avenue, OCSO Deputy Lieutenant Lester Yeates fell in behind the fleeing F-250. As the two trucks drove east on the two-lane highway Saunders was driving at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Lt. Yeates had testified Tuesday that he slowed his OCSO white F-150 and just tried to keep Saunders in sight.

Saunders soon left the highway and turned onto a private drive at Triple S Ranch, with the lieutenant and now OCSO Detective Shane Snyder behind him.

The chase ended when Saunders turned around and drove head-on into the lieutenant’s truck.

After Saunders had been taken into custody a 9mm handgun was found in the driver’s seat next to him. The gun was not loaded.

Mr. Albright told the jury the serial number on that gun matched the serial number on the gun case found in the deputy’s home. And the deputy’s credit cards were found in the man’s wallet.

Saunders also left a black duffel bag in the deputy’s home that contained several personal items, including a toothbrush.

The toothbrush was seized as evidence and sent to the Indian River Crime Lab in Fort Pierce and handed over to forensic DNA analyst Julie Casals.

During direct examination by Mr. Richardson, Ms. Casals testified she was able to test four out of 15 locations on a strand of DNA. That test indicated the DNA on that toothbrush matched a known standard given by Saunders to the extent that, among the Caucasian population, 1 in 97,370,000 would have the same DNA profile.

Among the Southeastern Hispanic population 1 in 18,920,000 would have the same profile, she said, and among the black population 1 in 92,510,000 would have the same profile.

It should be noted that during their testimony, both Mr. and Mrs. Davis initially described the man who entered their home as being short and of either white or Mexican ethnicity.

But, during their testimony Tuesday defense attorney Alexander Nelson tried to drive home the point it wasn’t his client who entered their home because he is white, and not Mexican.

When Mr. Nelson brought that up to Mr. Davis, he testified that the man sitting at the defense table was “… quite a bit paler” than he was on May 12, 2015.

Saunders has been in the county jail since his arrest on that date.

Because Saunders had only been out of prison for a few months before he was again arrested on felony charges, Mr. Albright said he will ask the court to classify Saunders as a prison releasee reoffender. This means with the Saunders’ convictions on home invasion robbery, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer and burglary of a dwelling he could receive mandatory life sentences on each of those charges.

Saunders will learn his fate at 10 a.m. on Feb. 23 when he will go before Circuit Judge Dan Vaughn for sentencing.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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