TAMPA — They heard two very different explanations for the 2015 shooting death of a Freedom High School senior, but a Hillsborough County jury needed less than an hour Thursday to declare David Brunson guilty of murder.
The unanimous verdict charging Brunson, 20, with first degree, pre-meditated murder and robbery with a firearm came just hours after he delivered the sole testimony in his own defense.
He admitted it was his finger on the trigger of his gun that launched his bullet into 18-year-old Eion Gustitis’ head on Sept. 5, 2015.
But that was the only point of agreement between Brunson’s story and 16 other witness testimonies heard in Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella’s courtroom this week. He claimed that Gustitis was killed in self defense, not in an act of retribution based on false accusations Gustitis stole a cell phone and 10 grams of weed during a Labor Day weekend party.
But Brunson’s story — that he and his friends drove Gustitis to a remote lot at 9711 Commerce Street so he could buy a gun, and when the seller wasn’t there Gustitis grabbed Brunson’s gun and threatened to shoot him instead — raised questions about how homicide detectives found Gustitis’ body the following morning. His shirt was dirty and rolled up as if he had been dragged along the remote, dirt driveway. His shoes had been removed and his pants were missing. A medical examiner said the victim died from a single .22 caliber bullet that entered the back of Gustitis’ head and traveled downward through his brain, coming to a stop just before exiting his cheek in front of his right ear.
"How could the bullet possibly go from the back of his head to the front of his head if you were facing each other?" asked Assistant State Attorney Joseph Justin Diaz.
Brunson couldn’t answer.
He is expected to receive a 40-year prison sentence at minimum for his crimes, and he could face life in prison. If Sabella does give Brunson a life sentence, it will come with the promise of a sentencing review after 25 years, because he was a juvenile at the time of the killing.
After the jury delivered the verdict, bailiffs allowed Gustitis’ mother, Carren Gustitis, to linger in the courtroom, sobbing silently in her seat until they had to lock the doors. Outside the courtroom, Brunson’s mother and about one dozen other friends and family members were crying too. Instead of turning to blow a kiss to his mother when court was adjourned, as he did throughout the trial, Brunson sat motionless with his back towards the gallery.
Diaz dismantled his story using Brunson’s own text messages, surveillance video and an emotional video of Brunson’s first jail visit with his ex-girlfriend Kyra Rielle Cuadrado. She was 16 when she was arrested alongside Ezekiel Marc, 20, on charges of being accessories to murder and robbery.
Diaz quoted Brunson’s parting words to Cuadrado during his visit to Falkenburg jail.
"This is the most important thing," Brunson told Cuadrado. "Always always remember this. You are innocent until proven guilty. Always remember that, bro. Don’t ever self incriminate yourself, I don’t care if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar."
Cuadrado was among the parade of classmates and friends who told the court Brunson developed a plan to kill Gustitis, a drug dealer he had known since middle school, during a two-day long party at Anthony "Ant" Joseph’s home in the Morgan Creek Apartments.
"He was just saying that we could eliminate the problem completely and just take him out," Cuadrado said.
But Brunson told the court Gustitis asked for his help purchasing a handgun he could easily carry with him during drug deals. Ezekiel Marc said he had a cousin who would sell Gustitis a gun like Brunson’s own .22 caliber handgun but first the teens had to give him a ride to the cousin’s house.
But when they got there the house was empty, and calls to the cousin’s cell phone went unanswered.
Cuadrado and Marc stayed in the car, idling in the driveway while Brunson and Gustitis knocked on the doors and windows of the empty home. Then Brunson offered to sell him his own gun for $150 and handed it to him so he could make sure it worked.
"Eion was like, ‘I appreciate it bro,’ and I was like, ‘Yo, I ain’t stressing about it amigo, just give me $150 for it,’" Brunson said. "But then he took the gun and was like, ‘No, you ain’t getting nothing."
Gustitis cocked the gun and Brunson ran toward him to wrestle it away, he said. During the scuffle the gun went off, fatally shooting Gustitis.
Brunson then ran back to the car in a panic, he said. It was Marc who went back for Gustitis’ shorts so they could steal money from his wallet. It was Kyra Cuadrado who thought to burn them behind Joseph’s apartment, he said. And it was Marc and Cuadrado who convinced him to spend Gustitis’ cash on cigarettes before the teens returned to the party.
Kyra Cuadrado testified that those phone calls to Ezekiel Marc’s cousin were all fake, part of a plan to convince Gustitis to go with David to a remote location where he could rob and kill him. She also led investigators to the lake behind her house where she had thrown her boyfriend’s gun and ammunition after hiding its dismantled pieces in her purse when police arrived at the party.
"David was using my phone to make fake phone calls to an imaginary person who had a gun," Cuadrado said. "Later on I checked the call logs and there were no calls or anything."
Brunson couldn’t deny store surveillance footage from Shooters’ World that showed Joseph purchasing matching .22 caliber ammunition for Brunson, who was a minor at the time, at 8 p.m. on September 5, just a few hours before the teens picked up Gustitis from his home. Brunson said Joseph agreed to buy the ammunition weeks earlier to pay Brunson back for the ammunition he spent while the two hunted in the nature preserve behind Joseph’s apartment. That the shopping trip came just hours before Gustitis’ death was just a coincidence, he said.
But it was harder to argue that the text messages he sent to Cuadrado through the messaging app "Kik," were written over a three week span and then rearranged by the state to align with their story.
Even out of order, they still urged the girl to lie to police, with statements like: "Baby I need you to save me." "Baby they’re going to bury me." "Baby I need you to tell them Zoe did it." And, "I was an accomplice, just like you."
"Yeah I said that, but they picked them out and put them in that order to make it seem like that," Brunson testified. "I was scared, I was just 17, I didn’t want to go to jail, so I was like ‘Don’t blame it on me, blame it on them.’"
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.