CLEARWATER — Ray Henderson denied killing his neighbor, Bryan Happe, at a St. Petersburg apartment complex for the mentally ill, even after evidence technicians found his palm print on Happe’s bedroom door frame.
He continued to deny he had stabbed Happe, even after Happe’s keys turned up in his apartment.
Henderson went so far as to question why anyone would hurt a nice guy such as Happe in an interview with a local TV station.
Today, though, Henderson, 55, admitted in court he was the culprit in the July 2011 slaying.
Henderson pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 35 years in prison as part of an agreement between his attorney, J. Andrew Crawford, and Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser.
He had originally been charged with first-degree murder and, if convicted, could have been sentenced to life in prison.
At an earlier court date, Henderson backed out of the deal because, in the words of a court psychologist, he thought the 35-year sentence was the equivalent of a life sentence, given his age. He apparently changed his mind, though.
During the investigation, St. Petersburg police Detective Brian Taylor confronted Henderson about the palm print and keys; then the detective was given a third piece of physical evidence: a mixture of Henderson and Happe’s blood on Happe’s door handle.
Henderson balked at first but then admitted he had stabbed Happe with a knife, used Happe’s cash to buy crack and then threw Happe’s wallet and the knife into Tampa Bay, off Demens Landing Park, according to a police report.
Henderson and Happe, who was 52 when he was killed, were both diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics, and they both lived in an apartment building at 2780 First Ave. N., that is overseen by Boley Centers, an organization that helps the mentally ill and those with substance abuse problems.
Henderson in Apartment 2, Happe in Apartment 3; but Henderson repeatedly denied ever having set foot in Happe’s unit.
Happe’s mental illness was triggered by the death of an older brother, his sister, Kathleen Happe Bambery, told Pinellas Circuit Judge Philip Federico in court today.
A month before his death, Happe’s mother died, police records show. His father died the previous January, and a month after Happe’s murder, another older brother died of heart failure.
“Obviously, the only reason we chose not to go to trial is our family just can’t go through any more heartache,” said Happe Bambery, who was accompanied by her sister, Peggy Happe.
Happe Bambery told the judge that Henderson and Happe had both participated in group therapy, where Henderson learned of Happe’s recent family losses and subsequently took advantage of his vulnerability, to gain access to Happe’s cash.
Peggy Happe told investigators that on July 2, 2011, she had given her brother $300 and that he had about $175 left after they stopped to buy him four cartons of cigarettes.
He had much more money — roughly $75,000 — as a result of his mother’s death, but he kept insisting the money be invested in certificates of deposit, so it wasn’t in his apartment.
Happe was found dead on July 5, after a maintenance man and an apprentice went to his apartment to fix the air conditioner.
“This murder makes our losses a million times worse,” Happe Bambery told the judge.