James Patrick Wonder, Killer Of Federal Agent Donald Pettit, Gets Stand Your Ground Hearing

10/27/2012 08:00 am ET | Updated Dec 27, 2012
  • Rafael Olmeda Sun Sentinel

A federal agent is gunned down in a West Broward parking lot. Heavily armed officers swarm the area. Was it a targeted killing? Who pulled the trigger?

After a daylong, highly visible manhunt, police arrested a 65-year-old dialysis patient from Miramar.

And what first appeared to be cold-blooded murder has become a case of self-defense -- and the latest attempt to justify a killing under Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law.

James Patrick Wonder, now 69, will ask a Broward judge this week to dismiss his case in a hearing that could last up to 10 days. He will argue the killing was done in self-defense, stemming from a road rage incident.

Wonder claims he was acting in fear for his life when he pulled out his concealed handgun and fired at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Donald Pettit, who had followed Wonder into the parking lot of a post office on the corner of Dykes Road and Pines Boulevard on Aug. 5, 2008.

There are only two surviving witnesses to the events that led to the shooting -- Wonder, and Pettit's daughter, 12, who was waiting for her father in the car and later told investigators that while she did not see the fatal gunshot, she heard it. She also said she heard her father yelling at Wonder, saying "Who do you think you are, slick?" right before the shooting.

Wonder has claimed self-defense since the day he was arrested. He said that he and Pettit, 52, got into a road rage incident while traveling north on Dykes Road. Wonder, who had a letter to mail, turned into the post office parking lot on Dykes while Pettit continued north, stopped briefly at a red light, turned right onto Pines Boulevard and entered the same parking lot from another entrance.

Initially relieved to be in the parking lot, Wonder became fearful when Pettit showed up, got out of his car, and started yelling at him, according to his lawyer, Frank Maister.

Wonder was older, physically weaker, shorter and lighter than Pettit by about 80 pounds, Maister said. He described Pettit as an active federal agent in good physical shape whose angry presence immediately put Wonder in justified fear.

But while Pettit left his weapon in his car, Wonder, who had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, was armed.

Wonder shot Pettit in the head, then fled the scene, keeping a kidney dialysis appointment in Miramar 40 minutes later.

A massive manhunt ended the following day with Wonder's arrest outside a different dialysis treatment center in Davie. Between the shooting and the arrest, Wonder had rented a car and allegedly used grease to make his hair appear darker than normal.

According to court records, Wonder told workers at the first dialysis center that he almost got killed at a stop sign. Nurses at the center Wonder visited the next day said he claimed to have an anger management problem and remarked on Pettit's slaying. "The suspect who shot the victim was a professional," he reportedly said.

Friends later denied Wonder had an anger problem.

While Wonder was initially accused of first-degree murder, a grand jury charged him instead with manslaughter with a deadly weapon, an offense that carries a maximum 15-year prison term.

Broward Circuit Judge Bernard Bober is likely to hear from Wonder and Pettit's daughter, as well as dozens of others who will testify about Wonder's actions after the shooting and possibly whether he felt threatened in the parking lot.

Under an agreement between prosecutors and defense lawyers, Pettit's daughter, now 16, will not have to take the stand and recount the traumatic experience. Instead, Bober will be shown a video-recorded deposition.

Florida's Stand Your Ground law, under increased scrutiny and criticism after the February shooting of unarmed Miami teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, allows a person to use deadly force if attacked or to prevent an attack in any place that person has a legal right to be.

So far, only one Broward defendant has succeeded in using the law to have a case dismissed before trial. Nour Jarkas, accused of murdering his ex-wife's new boyfriend in January 2009, was tried for murder the following year, but the jury deadlocked. Later in 2010, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Stand Your Ground law was intended to keep cases from getting to a jury in the first place. Jarkas moved to have his case dismissed before it could be retried, and Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes agreed with him, freeing him last December.

Maister said he has no reservations about allowing Wonder to testify.

Putting a criminal defendant on the stand can be risky. Last month, William Medei, a Hollywood martial artist accused of murdering his wife and her teenage son, testified at his Stand Your Ground hearing and admitted he disarmed the teen before stabbing him 51 times and stabbing his wife 30 times. His motion to have his case dismissed was promptly denied.

"The risk is that what he says can and will be used against him at trial," said Medei's lawyer, Ana Gomez-Mallada, speaking generally of defendants who testify at their hearings. She declined to comment on Medei's case specifically. "If [Wonder] does very well and explains how he was in fear for his life, then he'll probably do well at trial anyway and has little to worry about by testifying at a hearing."

Maister is confident Wonder's claim of self-defense will hold up, and he's not worried about exposing him to cross-examination before trial. "He told them what happened the day he was arrested," Maister said. "His story has not changed. It was the truth. They already know exactly what happened that day."

Prosecutors believe Wonder's actions don't line up with a self-defense claim.

"The Grand Jury decided that there was probable cause that a crime was committed," said Ron Ishoy, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office. "The rest is for a judge and possibly a jury to decide."

raolmeda@tribune.com, 954-356-4457 or Twitter @SSCourts ___

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