by GINA GOMEZ
Hernando Sun Reporter
A pretrial conference in a decades old first degree murder case is set for Monday, May 6, 2019. The conference will determine where the case is at this point. A retrial of Paul Hildwin for the 1985 murder of Vronzettie Cox is pending. Honorable Judge Stephen Toner in Hernando County presides over the case which has garnered attention from national media outlets such as Slate and the New York Times. Hildwin was charged with first degree murder in 1985 and faced the death penalty (until 1995). In 2003, the re-evaluation of DNA evidence excluded Hildwin as a source of the DNA found at the crime scene.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned Hildwin’s conviction in 2014. The Florida Supreme Court also granted a new trial for Hildwin.
Paul Hildwin battled cancer multiple times while serving his prison sentence. While on death row, he beat blood cancer and went into remission. Now, he has tonsil cancer which has caused more delay in his legal case.
In recent months Hildwin’s present lawyer, Lyann Goudie, filed a motion to dismiss the indictment and it was denied by Judge Toner.
In 1985, a 25-year old Paul Hildwin had moved from New York to Hernando County, Florida. He had established a home residence, living with his father in a mobile home in a wooded area in Hernando County, and had a girlfriend at the time.
On September 8, 1985, he and his girlfriend had run out of gas that Sunday night after going to the movies. They decided to sleep in their car. The next morning, (Monday, Sept. 9, 1985), Paul woke up and decided to walk down the road and find a way to get money for gas. As they had tried to scrape up enough pop bottles off the side of the road for cash but it wasn’t enough.
Paul began hitch-hiking, leaving his girlfriend behind. He was walking near a convenience store. A random driver stopped to pick him up, on her way to the nearby laundromat. The driver was a 42-year old woman by the name of Vronzettie Cox. She also lived in Hernando County with her long-time boyfriend, 22-year old William (Bill) Haverty. She and Bill had just moved in together that less than a week prior. Vronzettie and Bill had moved into a mobile home. The residence was near a coin laundromat that Vronzettie used to wash clothes. Along with living with Bill, she also had 3 minor children.
The Murder Scene
A few days later, Vronzettie Cox would be found strangled to death with a t-shirt. Her naked body remained in the trunk of her car for days, deserted in a wooded area in Hernando County. When she was discovered, officials highly suspected she had also been raped due to torn condition of her bra. DNA evidence was taken from semen on a pair of panties as well as saliva on a wash rag from the scene. Both items were found to be oddly placed on top of her laundry bag.
As mentioned earlier, Vronzettie was a mother of three children, who were minors at the time of her death. They had not witnessed her murder.
DNA and other Evidence
A day after Vronzettie gave Hildwin a ride in her car, he cashed a check for $75.00 at a local bank. It was a forged check from Vronzettie’s checkbook which Hildwin admitted he stole from her car. This is how law enforcement started investigating him. They went to his residence and found a radio and ring, that he had also stolen from Vronzettie when he rode in her car. Officials then became highly suspicious of him.
In addition, the location of the murder scene was suspicious. Officials reported that Vronziettie’s purse was found on the ground, along with her shoes, and a piece of moulding from her car. All items were in direct line of the residence from her car to where Paul Hildwin lived in the woods, in a mobile home with his father.
In the 1980s, DNA testing was in its infancy stages of being developed. But experts had advanced to a level where their findings were acceptable and admissible in courtrooms. In many court cases like this one, officials referred to non-secretors versus secretors. Non-secretors refer to persons who secrete little or none of their blood type through their bodily fluids. Secretors refer to persons who secrete their blood type antigens through bodily fluids. For a moment, officials compared Paul Hildwin and Bill Haverty, and determined that Hildwin was a non-secretor; while Bill was a secretor. The DNA findings obtained off the panties and rag were of that of a non-secretor as reported by experts at the time.
Due to the strong evidence against him, Paul Hildwin was arrested and later convicted of first degree murder. Soon thereafter, he was put on death row for the murder of Vronzettie Cox.
DNA actually belonged to boyfriend
Over time, experts became more knowledgeable and DNA testing became more advanced.
In 2003, Orchid Cellmark (a lab certified by American Society of Crime Lab Directors) issued a report excluding Hildwin as a source of the DNA found at the crime scene. Hildwin then moved for post-conviction relief, advising the new DNA demonstrated his innocence. The trial court denied the motion, providing a response of “this matter was never prosecuted as a rape case.”
Indeed, the case had not been prosecuted as a rape case. Only a murder charge had been applied.
However, as stated in Hildwin vs. State of Florida, No. SCo4-1264, Dec. 2006:
“Perhaps the state did not prosecute this as a rape case…but the prosecution clearly uses evidence of rape to prosecute its case for murder.”
It wasn’t until 2010, when Florida Supreme Court finally ordered the state to run the DNA against the national database, then a match was made: William (Bill) Haverty.
At that point, the prosecution’s case began to collapse.
Paul’s Side of the Story:
Paul Hildwin has always said Bill Haverty was in the car with Vronzettie when she picked him up to give him a ride. Paul has also always said that the couple were fighting aggressively.
“He had once testified that he attempted unsuccessfully to separate Haverty and the victim during an argument that became violent involving Haverty striking and choking the victim.” (Supreme Court FL Caselaw 2016)
He admitted to stealing the checkbook, radio, and ring from her car before getting out of the vehicle.
It’s unknown exactly where he was allegedly dropped off. It’s a possibility Paul was dropped off at or near his residence in the woods, where he and his father lived.
Paul Hildwin was charged and convicted of rape in New York in 1979 at the age of 19.
Bill’s Side of the Story:
Bill Haverty told officials he, in fact, was not in the car. That Vronzettie (his live-in girlfriend) had drove up to the coin laundry, alone, to wash clothes.
He also provided an alibi.
However, it wasn’t a solid alibi.
“His alibi witness, George Weeks (landlord), testified that Haverty was at home when Weeks came to mow the lawn on what could have been the morning of the victim’s disappearance. However, the landlord’s testimony did not match Haverty’s testimony to the day that Weeks mowed the lawn.
Weeks testified he saw Haverty on the Monday and Tuesday after the weekend that Haverty and the victim moved into the mobile home trailer, which would have been on September 2, 1985 (Labor Day) or September 3, 1985. Haverty testified Weeks actually mowed the lawn a week later, September 9th – the day of the victim’s disappearance.” (Supreme Court Caselaw, Hildwin vs. State of FL, 2006)
Body Had Been relocated: “Evidence indicated she had been killed in a different locale from where her body was found.” (Hildwin vs State of FL, 2006).
1.) Supreme Court Caselaw, Hildwin vs. State of Florida, 727 So. 2d 193 (1998)
2.) Supreme Court Caselaw, Hildwin vs. State of Florida, No. Sco4-265, Dec. 2006