- Ralph design by Jeff Sweat, photo by Chris McEniry
It wasn’t a fair exchange – a life for just $25 – but nevertheless, at 1 a.m. on Sept. 10, 2011, that was the botched bargain that led to the death of legendary Orlando musician Ralph Ameduri Jr., and the beginning of more than two years of litigation for then-17-year-old Samuel Sweet Jr. Ameduri was subbing in at a Thomas Wynn and the Believers set at Winter Haven watering hole Jessie’s Lounge, merely taking a midnight break outside. Sweet was, as multiple reports and grand jury depositions have it, cruising around with friends and a gun. He stopped by an area McDonald’s and a Lakeland party, where he showed off his gun, before hopping out of the backseat of the car – his friends advised him not to do something “stupid” – and attempting to rob Ameduri and three other people with a weapon in the alley outside Jessie’s.
Everyone, including Ameduri, reportedly complied with Sweet’s requests for their cash on hand. But – as the medical examiner would later tell a jury, according to courthouse reporting from the Lakeland Ledger – one patron tried to smack the gun away as it was held against Ameduri’s head. The gun fired into Ameduri’s skull. Later that night, the musician died in the hospital. After the gun went off, Sweet ran away, meeting up with his three friends and reportedly tossing the gun in a black bag into a nearby lake.
Months later, a confidential informant tapped by the Winter Haven Police Department would get one of Sweet’s friends who was in the car to come clean about the evening. Sweet was covered in sweat, according to the friend, and lamented his $25 take from the evening after getting back in the car, adding that he “should have shot them all.” And so the case against Samuel Sweet Jr. was born in August 2012, nearly a year after social media campaigns, neighborhood canvassing, helicopter searches, a dimly lit YouTube video of the car passing Jessie’s and a reward offer had failed to turn up any public leads.
“Of course you want them found immediately,” Ameduri’s sister Chris Minnoti says. “For me personally, after it happened and talking with family, I couldn’t talk about who this person was or anything. I was like, we’re not going to talk about it – and in my mind, the day after we buried Ralph, they were going to have a suspect. And obviously it doesn’t happen like that.”
What did happen was some gumshoe investigative work that would eventually lead to a grand jury indictment of Samuel Sweet Jr. in 2012 on one count of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted armed robbery and one count of tampering with evidence. The Winter Haven Police Department – whom Minnoti claims was incredibly sensitive to the family’s plight throughout the investigation – even waited for Minnoti and her father to arrive in Winter Haven before announcing the indictment.
“I was aware of [a] program that we did where we posted information within the jail on the TV system there, and ultimately, through a lot of hard work and a little luck – sometimes you make your own luck – we received a tip that ultimately caused all of this to unravel. I was very thankful for that to occur,” Winter Haven Police Chief Gary Hester says. “I’m not sure that there’s much closure you can bring in solving it; I’m not sure you can give Mr. Ameduri’s family any relief or rest from the agony and pain of having their loved one murdered, but we certainly wanted to do everything we could to see that the murderer was held accountable. And that’s where we’re at. We were fortunate, but a lot of that fortune came from a lot of hard work.”
That accountability would ultimately have to withstand the scrutiny of a jury and the power of a solid defense, especially in a capital murder case. The Lakeland Ledger, which has been heavily covering the case, illuminated the defense’s intentions as the trial began on Jan. 28: namely, that jurors should be suspicious of the claims of various 17-year-olds made under legal duress; that no one came forward until a year after the incident; that Sweet’s family would testify that he was at home the night of the alleged murder outside Jessie’s Lounge. Sweet entered a plea of not guilty via his defense attorney, Lee Cohen.
“Certainly, it’s rare that anybody will step right up and plead guilty to first-degree murder,” Hester said shortly before the guilty verdict was handed down by the jury on Jan. 30. “I guess they don’t think they have anything to lose. There’s no such thing as a perfect case – I’ve been in the business for 35 years; you don’t have perfect cases – but this case has a significant, overwhelming amount of evidence, and I’m convinced in my heart of hearts that Samuel Sweet is the murderer.”
Regardless, as the case played out, the testimony from the three teens – Eric Johnson, Caleb Crawley and Alex Monpremier, who are not charged in the incident – that State Attorney Hope Pattey was depending on took some divergent paths. On Jan. 29, one of the teens from the car, Johnson, now 20 years old and serving time in Polk County Jail for a different offense, testified that he didn’t remember the night at all anymore, according to the Ledger. Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen dismissed Johnson’s forgetfulness and allowed prosecutors to proceed with presenting his previously recorded testimony. The overlap between the three statements paints a fairly consistent picture that Sweet was indeed in the car, carrying a gun, exiting near Jessie’s, rejoining the group shortly thereafter, and disposing of the gun in the lake. Also, the video of the car was incontrovertible.
The prosecutor’s witnesses who were present at the incident brought some vagueness of their own, with one of those in attendance only identifying Sweet as 100 percent the perpetrator upon seeing him in court, the Ledger reported. (Original police reports had Sweet wearing a mask and white shorts, with very little else to physically describe him, other than the surveillance video of the car.)
“With the upcoming trial, it’s been extremely emotional,” Minotti said, about a week before the trial began. “As far as, you don’t know what the jury is going to say, and whether or not he spends the rest of his life in jail, they don’t find him guilty – there’s all these things that we don’t know right now.
Nothing is going to bring Ralphie back. We respect that, as hard as it is. I’ve said all along: Somebody has to be held responsible. We learn at an early age that there are always consequences for our actions, so having justice served, I’m praying that it will let me and my family get some peace.”
Closing arguments came quickly on Jan. 30, with the jury taking the case immediately thereafter. Within a few hours, the jury came back, ruling Sweet guilty on all six counts with which he was charged.
For Chief Hester, Ameduri’s death is one of those random acts of violence so uncharacteristic of Winter Haven that its resolution can’t come quickly – or absolutely – enough.
“It’s one of those things where things were all out of whack there,” he says. “You talk about total random, these folks’ paths could have never crossed. It would have been one thing if you had a couple folks in a bar getting drunk that get to fighting with each other over a girl, one pulls out a gun or stabs them. Then everybody can say, yeah, I can see how that would happen. But this was total random. … My goal is one day they’ll put a needle in his arm. But we’ll see. Justice is slow.”