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Ronnie Hyde Updates

Jury finds Ronnie Hyde guilty of first degree murder in 1994 death of Fred Laster

Updated: 1:48 PM EDT April 2, 2022

Under questioning from his own attorney Thursday, Ronnie Hyde was seemingly at ease, answering her freely, and chuckling often.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After three hours of deliberation, the jury found Ronnie Hyde guilty of first degree murder in the 1994 death of a Nassau County teen on Friday afternoon.

Following the reading of the verdict, Fred Laster's brother, Travis Laster, read an impact statement on behalf of his family.

After the reading of the impact statement, Hyde received a mandatory life sentence in prison with 1851 days already served. He will have to return to court for a separate trial as he is charged with 25 counts of child pornography, as well.

The Jacksonville Beach man was cross-examined Friday morning before closing arguments.

Hyde is charged with first degree murder in the cold case, in which an unidentified torso was discovered behind a gas station dumpster. It was later identified as 16-year-old Fred Laster.

Under questioning from his own attorney Thursday, Hyde was seemingly at ease, answering her freely, and chuckling often.

"Oh no," he said often, as when attorney Ann Finnell asked, "Would you have ever harmed that child?"

He testified he had no idea where most of the items found at the crime scene were found, including items that had his DNA on them, like a red plaid shirt. He testified he may have given it to Fred Laster.

He said he also gave Laster an egg crate mattress for camping, one similar the blood soaked one found in the Lake City dumpster.

When asked about the pictures of his squalid home, he chuckled and said, "I'm a bit embarrassed about that. If I knew you all were coming over, I would've cleaned up a bit."

The attempt at humor was met with total silence in the crowded courtroom.

The lead FBI agent on the case testified her crews were unable to follow their usual protocol for collecting evidence because Hyde’s home was so full of trash, agents couldn’t safely navigate it. She said they took most items outside to photograph and catalogue, and were required to wear extra PPE and respirators because of what she called “the heavy odor emanating from the house."

Former youth pastor from Jacksonville Beach goes to trial Monday in 1994 dismemberment of Yulee teen

It was a gruesome discovery in mid-1994: a dismembered torso carelessly tossed behind a Lake City dumpster.

DNA testing ultimately determined 22 years later that it was missing 16-year-old Yulee teen Fred Paul Laster, while a genetic sample recovered with it at the dumpster led to the March 7, 2017, arrest of Laster's Jacksonville Beach youth pastor, Ronnie Leon Hyde.

Now after five years of court hearings, motions and more, Hyde, 65, heads to trial. Jury selection is set to begin Monday at the Duval County Courthouse.

The former church counselor is charged with first-degree murder, plus 25 child-pornography possession counts, according to court files.

Hyde's attorney, Ann Finnell, said she did not wish to comment before the trial, adding that she firmly believes cases should be tried in court. But one of many motions she has filed was a September 2018 request to separate the homicide and pornography cases stating they are "improperly charged in a single information because they are not part of the same act or transaction." That motion was ultimately granted on March 18 by the judge.

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Meanwhile, Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi submitted a March 3 notice of intent to seek a prison sentence "above the statutory guidelines" for the boy's death, according to court files. 

First-degree murder charges in Florida carry mandatory life sentences if convicted. Mizrahi was unavailable to explain whether penalty guidelines from the time of this crime were different and would be used in the trial.

His notice says considerations would include multiple aggravating factors such as the "crime was committed in a heinous, atrocious and cruel manner." The notice adds that there must be proof the victim's remains "were grossly abused" and that the crime was committed to a child who was under the "custodial authority" of the suspect.

Missing teen and the discovery

Laster was initially reported missing months after the torso was found early on June 5, 1994, behind a BP gas station in Columbia County by a woman walking her dog, police said. The head and both legs had been cut away and were missing from the torso. The hands had also been severed from the arms and were missing as well.

An autopsy concluded the body was that of a white male, likely 16 to 19, with sandy blond hair. But the remains were not identified at the time.

Investigators did find bloody smears at the trash bin site, plus a red flannel shirt with what appeared to be bloodstains, police said. They found a large plastic bag with a blood-soaked mattress topper and two knives. Police also recovered what appeared to be hair, bone and tissue that had stuck to the mattress topper.

The remains were not connected to Laster until 2016 when a tip to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children prompted a DNA test done on the torso that matched with samples from his family. 

Then investigators got a sample of Hyde’s DNA by going through his trash. That sample matched a second DNA profile recovered from the flannel shirt found among the discarded torso and other items, investigators said.

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Records also state one of Laster’s siblings told police in Jacksonville that the missing teen was last seen with Hyde, who was his youth pastor. Hyde was never questioned by police back then. But evidence indicates Laster was probably killed at Hyde’s Jacksonville Beach home, as the FBI also searched property he owned at 2076 Thelma St. in Jacksonville.

Who is Ronnie Hyde

At the time of his arrest, Hyde was a mental health counselor at Crosswater Community Church in Nocatee. Evidence also indicated he was a youth pastor at the Strength for Living Church in Jacksonville.

He had other roles in the Florida Department of Corrections, Child Guidance Center, World Good News and briefly at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office jail. Hyde’s resume says he used to counsel teenage sex offenders and also worked as a psychological specialist in Florida’s prisons. 

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He also was Laster’s foster father, according to Times-Union news partner First Coast News. That revelation was found buried in more than 4,000 pages of documents submitted as evidence in the case.

Hyde was known to be a friend of the Laster family, and his access to their three children was alluded to in police reports. But his formal role as foster father to the children, whom he claimed as dependents on IRS filings, had not previously been disclosed.

Court records indicate Hyde enticed teens into his home for sex, using alcohol, guns and gifts. There he would introduce them to sexual activity under the guise of education or demonstration, according to an investigation summary in a detailed affidavit for a search warrant of Hyde's home.

At least two people said they were sexually abused as teens by Hyde, according to the court records. One accuser said the abuse occurred from 1986 to 1991, and the other said 1992 to 1994. The boys said they were over the age of 12 and younger than 16.

Statements of fact?

As pretrial hearings continued since Hyde's arrest, Finnell has filed multiple motions to exclude some testimony or evidence, according to court files. One is a March 14 motion asking that "improper opinion testimony" made in a deposition by detective Calvin Fenner be excluded from the trial.

Fenner said the victim's body was "cut up and washed in a bathtub" and his severed torso had been transferred to a mattress in black trash bags.

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"That the egg crate mattress was wet from both water and blood," Fenner's deposition said. "... the victim's torso had several wounds that were made post-mortem with a knife." 

He also noted the victim's torso had not stiffened with rigor mortis "because it was dismembered" and that the body was cut up "because it made it easier to dispose of."

"Those opinions are impermissible and do not qualify as lay opinions," Finnell's motion states.

That motion was denied by the judge.

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