“I’m sorry, Uncle Bobby.”
That was the response Robert Mell testified he heard when he asked an assailant why he shot him and Scott “Skippy” Hyatt on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2014 in a house at 370 East Riviera Blvd. in Brevard County north of Indialantic. Mell spent much of the afternoon last Friday describing his encounter with a masked shooter he identified in court as defendant Joseph Milman during the first day of testimony in a trial that is expected to last two more weeks.
The state charged Milman with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Hyatt and attempted first-degree murder in the wounding of Mell, whose gripping testimony sometimes seemed at odds with his frantic 911 call in the wake of the shooting. A third count charges Milman with home invasion robbery.
Judge Morgan Laur Reinman instructed jurors that the state is not seeking the death penalty in this case. Milman faces life without parole if convicted.
Mell, walking with a tree-branch cane as a result of the injuries sustained the day of the crime, claimed the attacker shot him six times, three before killing Hyatt and three after. He also insisted Milman fired the shots, based on voice recognition and physique. But in the 911 call afterwards, he told the dispatcher he was only shot three times.
“I don’t know who shot me,” he said on the call.
In opening statements, state attorney Susan Garrett said testimony will show the defendant guilty as charged. “This was not a spontaneous act,” Garrett told jurors.
“You will hear testimony that the defendant went to Mell’s house to take pills by force. In the process, he shot Skippy in the back and shot Mell.”
But defense attorney Michael Pirolo said he expects to convince jurors that his client was not present when the shootings occurred.
“What they won’t tell you is not one fingerprint belonging to Mr. Milman was found on the firearm or in the room where the men were shot. Not one fiber of DNA was found on the gun or in the room where the shooting occurred. No one else’s samples ever made it to the lab,” Pirolo said.
Opening arguments followed four days of jury selection to seat 14 jurors, including two alternates. The jury consists of five men and nine women.
Hyatt, 51 back in October 2014, lived in a house on Avenida De La Vista a few blocks from Mell, a house owned by Elvira Hull, who everyone called Grandma. Milman, 25 at the time, did not live there, but crashed on the couch in the days leading up to the shooting. Milman also hung out with then teenager Justin Howard, who lived with his mother in the same neighborhood. The state charged Howard with the same three counts for supplying the gun used in the shootings, a gun he stole from his mother.
In a recent plot twist, Howard, who was scheduled to be tried in November, took a plea deal on July 31, bargaining his charges down to second-degree murder, and in exchange for his testimony against Milman will serve only 10 years in jail and probation.
The initial plan, discussed with Howard and Jeremy Morelli, another resident at Grandma’s, was to grab Hyatt’s Dilaudid pills while he was taking a shower. But when Hyatt ended up at Mell’s house, the plan evolved into a home invasion robbery. Garrett said just before 2 p.m. on Oct. 19, the defendant came in wearing a Halloween mask. He demanded pills and money, shot Mell, shot Hyatt and took the pills and some money and fled.
“Mell survived because the gun jammed,” Garrett said. “The defendant gave him a couple of pills and told him not to snitch.”
Garrett told jurors that the defendant stopped by Howard’s house, “sweating, excited and with blood on him. He tells Howard and Howard’s then-15-year-old girlfriend, Ashley Lawson, ‘It was messy, dog.’”
Milman told them Skippy was dead but wasn’t sure about Mell. Howard provided a change of clothes and a backpack for the bloody clothes. Ashley dumped the backpack. Howard hid the firearm in the couch. That’s the state’s version of the story, for which they’ll call more witnesses to corroborate.
In his opening, defense attorney Pirolo called the charges against Milman a rush to judgment based on speculation and an incomplete investigation by authorities. He said the figures in this case hung out and did drugs together. In his statement, Pirolo said both Mell and Hyatt took Dilaudid prior to the shooting incident.
“It’s almost like heroin,” Pirolo said. “Why is that important? A lot of this case depends on what people observed. Whether they are certain of what they saw. At the close of this case keep in mind the accuracy of what you are about to hear, keep in mind what the evidence will show.”
He described a different scenario as a possibility. That Milman was all talk, no action. That Morelli and Milman talked on a secluded bike path between Grandma’s and Mell’s. Morelli walked toward Mell’s house and 15 minutes later Morelli returned with the pills. Milman went to Justin’s and said “I think Skippy is dead and I think Bobby is dead.” Milman washed the blood off his hands and went back to Grandma’s house.
“Justin Howard told Ashley to throw the bag away with the dirty clothes, not Joseph Milman. Keep that in mind,” Pirolo said.
Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jennifer Smith testified as the first officer on the scene, she found Mell crumpled in the driveway of the home of Patrick Marshall, Mell’s neighbor across the street.
“He said he was shot. He was upset and in pain. He thought he was dying. He was very scared. He was screaming to Jesus to save him. I assured him emergency help was on the way. I asked him who shot him. He described a tall man with a mask and he used the name Joe.”
In his testimony, Mell confided he considered Milman a friend despite the age difference. He knew of Howard and Morelli, but was not friendly with either. “I didn’t care for Jeremy,” he said.
He testified that Skippy stayed with Mell because he feared “they were going to jump him and beat him up.”
Gripping testimony as Milman slay trial opens
“I’m sorry, Uncle Bobby.”