Christian Friend was just 5 years old when his mother Lynne vanished in South Florida and his father — following their divorce and a bitter custody dispute — became the prime suspect in her murder.
Twenty years later, Christian sat in a courtroom gallery on Thursday, firmly on his father’s side, chewing gum forcefully, seemingly unmoved by an outpouring of support from his mother’s loved ones.
Lynne Friend’s fiancé, Ed O’Dell, who would have been Christian’s stepfather, told the court he remembered a “very bright, beautiful, happy, curious child” who adored his mother.
“She gave you life. She nourished you. She cared for you,” O’Dell said, turning to Christian in a heartfelt speech. “She healed you when you were sick. Everything she did, she did for your benefit.”
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The drama unfolded at the sentencing for Clifford Friend, who was convicted in July of second-degree murder for strangling Lynne Friend and dumping her body off a boat at sea in August 1994.
Christian, who said he does not remember his mother, told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Teresa Mary Pooler he was “offended” by his father’s critics. He continued to maintain his father’s innocence and insisted he did grow up with maternal love — from his stepmother.
“He is the best person I know,” Christian Friend, now 25, said of his father. “He raised me and taught me right from wrong.”
The judge, however, was not swayed — sentencing Friend to life in prison. Pooler ripped into Friend, calling the murder “heinous.”
“You committed a monstrous act,” Pooler told Clifford. “You dumped her in the ocean like she was a sack of trash.”
The judge also expressed sympathy for Christian.
“I hope one day he understands what he has lost,” Pooler said.
The sentencing came two decades after Lynne’s disappearance riveted South Florida and sparked a massive police investigation. Her body was never found.
Back in 1994, Lynne, a hospital administrator from Hallandale Beach, was about to move to Tennessee to marry O’Dell. A judge granted her permission to take Christian out of state.
Prosecutors say the judge’s decision enraged ex-husband Friend, who vowed “no one” would take his son from him. She went missing shortly after telling her fiancé, in a phone conversation, that she was going to her ex-husband’s North Miami-Dade house to pick up a child-support check.
Hours after Friend strangled his ex-wife, prosecutors said, federal customs agents stopped him and a friend as they dumped an object off their 30-foot boat seven miles east of Miami Beach. Lynne’s car, its tire slashed, was later found abandoned in a field in Northeast Miami-Dade.
Officers and agents from Hallandale, North Miami Beach, Miami-Dade, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement joined in the massive police investigation that drew extensive media coverage.
The U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard and oceanographers at the University of Miami searched, to no avail, for her body at the bottom of the swift moving Gulf Stream.
After she vanished, Friend was given custody of his young son. Friend, a Lighthouse Point pawn shop owner, was not arrested until March 2012.
At trial in July, Friend’s buddy, Alan Gold, was the star witness. In brash and sarcastic testimony, he told jurors how he helped Friend dump the body, which was weighed down in a large duffel bag.
Gold also told jurors how Friend confided in him that he choked Lynne during an argument.
Thursday’s sentencing was an emotional affair. Prosecutor Michael Von Zamft read a letter penned by Lynne herself, two years before her death, in which she described her ex-husband threatening “to put a bullet in my head.”
O’Dell called Friend a “coward.”
“I think he deserves the death penalty,” O’Dell said “I wish he could be hanged by the neck until pronounced dead.”
Friend faced up to 22 years in prison under 1994 sentencing guidelines, although prosecutors Von Zamft and Marie Mato asked the judge to go higher. Defense lawyer Peter Heller said the facts of the alleged crime did not warrant such a high punishment.
Friend, who will appeal his case, did not speak at Thursday’s sentencing. After the sentencing, Christian and his family — escorted by bodyguard — refused to talk to reporters.
Von Zamft, the prosecutor, was satisfied with the verdict.
“If you watched anything today in the sentencing,” he said, “the most disappointing and depressing part was the reaction of the son who still does not acknowledge his father cold bloodedly killed his mother and took her out of his life.”