Crime

Will he get life or death? Jury convicts Florida man of killing wife, pastor, neighbor

Andres “Andy” Avalos is escorted out of the courtroom after being found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder on Saturday afternoon at the Manatee County Courthouse in downtown Bradenton. Avalos was found guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of his wife, Amber Avalos, 33, and first-degree murder for his other two victims, Denise Potter, 46, and the Rev. James “Tripp” Battle III, 31, and now faces the death penalty or life in prison.
Andres “Andy” Avalos is escorted out of the courtroom after being found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder on Saturday afternoon at the Manatee County Courthouse in downtown Bradenton. Avalos was found guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of his wife, Amber Avalos, 33, and first-degree murder for his other two victims, Denise Potter, 46, and the Rev. James “Tripp” Battle III, 31, and now faces the death penalty or life in prison. zwittman@bradenton.com

Andres “Andy” Avalos has been found guilty of three counts of murder in the Dec. 4, 2014, slayings of his wife Amber Avalos, 33; neighbor Denise Potter, 46; and the Rev. James “Tripp” Battle III, 31.

The courtroom was calm after 13 hours of deliberations, and the jury delivered their verdict at 2 p.m. Saturday.

READ MORE: The trial of Andres Avalos

Families of the three victims had waited for more than two years for justice. Battle’s wife, widow and other loved ones embraced one another quietly after the verdict was read.

Potter’s aunt, Julie Konkol, said she was grateful that justice had been served not only for her niece but for Amber Avalos and Battle.

“I pray that his children and the families of Denise and Rev. Potter find some sense of peace now that the jury found him guilty of these three horrendous murders,” she told the Bradenton Herald on Saturday.

Avalos was found guilty of two first-degree counts of murder in the deaths of Potter and Battle. He was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Amber.

He now faces the death penalty or life in prison.

Avalos showed no emotion but drummed his fingers as the verdict was read.

The jury — 12 jurors and two alternates — is no longer sequestered and will return at 8:30 a.m. Monday to begin the penalty phase.

Amber Avalos returned to the couple’s home in the 1200 block of 67th Street Northwest in Bradenton from dropping off some of their children at school on the morning of Dec. 4, 2014, when the couple began to argue in the kitchen over his being out drinking the night before.

Avalos became enraged when she told him that she was not afraid of him or to die.

“I have never put my hands on that woman in 16 years,” Avalos later told lead homicide detectives Jeffrey Bliss and John Kenney following his arrest. “When I put my hands on her that was it.”

He punched her multiple times and threw her on the floor of the laundry room. Avalos straddled her, kissed her on the forehead, said I love you and then strangled her with a wire before partially suspending her — wanting to “make sure” she was dead.

Avalos went to get his .45 caliber pistol and returned to the laundry room — afraid that Amber might be playing dead — and shot her once.

The couple’s then 4-year-old son was home playing video games when Amber Avalos and Potter were killed. He asked Avalos where his “mommy” was but saw only her feet when she lay dead in the laundry room.

Avalos told him it was time to go to school and was loading him into the couple’s gold 2003 Chevrolet Suburban when Potter showed up because she and Amber were scheduled to go clean a house together.

“I knew she was going to call the cops, and I wasn’t ready for the police to come yet,” Avalos said.

He followed Potter into the home, leaving his son in the Suburban. Potter, failing to find Amber in the bedroom, was headed down the hallway toward the laundry room, Avalos said.

Avalos said he didn’t want Potter to see his dead wife, so he shot her in the hallway.

“I don’t know how many times I shot her,” he said.

Then Avalos took his son to the Happy Cubs Daycare, making sure to tell him he loved him on the way and becoming sad after saying goodbye to the boy, he said.

He then headed out east, making a stop to see his cousins to tell them what he had done and that he loved them, he said. Avalos didn’t know if his cousins had believed him, but they had given him some money.

He ended up leaving his vehicle at Walmart, knowing that soon enough law enforcement would be searching for it.

“After what I did, I just wanted to sit in the back seat of a cab and relax,” Avalos said.

When detectives asked him when he had formulated his plan to kill Battle, Avalos said, “Months,” and chuckled.

At one point he said he vomited just outside the taxi cab because he had been drinking the night before. Avalos also admitted to using cocaine the day before the murders and taking a painkiller that morning for his hangover.

The taxi dropped Avalos at a shopping center near Bayshore Baptist, and he read passages from his bible. He then waited, watching for Battle to arrive at the church, knowing that the pastor’s car was not there.

After some time, however, Avalos decided to go into the church office and speak with Battle’s wife. But first he made a phone call to his uncle, Lt. Joel Perez, with the sheriff’s office.

“I said hey, you need to go to my house, get your boys over there. There’s two people laying down over there,” Avalos said.

The widow’s short but vivid recollection took the jurors to the grounds of the Bayshore Baptist Church, 6502 14th St. W., Bradenton, where Avalos shot his final victim.

Joy Battle was working in the church office at about 12:45 p.m. when Avalos came in, she testified Wednesday. She sat with him as he began to share his suspicions that their spouses were having an affair with one another. During that time, her husband called and asked if everything was OK after learning Avalos was there. She said she didn’t know.

Avalos had made the accusations months before that her husband was having an affair with Amber Avalos, Joy Battle said. But she had told him she had no reason to believe it and offered to pray with him.

Her husband arrived at the church within minutes of their phone call, and Joy Battle recalled saying, “Andy, Tripp is here so you can talk to him now.”

Avalos got up, walked out and closed the door behind him, she testified. Her husband was on the sidewalk as Avalos approached him.

“He pulled a gun from behind his back and he shot him three times and he fell to the floor,” Battle’s widow said, her voice trembling. She began to cry.

Joy Battle recalled her husband crying out in pain and her own screams, and she said she took a split second to decide whether to run to him or call 911.

“I thought the best chance he had at living was if I called 911, so I went to my phone and called 911,” she said. “I was on the phone with 911, and Andy came back and shot him again.”

Avalos walked away from the scene, contemplating “doing more things” like stealing a car or “going out with you guys in a blazing glory,” he later told Bliss and Kenney. Avalos decided otherwise and after seeing a deputy pass him along 14th Street, he quickly ducked into a nearby small wooded area where he would hide for the next two days, coming out only to buy Pringles, a soda and a beer.

What ensued was a 51-hour manhunt led by the sheriff’s office to find Avalos — considered armed and dangerous at the time.

The frantic search included an alert for Avalos’ gold 2003 Chevrolet Suburban — later found at the Walmart — and Palma Sola and Miller elementary schools, King Middle School and Manatee High School were locked down as deputies rushed to take custody of the Avalos’ children, fearing for their safety.

Early on the morning of Dec. 6, 2014, Andres Avalos Sr. made a public plea at an impromptu press conference at the sheriff’s office. The elder Avalos pleaded that his son turn himself in for the sake of his six children, who were in protective custody at the time.

A few hours later, the highly sought suspect walked onto the wooden deck behind a mobile home in the Pine Haven Mobile Home Park, 6320 14th St. W., just a couple of blocks from the Bayshore Baptist Church.

At about 1 p.m., Melissa and Jerry Hamilton — who lived in Pine Haven — were singing Christian hymns in preparation for a function at their church that evening. Melissa stood in the kitchen, and Jerry sat in the living room as he began to sing the popular Christian song, “I Can Only Imagine,” she recalled for the jury. Suddenly through the sliding glass door, she saw Avalos walk onto their wooden deck.

“Can I help you?” she said to Avalos.

They called 911 and left their home as instructed by a dispatcher.

News quickly broke that Avalos was captured after a caravan of deputies and detectives screeched down U.S. 41 to the mobile home — a sign many hoped that Avalos had finally been located. Deputies and detectives drew their guns and semiautomatic rifles, held up their shields as residents of the quiet mobile home park watched in shock. Avalos was arrested without resisting.

Avalos was quickly taken to the sheriff’s office headquarters. In the hours that followed, he would give Bliss and Kenney his detailed confession which a jury watched for about 90 minutes Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, the state will present testimony and evidence to support their aggravating factors needed as they seek the death penalty. The defense will present their own case in support of their mitigating circumstances in their attempts to get Avalos life in prison.

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