At 4 years old, Tony Chester lost his left eye when a gunman pumped a .22-caliber bullet into his head. Today, Tony is 16, a high-school sophomore and a dynamic Christian youth pastor-in-training who energizes his church with his story of returning from the brink of death.
It took those intervening 12 years — and a lot of prayers — but Tony and his family now have closure.
A Miami jury on Thursday convicted the man who shot Tony, his sister, his mother and aunt in a horrific mass shooting at a Spider-Man-themed birthday party in October 2006.
“God always has the final say,” a beaming Tony said after the verdict. “Justice has been served. Now, we can live our best lives.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Jose Estache, 37, was convicted of two counts of murder and four of attempted murder. He was the final defendant to go to trial for the shooting that also claimed the lives of Tony’s cousin, Chaquone Watson, 6, and Chaquone’s mother, Carla Queeley. Chaquone was shot dead while wearing his Spider-Man costume just as the party was about to start.
Ann Maynard, Tony’s aunt who was shot in the head and offered key testimony against Estache, tearfully hugged prosecutors after the verdict. She looked skyward.
“Rest in peace, Carla and Chaquone,” she said, tearfully. “We did it.”
Estache faces an automatic sentence of life in prison. He’ll be formally sentenced in a couple of weeks.
Earlier this year, a judge sentenced Sean Condell, the man believed to have fatally shot Chaquone and Queeley, to life in prison. He originally faced the death penalty, but while jurors convicted him of first-degree murder, they did not find he possessed a weapon during the crime, forcing prosecutors to abandon an effort to put him to death.
Prosecutors said Condell, Estache and three other men targeted the North Miami-Dade home because they mistakenly believed there was a safe full of cash inside. They thought a man named “Haitian Pete” was the boyfriend of the homeowner and kept his drug money there.
Estache was accused of shooting Queeley’s cousins — Shantara and Ann Maynard, along with Shantara’s two children — point-blank in the head.
Tony’s sister, Shanterria Kearse, survived the bullet to the head. She was 7. Now, she is a 19-year-old criminal-justice major at Florida International University. At 16, Tony is a young leader at the Word of Truth Worship Center in North Miami-Dade.
“If God can bring me out of the hospital, then he can do anything for anybody,” Tony said as he sat with his family in a courthouse waiting room the day before the verdict. “At age 4, I got my calling to be in the ministry.”
His voice rose. His face lit up.
“My auntie said, ‘Tony, God gave me a word for you. ... God didn’t want you out out on the football field. He wanted you out in the pulpit,’ ” he said. “So many people say, ‘Tony, you got one eye.’ And I say, with this one eye, I can see things you just cannot see. Everybody got 20-20 vision. God gave me 40-40 vision.”
The jury deliberated over the course of three days.
The accused gunman, Estache, behaved strangely enough during the trial at one point that the judge asked a psychologist to interview him.
During the middle of testimony last week, he suddenly took off his sweater and trousers, revealing his jail jumpsuit underneath. Criminal-court defendants usually don’t want to be seen in jail garb, so as not to give jurors a bad impression. Estache’s wardrobe change stunned the court and forced the judge to briefly halt the case.
“They hiding all the evidence,” Estache said to the jurors as they were ushered out of the courtroom.
Judge Ellen Sue Venzer warned Estache that he was not going to derail the trial. “Why did you change?” she asked.
“Just felt like changing,” he replied.
The psychologist declared Estache mentally competent to proceed, and his antics could not change the evidence.
Defense lawyer Jeffrey Fink suggested that Maynard was wrong about Estache’s identity, and didn’t have enough time to get a good look at the attacker. “The entire time Ann has to look at this man’s face is maybe four minutes,” Fink said. “And that includes the time when she’s on the ground on her stomach.”
But during the trial, jurors heard that cellphone records placed Estache at the scene. He also admitted to Miami-Dade police he played a role in the shooting, although he declined to give a formal video-recorded statement. And Ann Maynard identified Estache as the man who held her hostage, then shot her and the others as they tried to flee.
Spearheading the case was senior prosecutor David I. Gilbert, in his final trial after more than four decades as a Miami-Dade prosecutor. He tried the case with assistant state attorneys Christopher Flanagan and Keri Bagala.
“Ann Maynard pointed at the defendant and said, ‘I’ll never forget that face. That’s the man who said he had no trouble killing me if I didn’t give him what I wanted,’ ” Gilbert said during closing arguments.
Jurors believed her.