Dec 30, 2023

Cape Coral cold case: Jury convicts Joseph Zieler in 1990 slayings

A jury took about three hours to convict Joseph Zieler in the 1990 deaths of 11-year-old Robin Cornell and her babysitter Lisa Story.

More than six years after DNA matched him to the decades-old double homicide, Zieler now advances to the death penalty phase of the trial. It will resume Tuesday.

Relatives of the victims sobbed and hugged each other as the court announced the verdict, while Zieler, 60, appeared stoic and looked toward Lee Circuit Judge Robert Branning.

Zieler was charged in November 2016 with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the May 9, 1990, slayings of Robin and Story, 32, in Cape Coral.

Zieler, of North Fort Myers, just hours prior to his conviction took the stand to claim his innocence soon after his girlfriend told the jury about learning of the accusations, wiping tears and covering her face as she sobbed.

Assistant State Attorneys Daniel Feinberg, Stephanie Russell and Abe Thornburg prosecuted the case. Zieler was represented by Lee Hollander and Kevin Shirley.

Bonnie Kniceley had been in a relationship with Zieler since about Memorial Day 1990 until shortly after he was connected to the double homicide in November 2016. She said under oath that Zieler never had memory issues, contrary to what he told authorities when they confronted him about the murders.

Zieler had told them he suffered memory loss when a car struck his motorcycle along Pine Island Road and sent him to the hospital with a seriously fractured leg, a wound on his left foot and a head injury.

Kniceley testified Zieler was able to read and write during those years as he stared at her during the testimony. She avoided eye contact and looked in the prosecutors' direction.

Kniceley testified he remembered when the couple met and never had trouble remembering his parents’ names.

Kniceley broke into tears when the courtroom played the recording of a phone call between Zieler and her while he was incarcerated. They played three calls between the couple.

During the conversations, Zieler talked about having a backpack and "making an escape."

Kniceley said she was angry during one of the September 2016 calls after she found out about the homicide allegations. She said that's when she broke off her relationship with Zieler.

The calls played in the courtroom showed Zieler indicated he’d have to turn himself in for a separate crime, which he didn't disclose to Kniceley.

After the court discussed the separate phone calls, Kniceley read a letter written by Zieler and sent to her, addressing the aggression toward her son, which led to the earlier 2016 arrest. Zieler's DNA was collected and stored in the database following that arrest, leading to a match in the cold case.

"I will be seriously disappointed in you if you abandon me," Zieler warned Kniceley in the correspondence.

Zieler urged Kniceley to have her "bag already packed and get out of there."

Kniceley was questioned for about 90 minutes.

As Zieler testified, he scrutinized Kniceley's sworn statements.

"Bonnie is a big liar," Zieler said. "That's why she was snickering up here with a smile on her face."

Toward the beginning of questioning, Zieler said he didn't know any of the victims or Jan Cornell, Robin's mother. He later claimed a sexual encounter with Jan Cornell.

Shirley showed Zieler photos of the Cornells' home.

Zieler said he never saw the photos or the apartment when police interviewed him about the murders.

In later questioning, he said there was a separate warrant for his arrest in May 1990 out of Maryland and confirmed a different 1987 warrant out of Chicago.

Zieler said that since those incidents he was stopped five times in Florida for the Chicago warrant, twice in Kniceley's presence. Zieler later said he's been convicted of five felonies.

But he said he wasn't guilty of the assaults on Robin and Story.

"I knew they arrested the wrong person," Zieler said of when Cape Coral Police questioned him the murders.

As Zieler testified, a series of letters he wrote recently to the Cornell family became the focus.

Zieler denied writing letters and avoided answering related questions. He later confessed to the writings, saying he was defending himself.

In the letters, he suggested a relative of his committed the slayings. When asked, Zieler said the letters weren't just addressed to Jan Cornell, but "the entire family."

Zieler then claimed he slept with Jan Cornell in 1989 and called her a "pig."

"I guess they were too much of a pig not to wash the sheets," Zieler said. He said he had "night encounter" with Cornell and a friend.

As he continued to speak, a woman put her arm around Jan Cornell, sitting in the gallery.

According to the letters, Zieler threatened to "drag them" to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Zieler continued, he attempted to introduce documents allegedly linked to a case of his in Maryland, saying he was in court in that state at the time of the murders.

At one point, Branning rushed jurors out of the courtroom as two deputies surrounded Zieler and removed the microphone because the information wasn't introduced into evidence and could've impacted jurors' decision.

"I've never had to speak to a defendant like this, and I regret that you've put me in this situation, Mr. Zieler," Branning said as he stared at Zieler, his tone condemning.

Branning later threatened contempt proceedings against Zieler if his behavior continued.

When Zieler was dismissed from questioning, prosecutors again called Jan Cornell. They addressed the alleged one-night sexual encounter with Zieler.

Her voice shook as she stressed she didn't know Zieler or how he got her address, saying she reported the letter to authorities out of fear for her life.

"I panicked because I didn't know how he got my real name and my address," Jan Cornell said, adding she didn't know if any of her acquaintances knew Zieler.

Closing arguments arrived ahead of schedule Thursday afternoon. Prosecution had originally predicted they would wrap up Thursday, followed by the defense.

Russell addressed the three defenses in the case, previously mentioned in trial, dubbed the "Big 3:" the body of Robin Cornell and DNA found on a pillow and blanket.

"This is a simple case," Russell said. "Very simple."

Russell circled back to what Jan Cornell found when she arrived the early morning of May 10, 1990, about 4 a.m.: the ransacked house and her daughter's body.

"The DNA is where this case really lies," Russell said.

Zieler stared down at papers in his possession and read through them as Russell continued.

"Please remember what you saw and what you heard," Russell said.

Lee Hollander said analysts couldn't get DNA out of blond hairs recovered. Zieler's hair has never been blond and added that the DNA found wasn't only Zieler's.

"Whoever did this really hated Ms. Cornell," Hollander said, alluding to how framed photographs were ransacked and placed on the home's ironing board.

"This type of viciousness is revenge," Hollander said, circling back to the state in which Jan Cornell found her home.

Hollander said three beer cans found at the scene were never tested for fingerprints.

Hollander said added that a sex toy found near the youngest victim was never checked for DNA or fingerprints.

The state closed its arguments through Thornburg, who reiterated how Jan Cornell had denied "shady" business that could've led to the murders out of "revenge."

Thornburg called Zieler's defense "fiction," adding that they followed all procedures questioned by the Hollander and Shirley.

"The science doesn't back it up," Thornburg said.

"Only one person in one billion Earths shares his DNA," Thornburg said, adding that the state had proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Tomas Rodriguez is a Breaking/Live News Reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. You can reach Tomas at [email protected] or 772-333-5501. Connect with him on Twitter @TomasFRoBeltran, Instagram @tomasfrobeltran and Facebook @tomasrodrigueznews.