TAVARES — Convicted murderer Rod Ferrell, the so-called vampire-cult leader who pleaded guilty in the slayings of a Eustis couple, presented his case for appeal to a judge Wednesday, saying his court-appointed defense team failed to explain that pleading guilty would lead to life behind bars.
Ferrell, who reached an agreement to avoid the death penalty in the November 1996 beating deaths of Richard and Ruth Wendorf of Eustis, said his attorneys “coerced” him into entering the plea and that he was under the impression that he would be eligible for parole in 40 years.
Handcuffed and shackled to the defense table, Ferrell, who was representing himself at the hearing in Lake Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson’s courtroom, called both of his former attorneys — Candace Hawthorne and William Lackay — as well as public-defender investigator David Norris to the stand.
He asked them whether they thought he was old enough and in the correct state of mind to understand what the circumstances would be if they pursued a voluntary-intoxication defense. He also asked them whether they thought he understood that entering a plea would result in his being denied a chance for parole.
Each testified that they thought that, despite his age, he understood all the ramifications involved in going to trial or entering a plea. He was 16 at the time of the killings and 17 when he went to trial in February 1998.
As opening statements began in his 1998 trial, Ferrell pleaded guilty. He was originally sentenced to die, but that sentence was overturned because of his age.
If his lawyers had given him better advice, Ferrell said in his motion for appeal, he would not have pleaded guilty. He said he would have gone to trial, and he thinks he would have been found not guilty of first-degree murder.
Johnson said he would have a ruling on the appeal request in “20 to 25 days.”
In the meantime, Ferrell was ordered back to his cell at New River West Correctional Facility in Bradenton, where he is serving his life term.
Ferrell, who once claimed he was immortal, led a “vampire cult” of four other teenagers, including Heather Wendorf, the then-15-year-old daughter of the slain couple. All were arrested in Baton Rouge, La., three days after the Nov. 25, 1996, slayings.
Charity Keesee and Dana Cooper pleaded guilty to a variety of lesser charges relating to the killings and are scheduled to be released from prison in 2007 and 2013, respectively.
Howard Scott Anderson pleaded guilty to being a principal to first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.
Heather Wendorf was exonerated in the slayings by a grand jury in 1998.
Assistant State Attorney Rock E. Hooker entered several documents from the original trial and plea agreement to counter Ferrell’s claims.
Ferrell admitted he was “clearly out of my league” while trying to represent himself at the hearing.
Hooker said he doubts the appeal will succeed even with legal assistance.
“He could have the best lawyer in the state, but you can’t change the court records,” Hooker said.
Hooker said he had no idea what the cost of this appeal would be, but he is convinced it won’t be the last the court hears from Ferrell.
“I’m sure, if the judge rules against him, it will be appealed,” he said.