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CRIME

Man sentenced to life for robbing 97-year-old World War II veteran in Lake County

Frank Stanfield
Correspondent

TAVARES ֱ Jurors Tuesday found a man guilty of beating and robbing a 97-year-old World War II veteran in his home in 2019.

The crime outraged Lake County residents, especially when they learned that while Kevin Leeks Jr. was talking to someone on the phone from the jail the other person said: ֱWe gotta take advantage of these veterans.ֱ

Willard VanOrder had the last laugh, however. Now 101, he testified about the attack that left him bloody, bruised and battered.

The six-member jury deliberated for hours before finally finding him guilty of burglary with battery. It was a lesser offense than the original charge of home-invasion robbery with a firearm, but it didnֱt matter. Because he was a recent prison reoffender, Senior Circuit Judge Larry Semento sentenced him to a mandatory life term in prison.

Jurors on Monday watched surveillance video from a Okahumpka convenience store of Kevin Leeks Jr. buying a Black & Mild brand cigar on July 11, 2019. The video also captured the image of VanOrder, cane in hand, veteranֱs ball cap on his head, buying ice cream and leaving for home on his riding lawn mower.

Leeks followed in his car. What he didnֱt know was that the cigar would follow him, from the state crime lab where crime scene analysts found his DNA. The cigar was found just outside VanOrderֱs front door.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would also find mixed touch DNA in his victimֱs left rear pants pocket where his wallet had been stuffed with cash.

The chance of the genetic material coming from anyone other than Leeks and VanOrder was greater than 700-billion-to-one, according to the probable cause affidavit. ֱActually, it was more like an octillion,ֱ Assistant State Attorney Steven Miller told the Daily Commercial. That is, 1 followed by 27 zeroes. ֱThe Florida Department of Law Enforcement uses 700 billion because the other is hard to wrap your brain around.ֱ

What happened after the chance encounter at the store was an affront to the man who served with Gen. George Patton in some of the toughest battles of the war, especially when he told his attacker to put away the gun pointed at his back.

ֱWe donֱt have guns around here,ֱ VanOrder reportedly testified. He even offered to make a sandwich for the intruder so the two could sit down and talk.

The last thing he remembered was putting the ice cream in his freezer. When he came to with a bloodied head, he was staring at the bottom of his refrigerator and wondering why he never noticed the wheels on the appliance.

He was discovered on the kitchen floor by his daughterֱs baffled husband. He thought that he had merely fallen. ֱI couldnֱt find his glasses,ֱ said his daughter, Jeanette Vaughn. She finally found them wedged between the wall and a microwave where they were sent flying after he was pistol-whipped.ֱ

He had deep gashes on his head and face and suffered whiplash. It took some time before he came to his senses. While she washed the blood out of his hair he said, ֱIֱve been robbed.ֱֱ Vaughn and her husband asked him to check his pocket for his wallet.

He was not able to identify his attacker, even in court, saying only that he was a tall, thin black man, a point that Leekֱs attorney Frank Bankowitz pounced on in his closing argument.

ֱPolice told him what happened. His memory is not as good as it was five years ago,ֱ he said. He insisted that the only thing he knew about the incident was what the police told him.

He also railed against the stateֱs notion that the attacker used a firearm in the attack.,

ֱNo firearm was found in this case.ֱ

Assistant State Attorney Steven Miller told jurors that the combat veteran ֱcertainly knows what a firearm is.ֱ

ֱThat was over 70 years ago,ֱ Bankowitz said.

The defense did have an alibi witness.ֱ Kourtney Smith, Leeksֱ cousin. Smith said the two talked at the Lake County jail, and Leeks reminded him they were at a relativeֱs home when the robbery took place.

Miller, however, grilled Smith on his supposed sharp memory by asking what day the crime fell on. Smith said it was Saturday, and he remembered that because he asked Leeks if he wanted to go to a barbecue at his girlfriendֱs home.

It was on a Thursday, Miller pointed out, just a few days past July 4 and its traditional host of barbecues.