Deal cut in Florida beating death

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The three young men spent months in court hearings together fighting charges that they beat to death a homeless man and hospitalized two others in a bloody night of violence.

But on Friday, one of the defendants walked into a Broward County, Fla., courtroom alone. The next time he sees his two former friends he could be on the witness stand testifying against them.

William “Billy” Ammons, 20, cut a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to third-degree murder and aggravated battery in exchange for a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years. He agreed to become a witness against Brian Hooks, 20, and Thomas Daugherty, 19, detailing their roles in the highly publicized attacks in Fort Lauderdale two years ago.

Ammons’ testimony could help send Hooks and Daugherty to prison for life. Hooks and Daugherty each face a count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder. Their trial could be sometime this summer.

Ammons’ sentencing before Broward Circuit Judge Cynthia Imperato is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 20.

Ammons calmly answered Imperato’s questions Friday as he agreed to the plea deal, a contrast to his initial court hearings in the case when he regularly showed up red-faced and tearful. His mother, stepfather and a friend quietly sat in the courtroom’s front row.

Ammons’ family and his attorney, Sam Halpern, could not comment on the plea deal because of a court-imposed gag order restricting them from talking publicly about the case.

The brother of victim Norris Gaynor, who died, said he didn’t learn of the plea agreement until a reporter called him. He said he doesn’t understand why prosecutors made such a deal.

“In the world we live in, there’s very little that surprises me today,” Russell Gaynor said.

The Jan. 12, 2006, attacks in Fort Lauderdale instantly became national news after police released chilling footage from a surveillance camera that captured one of the nonfatal beatings. Two smiling men with baseball bats – who authorities say are Hooks and Daugherty – bashed Jacques Pierre, 58, as he tried to protect himself outside a Florida Atlantic University building on Las Olas Boulevard.

An hour after that attack, Norris Gaynor, 45, was found unconscious in Esplanade Park, near the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. He died three hours later from severe head trauma.

The third victim – Raymond Perez, 49 – was beaten in the Church by the Sea garden near the 17th Street Causeway. He crawled to a nearby road with a towel wrapped around his head and flagged down a passing ambulance. He had been sleeping when a blow from a baseball bat woke him.

Ammons’ plea deal came three months after Imperato ruled that a videotaped statement he gave to Fort Lauderdale police could be admitted at trial. Ammons admitted he blasted paintballs at Gaynor during the fatal attack and clobbered Perez with a golf club.

“I went up like a putter to tee off and hit him …,” said Ammons in describing Perez’s beating.

Neither Daugherty nor Hooks gave statements to police.

Ammons had faced the same charges as his co-defendants. Prosecutors downgraded the attempted first-degree murder charge in Perez’s attack to aggravated battery, and dropped the attempted first-degree murder charge in Pierre’s beating.

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