JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Siblings testified Wednesday about the disappearance of 16-year-old Fred Laster at the trial of a former youth pastor accused of murdering and dismembering him.
Ronnie Hyde, 65, is charged with first degree murder in the 1994 cold case, in which an unidentified torso was discovered behind a gas station Dumpster in Lake City.
The case went unsolved until Hyde’s arrest in 2017. He is also charged with 25 counts of possessing child pornography but those will be pursued at a separate trial. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Laster’s twin sister, Daisy Williams, testified about a childhood with lax supervision following the death of their mother, a life so free ranging that the siblings didn’t notice “Freddie” was missing for a few weeks. They said they believed their brother was with Hyde, a close friend of the family and youth pastor at their grandmother’s church.
The last time any of them heard from Fred Laster was in a June 1994 phone call he made to their older sister, which Daisy Williams recounted in her testimony.
“She said ‘Fred?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’
“And she’s like ‘Are you with Ron?’ And he said ‘Yeah,’ in like a really different tone, had a funny tone to him.
“And she’s like, ‘You OK?’ and he said ‘Yeah,’ and then he goes, ‘I just wanted call to tell you all that I love you and I love Pumpkin,’ which is what he called my sister’s daughter.
“And that was it.”
Prosecutor Alan Mizrahi asked, “Was that the last time you ever spoke to Fred Laster?” She responded, “Yes sir.”
Daisy Williams was also grilled by Hyde’s attorney Ann Finnell, who challenged her memory and suggested her recollection of seeing knives and nonstick bathtub stickers in Hyde’s Jacksonville Beach house was a “convenient” piece of testimony.
“[That] just happened to end up being something that was also kind of like what was found in a Dumpster in 1994, and you just -- in 2002 -- thought those things might be important?” Finnell asked.
“Never know what could be important,” Williams replied.
Fred Laster’s older brother, Travis Laster, told jurors that as a youth pastor, Hyde became a big part of their vulnerable family.
Travis Laster said he spent virtually every weekend with Hyde, alone, and sometimes travelled with him. As he grew older and spent less time with Hyde, he said, his brother Fred assumed that role. He alluded to “some of the stuff that happened that I’m not allowed to talk about” prompting a strong objection from Finnell, a lengthy sidebar and a stern admonishment from Circuit Judge Tatiana Salvador.
Travis Laster testified in earlier suppression hearings about alleged abuse at the hands of Hyde. Those topics that have been disallowed at trial, but Prosecutor Alan Mizrahi asked around their edges.
“I’m going to ask this very directly, Mr. Lassiter: Do you regret not being there for your brother?”
“It’s probably the biggest regret I ever have in my life,” he said. “Very much so.”
Travis Laster also testified that although Hyde told his siblings he'd dropped off Fred Laster in June 1994 when the teenager all but jumped out of his car at night, Hyde never told him that version of events for a decade, despite the two remaining in contact.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Pietak also testified Wednesday, saying it was impossible to determine how the teen was murdered based only on the condition of the torso.
Laster’s head, hands and legs were never found.
In court, the usually stoic Hyde reacted ever so slightly as the medical examiner showed jurors pictures of the dismembered torso, shaking his head and looking down.
Court resumes Thursday at 9:15 am. The case is schedule to conclude Friday.