Two White Suspects Plead Innocent in Burning of Black Tourist
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Two white men joked and laughed with each other in court today before pleading innocent in the New Year’s Day torching of a black tourist.
Mark Kohut, 26, and Charles Rourk, 33, are charged with attempted murder, armed kidnapping and armed robbery. A third man, Jeffrey Pellett, 17, who is being tried as an adult, has yet to enter a plea.
The three are accused of abducting Christopher Wilson, 31, a vacationing brokerage clerk from New York City, and forcing him at gunpoint to drive to a remote area where he was robbed, taunted with racial slurs, doused with gasoline and set ablaze.
A note left at the scene read, ″One less nigger, one more to go.″ It was signed ″KKK.″
Wilson remained in serious but stable condition today at Tampa General Hospital recovering from burns over nearly 40 percent of his body.
Public Defender Julianne Holt, representing Kohut, and court-appointed attorney Kay McGucken, representing Rourk, asked for trial as soon as possible. Circuit Judge Donald C. Evans set a tentative date of April 12.
The three suspects are being held without bond in isolation cells at the Hillsborough County Jail. They could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Earlier this week, Kohut and Rourk were eliminated as suspects in the drowning of a black man when authorities concluded they weren’t in the area when John Gene Willis, 47, died on March 7, 1991.
Wiilis’ death was ruled an accident but the case was reopened after his 14- year-old son, Chris, saw Kohut and Rourk on television. He told authorities he recognized the men as those aboard a powerboat that swamped his father’s 10-foot johnboat after taunting him with racial slurs.
Kohut has previous convictions for dealing cocaine in 1985 and a 1988 conviction for pimping his teen-age wife. He had been listed as a parole violator since 1989. Rourk apparently has no criminal record.
Investigators could find no link between the men and the Ku Klux Klan.