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Trial of local musician Ralph Ameduri’s killer concludes

Samuel Sweet Jr. receives six guilty verdicts after more than two years of investigation

Photo: Ralph design by Jeff Sweat, photo by Chris McEniry, License: N/A

Ralph design by Jeff Sweat, photo by Chris McEniry

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It wasn’t a fair exchange – a life for just $25 – but nevertheless, at 1 a.m. on Sept. 10, 2011, that was the botched bargain that led to the death of legendary Orlando musician Ralph Ameduri Jr., and the beginning of more than two years of litigation for then-17-year-old Samuel Sweet Jr. Ameduri was subbing in at a Thomas Wynn and the Believers set at Winter Haven watering hole Jessie’s Lounge, merely taking a midnight break outside. Sweet was, as multiple reports and grand jury depositions have it, cruising around with friends and a gun. He stopped by an area McDonald’s and a Lakeland party, where he showed off his gun, before hopping out of the backseat of the car – his friends advised him not to do something “stupid” – and attempting to rob Ameduri and three other people with a weapon in the alley outside Jessie’s.

Everyone, including Ameduri, reportedly complied with Sweet’s requests for their cash on hand. But – as the medical examiner would later tell a jury, according to courthouse reporting from the Lakeland Ledger – one patron tried to smack the gun away as it was held against Ameduri’s head. The gun fired into Ameduri’s skull. Later that night, the musician died in the hospital. After the gun went off, Sweet ran away, meeting up with his three friends and reportedly tossing the gun in a black bag into a nearby lake.

Months later, a confidential informant tapped by the Winter Haven Police Department would get one of Sweet’s friends who was in the car to come clean about the evening. Sweet was covered in sweat, according to the friend, and lamented his $25 take from the evening after getting back in the car, adding that he “should have shot them all.” And so the case against Samuel Sweet Jr. was born in August 2012, nearly a year after social media campaigns, neighborhood canvassing, helicopter searches, a dimly lit YouTube video of the car passing Jessie’s and a reward offer had failed to turn up any public leads.

“Of course you want them found immediately,” Ameduri’s sister Chris Minnoti says. “For me personally, after it happened and talking with family, I couldn’t talk about who this person was or anything. I was like, we’re not going to talk about it – and in my mind, the day after we buried Ralph, they were going to have a suspect. And obviously it doesn’t happen like that.”

What did happen was some gumshoe investigative work that would eventually lead to a grand jury indictment of Samuel Sweet Jr. in 2012 on one count of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted armed robbery and one count of tampering with evidence. The Winter Haven Police Department – whom Minnoti claims was incredibly sensitive to the family’s plight throughout the investigation – even waited for Minnoti and her father to arrive in Winter Haven before announcing the indictment.

“I was aware of [a] program that we did where we posted information within the jail on the TV system there, and ultimately, through a lot of hard work and a little luck – sometimes you make your own luck – we received a tip that ultimately caused all of this to unravel. I was very thankful for that to occur,” Winter Haven Police Chief Gary Hester says. “I’m not sure that there’s much closure you can bring in solving it; I’m not sure you can give Mr. Ameduri’s family any relief or rest from the agony and pain of having their loved one murdered, but we certainly wanted to do everything we could to see that the murderer was held accountable. And that’s where we’re at. We were fortunate, but a lot of that fortune came from a lot of hard work.”

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