State seeks death penalty against Stuart man accused of murdering woman found in septic tank

·6 min read

STUART — State prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against a handyman charged in the brutal beating death of a Jensen Beach woman whose body was recovered March 4 from inside a septic tank on her property.

Prosecutors declared their intent to seek a state execution for Keoki Hilo Demich, 34, of Stuart, one day after a Martin County grand jury on May 17 indicted him of first-degree murder in the homicide of Cynthia Cole, 57, court records show.

The indictment also charged Demich with sexual battery with great force, burglary of a dwelling with an assault or battery, third-degree grand theft, and theft of a motor vehicle.

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Demich, who investigators said worked as a handyman for Cole, is being held without bail at the Martin County Jail. He was arrested after Martin sheriff’s deputies discovered Cole’s body during an extensive search of her property that began March 2, according to an arrest affidavit.

Court records show Demich pleaded not guilty following his initial arrest on a charge of second-degree murder.

Cynthia Cole
Cynthia Cole

Cynthia Cole missing for days

Cole’s friends reported her missing after she disappeared Feb. 24 and she was not posting on social media, which was unusual, investigators were told. She was last seen alive at Jammin Jensen, a street party held on Thursday nights in the beachfront community.

Investigators determined Demich had been a “longtime friend” of Cole’s, and he was interviewed several times before and after her body was discovered, records show.

Detectives reported that Demich made various statements about his activities the night and morning that Cole disappeared “that were determined to be false.”

State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl this week declined to discuss specific evidence that supported charging Demich with sexual battery, but said it was in part based on Cole’s autopsy results.

“We took a deep dive into all of the facts and circumstances gathered by law enforcement to include digital evidence, to include medical examiner testimony and based upon the totality of the facts and circumstances we observed, we think the charge is well founded,” he said.

"Let us honor the loved ones that have been lost but more importantly lets recommit ourselves to the rights and remembrance of victims," said State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl, who prays during the annual Victims' Rights Vigil on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at Veteran's Memorial Island in Vero Beach. The service was hosted by the Indian River County Victims' Rights Coalition and is part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week.
"Let us honor the loved ones that have been lost but more importantly lets recommit ourselves to the rights and remembrance of victims," said State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl, who prays during the annual Victims' Rights Vigil on Thursday, April 28, 2022, at Veteran's Memorial Island in Vero Beach. The service was hosted by the Indian River County Victims' Rights Coalition and is part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week.

Chief Medical Examiner Patricia A. Aronica concluded Cole’s death was a homicide caused by “blunt force” injuries to her head, torso, and extremities. Along with lacerations to her head, Cole’s nose was fractured, several ribs were broken, and contusions were found on her arms, thighs and leg.

There also was “evidence of asphyxia,” Aronica reported, including a fracture to the bone in the neck that supports the tongue and contusions of the neck and chin.

Martin County Sheriff's Office investigators excavate the backyard of Cynthia Cole's home in Jensen Beach March 4, 2022, in an effort to find clues to her disappearance
Martin County Sheriff's Office investigators excavate the backyard of Cynthia Cole's home in Jensen Beach March 4, 2022, in an effort to find clues to her disappearance

Capital murder charge

If Demich is found guilty of first-degree murder during the first part of his trial, the same jury that convicted him would then determine his sentence, which can only be life in prison or execution.

In determining whether capital punishment is warranted, the law requires the state to identify the aggravating circumstances, or reasons why a sentence of death is legal and appropriate. Prosecutors weigh such aggravators against any possible mitigating evidence, such as diminished mental health, substance abuse or neurological troubles.

Prosecutors cited four statutory aggravators related to Cole’s murder including:

  • It was committed during the commission of a felony, including sexual battery, or burglary of a dwelling with an assault or battery

  • It was committed for pecuniary gain, meaning for something of monetary value

  • The killing was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel

  • It was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner

Bakkedahl said his office was required within 45 days of Demich’s arraignment on the first-degree murder count to declare the statutory aggravators they intend to prove at trial.

“You have four pretty hefty aggravators that, in our opinion, would support seeking the death penalty,” he said. “Ultimately it'll be a matter for a jury to decide.”

Martin County Sheriff William Snyder and investigators dig into the backyard of Cynthia Cole on March 4 and 5, 2022, one week after the woman was reported missing.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder and investigators dig into the backyard of Cynthia Cole on March 4 and 5, 2022, one week after the woman was reported missing.

Demich’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Shane Manship, in a prepared statement said, “the death of Cynthia Cole is horrible.”

“I feel bad for her and those that love her. I remind the public that when anyone is accused of a crime, no matter how horrendous, they are presumed innocent,” he said. “We all share this right, including Keoki.”

Manship continued: “Because the State Attorney is choosing to seek the death penalty, a tremendous amount of money and time must be spent defending against it. The law says I must conduct not only an extensive guilt investigation, but also do an extreme deep dive into Keoki’s entire life. Long before a jury ever decides guilt, I will have to hire a variety of experts to prepare for a possible penalty phase. Seeking the death penalty not only drags out a resolution of the trial, but it also drags out the post-conviction process.”

Former handyman is lead suspect

Reports show detectives questioned Demich on numerous pieces of evidence that contradicted what he said initially when Cole was reported missing. He told officials he lied about the last time he was at Cole's house and the last time he received money from her.

He initially said his last visit to Cole's house was on Feb. 22, and he only ever received physical cash payments from Cole for his work.

But digital receipts deputies found showed he used a ride sharing app to get to Cole's house and received more than $500 from her over CashApp.

Cole's 2015 gray Jeep Cherokee was found on Southeast Sixth Street in downtown Stuart, a little more than a mile from Demich's home.

When investigators obtained Cole's phone activity from Verizon, they found a message sent by her to Demich on Feb. 25 around 4 a.m., saying she would pay him and pick him up for work on her house Feb. 26.

Homicide database: Treasure Coast

After receiving Demich's permission to search his phone, they saw that message was deleted off his phone.

Demich said he had lied, according to detectives, because he thought it would look suspicious that he received money from Cole around the time she went missing.

"He stated he lies often," detectives reported in an arrest affidavit.

In March, Martin County Sheriff Will Snyder said investigators believed Demich placed Cole’s body in the septic tank located on the east side of her home through a cap that's accessible on the surface of the yard.

Snyder said Demich made one trip to Cole’s home Feb. 24, then killed her and hid her body that night. Afterwards he drove to his home using Cole's jeep during the early hours of Feb. 25.

Security footage obtained by detectives shows a person matching Demich’s description walking near where the vehicle was left near downtown.

Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Reach her at melissa.holsman@tcpalm.com.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Stuart man could face death penalty in killing of Jensen Beach woman