POLK CITY, Fla. — A Florida man who used a church van to run over and kill the mother of his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend in 2020 has been convicted of the woman’s murder.
A Polk County jury on Friday found Elijah Paul Stansell, 20, of Winter Haven, guilty of first-degree murder and burglary with assault in the Nov. 9, 2020, hit-and-run that initially left Suzette Marie Penton, 52, of Polk City, in critical condition.
Penton, a mother of four sons, died of her injuries more than two weeks later, on Nov. 25. Officials in Polk City, where Penton headed the public library, have since renamed the library in her honor.
The Indiana native had called Polk County home for most of her life, according to her obituary.
“Not only was she a beloved librarian for the City of Polk City, but she was an important fixture in the community whose outreach went well beyond the city limits,” Penton’s obituary read. “She loved more than anything spending time with her sons, her daughter in law and her five grandchildren.”
According to State Attorney Brian Haas, Stansell will be sentenced later this year to mandatory life in prison.
Stansell was 18 years old when he, Raven Kaine Sutton, 16, Kimberly Nichole Stone, 15, and Hannah Cherie Eubank, 14, went to Penton’s home to confront her son, Hunter Penton, who was Stone’s former boyfriend. Investigators learned that Stone and Hunter Penton had been engaging in ongoing arguments since their breakup.
According to a probable cause affidavit in the case, Stone had sent him written threats on social media about a “hit” and said she’d “have her new boyfriend ‘handle it.’”
The threats had led to Stone’s suspension from school in the weeks leading up to the fatal confrontation, authorities said.
Detectives determined that Stone showed Stansell and the other teens where her ex-boyfriend lived, and that the teens waited in the van — which belonged to the church where Stansell’s father was pastor — until they saw Suzette Penton and her younger son, Austin Penton, leave for a trip to the store.
Much of what happened next, including Suzette Penton’s final moments, was captured by security cameras in and around the Penton home.
Stansell, Sutton and Eubank went to the house, and Stone stayed behind in the van “while they went to ‘handle it’ at her direction,” the document stated.
Court records show that Stone, now 17, Sutton, 17, and Eubank, 16, are all charged with being accessories after the fact in a capital felony, burglary with assault and conspiracy to commit burglary with assault. Each is being tried as an adult.
“This was a coordinated, planned attack, carried out by a group of teens who beat up a teen, then ran over his mother, leaving her for dead,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in 2020. “I can’t even fathom teenagers doing something so heinous.”
The affidavit alleged that deputies arrived shortly before 3 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Pentons’ Polk City home, where they spoke to Hunter Penton. The teen told deputies he’d heard a knock on his front door but, because his family normally uses the side door, he went and answered that door, which leads out onto an attached carport.
When he opened the door, he said, Stansell, Eubank and Sutton of the defendants were in the yard. The teen said he recognized Stansell as Stone’s new love interest and Eubank as a classmate.
Hunter Penton walked out onto his carport, at which point he said Stansell approached and began hitting him. When the boy fled back into the house, Stansell followed, the affidavit stated.
Read the probable cause affidavit below.
Sutton, who the victim was later able to identify for investigators, and Eubank also went inside, with Eubank using her cellphone to film the attack. As they continued beating Hunter Penton, Suzette Penton returned from the store with her younger son, Austin Penton.
The teens fled.
“The victim’s mother followed them and watched them get into their van, which was parked across the street,” Judd said in a news release. “She began taking photos of the suspects and the van with her cellphone.”
That’s when things turned dangerous.
Watch Sheriff Grady Judd discuss the case below.
“Though there was enough room for the van to maneuver around her as she stood in the roadway, Stansell intentionally ran into her, then over her, before fleeing the scene,” the sheriff said.
Suzette Penton was rushed to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, where she was found to have suffered a traumatic brain injury involving a skull fracture and severe bleeding in her brain, the affidavit stated. She also suffered a broken leg and fluid in her lungs.
“He didn’t clip her,” Judd said during a 2020 news conference. “He didn’t try to turn away from her and accidentally hit her and she fell down. She was squared up and he ran over her. Directly over her. Rolled her underneath the van.”
Judd said Suzette Penton was left with tire tracks on her body.
Investigators wrote that three eyewitnesses gave consistent accounts of what took place outside the family’s home, including the fact that Stansell made no attempt to go around Penton before striking her. Detectives were also able to pull the security footage from the Pentons’ cameras, as well as other cameras in the neighborhood.
The exterior footage shows the teens going onto the carport and Stansell attacking the younger victim, the affidavit stated. Footage from in the boy’s home shows how the attack continued inside.
The cameras also caught Suzette Penton following the teens into the street and taking photos of the van and its license plate as Stansell drove forward into her body.
Watch some of the security footage below, courtesy of Court TV.
One of the witnesses, county employee Jeff Goolsby, followed the van as it sped away and called 911.
“I’m trying to stay back. I don’t know if these people have a gun,” Goolsby said, according to WFLA in Tampa. “They just mowed that poor lady down.”
The teens were pulled over about seven miles away by deputies and Auburndale police officers, authorities said. During questioning, Stansell admitted to hitting Suzette Penton but said he thought he’d struck her with the van’s side mirror.
The other teens also admitted to going to the scene of the attack to confront Hunter Penton.
Stone, Sutton and Eubank are all awaiting trial.
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