EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.
For the most part, trials are fairly choreographed productions.
Attorneys on both sides know ahead of time what evidence their opponents will be presenting, which witnesses could be called, what time to show up.
This week, in an Edwardsville courtroom, it was anything but.
Most of the reporters and spectators gathered to attend the trial of Timothy Banowetz for the murder of prominent attorney Randy Gori were seated in an overflow courtroom.
It was about two blocks away from the actual courtroom inside the Madison County Criminal Justice Center, which didn’t allow for much social distancing.
On Tuesday, about 50 people were there, waiting for the large screens at the front of the room to light up and the trial to begin.
Suddenly, Judge Kyle Napp appeared.
“Mr. Banowetz it’s my understanding that you wish to enter a plea of guilty,” she said.
“Yes,” he responded.
Gasps among the audience were audible. Eyes raced around the room above masks, which undoubtedly hid a few gaped jaws.
Reporters huddled at tables near the front of the room looked at each other, unsure if we just heard what we thought we heard.
In 24 minutes of formalities – the judge reading the charges, asking Banowetz if he was absolutely sure this was his decision, prosecutors reading all that the evidence would have shown – it was all over.
Banowetz pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and two armed robbery charges.
State’s Attorney Thomas Haine pledged to pursue a maximum sentence of 70 years for the charges.
An unusual end to an even more unusual crime.
It's thankfully a rare occurrence when a victim doesn't know their killer – let alone when a victim is stalked by a stranger.
Many of the questions about how and why it happened were answered when prosecutors read all of the facts they intended to prove had the trial proceeded.
Banowetz had a $10,000 tuition bill coming due for his pharmacy school on Jan. 13, 2020, and he didn’t know how he was going to pay it.
So, in the months leading up to it, September 2019 to be exact, he began researching wealthy people in the St. Louis area that he could rob and murder, according to computer searches police conducted of Banowetz’s devices.
Haine told reporters Gori wasn’t the only wealthy person Banowetz researched, but he didn’t name names.
Ultimately he settled on Gori. Haine speculated it was because Gori was a very public figure – being pictured writing checks to philanthropic organizations or being featured in various publications for his Ferrari collection.
Banowetz started following Gori's social media accounts where he also posted plenty of pictures of his children, ages 13 and 15.
At a press conference following Banowetz’s guilty plea, Haine summarized some of Banowetz’s online habits.
At 3 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2019, Banowetz looked at photos of Gori and his children on Instagram. Forty minutes later, he looked at binoculars online from Walmart. The next night, surveillance cameras captured Banowetz buying the binoculars.
Three days later, Banowetz searches the internet for “What does a million dollars look like?” That same morning, he looks for zip ties online from Walmart.
The next night, he looks at another photo on Gori’s Instagram of him and his children. Two minutes later, he’s looking at a fake gun online. Three minutes after that, he’s looking at Gori’s sprawling Edwardsville estate on Google Maps.
He picked Jan. 4, 2020, as the day he would carry out his plan.
When that day arrived, he drove his truck to a wooded area about a half-mile away from Gori’s home.
He can be seen on Gori’s home surveillance system confronting Gori and his children as they arrive home from dinner with the fake gun, forcing them to the ground and zip tying all of their hands.
He stole somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 from the home. Gori insisted there was no other cash in the house when suddenly a “brave witness” showed up and interrupted the crime, Haine said.
Police sources have told me previously that witness was Gori’s girlfriend as he was in the middle of a divorce. He had invited her to his home that day to meet his children.
She also planned to introduce them to her fur babies that day – two German Shepherds she never traveled without.
At that point, Banowetz “grew enraged that his plan was falling apart, and viciously stabbed Randy Gori to death in the basement of his home,” Haine said.
“His children were not present for this....” Haine paused. “Thank God.
“In fact, we believe Randy's final act was to intentionally lead Banowetz away from his children to a distant part of the house to distract him and protect them.”
With blood on his hands, Banowetz attacked Gori’s girlfriend near her car, but her large German Shepherds protected her and she called 911, Haine said.
He left in Gori’s 2020 Rolls Royce SUV.
Meanwhile, the property owner where Banowetz parked his truck had called a tow service, believing someone had abandoned the vehicle there.
“Following a hunch, investigators went to that spot the next morning,” Haine said. “And Timothy Banowetz walked right out of the woods with Randy Gori’s blood on his shirt saying he was looking for his truck.
“As he reached for his ID, a note fell on the ground in front of the investigators. And this murder note told the entire murder plan with the ‘to-do’ list in black and white.”
- “watch with binoculars from woods"
- “use gun & knife to subdue”
- “ziptie hands & duck tape mouth”
- “have withdraw $4-6 million from bank”
- “kill all of them & take zipties and duck tape off”
- “burn bodies & house”
Police found the 2020 Rolls Royce SUV nearby in the woods with Gori’s blood and Banowetz’s DNA on the steering wheel.
When police tried to interview Banowetz, he said, “I don't think you need me to admit to anything, you guys already have what you need.”
“And that statement was probably the only truthful thing he has said since he finally pleaded guilty today,” Haine said.
So we know the why behind the murder – greed. But why did he plead guilty less than 24 hours after attorneys seated a jury?
Banowetz didn’t explain himself to the court. His attorneys left without commenting to reporters. All we’re left with is speculation on Haine’s part.
A few reporters caught him coming out of the courthouse to tell us he would formally address us in about an hour.
"Nothing focuses the mind like having to face a jury of your peers," he said.
At the press conference, he added: “Some people can't admit they did wrong until the last possible moment, and this was the last possible moment."
Haine said his office worked with the blessing of Gori’s family on the plea.
The only consequence Banowetz avoided by pleading guilty was the possibility of being sentenced to life without parole had the jury found him guilty.
But at 30 years old, should he get the 70-year-sentence prosecutors are seeking, I really don’t see the difference.
His plea does spare the family the anguish of reliving the crime, Haine noted.
Gori’s wife, Beth Gori, sent a statement exclusively to 5 On Your Side.
It read: “We are so grateful for the support we have been shown by our family, friends and community. Your prayers and thoughts have been so appreciated. My children can finally have some peace knowing the person who killed their father and attacked them will hopefully never leave prison…I am hoping Randy can finally be at peace.”
It seems this unexpected turn in the choreography of this trail was for the better.