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Zieler sentenced to death in Cornell-Story homicides

By CJ HADDAD - | Jun 26, 2023

Joseph Adam Zieler

Joseph Zieler has been sentenced to death in a decades-old Cape Coral double homicide case.

A jury found Zieler, 61, guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of 11-year-old Robin Cornell and 32-year-old Lisa Story on May 18, 33 years after the child and her babysitter were found suffocated in their townhome in May of 1990.

After thanking law enforcement and State Attorney Amira Fox outside the courthouse Monday, Robin’s mother, Jan Cornell, said, “Nothing can take the place of hearing the words today that justice for Robin and justice for Lisa has happened. He has received the ultimate punishment that the state of Florida can give. He will never see a free moment. He will never hurt another individual on this earth. For that, I could not be more grateful.”

Randy Richards, who was Story’s fiancé at the time of her murder, thanked all involved in the case for their hard work over the course of three decades.

“It was a long, hard road. Words can’t express the gratitude that I feel,” Richards said Monday. “I hope Lisa and Robin are having a little bit more of a smile on their face today.”

Cornell turned to the personnel surrounding her, those responsible for prosecuting the case, and said, “Thank you for always giving me respect, and letting me be a voice for my daughter and my friend. I love them both, and I never, ever want anyone to forget either one of them. They were here, they lived, some evil monster cut their lives so short, so unfair. But now they have peace, and now we can let them have peace.”

The Cape Coral case was considered cold for some time until 2016, when new DNA evidence led to Ziegler’s arrest by the Cape Coral Police Department.

Cape Coral Police Chief, Anthony Sizemore, on Monday said, “I am so grateful that this day has come for Jan, and for Randy, and that justice is here for Robin and Lisa.

“I just want to acknowledge the work done by nearly a dozen detectives, forensics personnel, throughout a generation of law enforcement. It consumed their career, it consumed a good part of their personal life, and even into their retirement life. It’s just a tremendous day for justice.”

According to the Office of the State Attorney Twentieth Judicial Circuit, the state presented four aggravating factors during the penalty phase. The jury determined that all four of those factors were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, including that the murders were cold, calculated and premeditated, and that they were committed in a heinous, atrocious, and cruel manner.

“As your state attorney, I can tell you that no length of time will stop justice from being served here in Southwest Florida as we have seen today,” said State Attorney Amira Fox on Monday. The actions of this despicable defendant were cold, calculated, premeditated, and heinous, atrocious, and cruel – the aggravating factors we argued. The death penalty is the correct sentence for this monster all day long. The right sentence for these horrendous, unthinkable and unspeakable crimes.”

During the hearing, Zieler called over his attorney, Kevin Shirley, to speak with him, and as Shirley leaned in, Zieler swung upwards with his elbow while his hands were behind his back into Shirley’s face, and was then brought to the ground by police. The incident caused a pause in the hearing while Zieler was restrained further.

“For that despicable monster, who if anyone had any doubt, showed us himself and his true nature of violence and evil today earlier in the courtroom,” Fox said.

In September of 2016, Cape Coral police announced that Zieler had been arrested and charged in the murders and rapes of Cornell and Story at their residence at 631 S.E. 12th Ave.

The bodies of Robin and Story were found in their Courtyards apartment on May 10, 1990 by Robin’s mother, Jan Cornell. Both of the victims had been suffocated and sexually assaulted, police reported.

The night before, Cornell’s new roommate, Story, had agreed to watch Robin while she visited her boyfriend. When Cornell returned home the next morning, she heard footsteps inside the apartment.

Upon entering, Cornell found an ironing board open with pictures of her daughter laid out.

According to police, Cornell ran upstairs and discovered Story’s lifeless body in her bed. Cornell then ran to Robin’s room, where she found her daughter’s body lying on the floor of the bedroom.

Detectives were able to collect and save a sample of DNA from the crime scene.

According to records, Zieler was arrested in Lee County two months after the murders for battery and battery on a law enforcement officer or firefighter, but the charges were dropped. He was found guilty of carrying a concealed firearm, dealing in trafficking stolen property and resisting an officer with violence.

Zieler’s only arrest after that was for possession of marijuana; no charges were filed.

On Aug. 27 of 2016, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office responded to Lee Memorial Hospital for a shooting victim, identified as Zachary Zieler, 25. He had sustained a gunshot or a pellet gun wound.

An investigation revealed that Zachary Zieler and his father, Joseph Zieler, became engaged in a physical altercation and the elder Zieler armed himself with a pellet gun. At one point, he aimed it at his son and fired the weapon. Zachary’s girlfriend drove him to the hospital when he said he was not able to breathe.

Joseph Zieler was arrested and charged with aggravated battery using a deadly weapon.

Then-police chief David Newlan reported in 2016 that Cape detectives were notified of a recent arrestee in the Lee County Jail who matched the DNA sample recovered from the Robin Cornell and Lisa Story crime scene. Joseph Zieler was interviewed and a sample was taken. Within days, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed the matches.

CCPD officials reported that under a 2009 law, anyone in Florida arrested for a felony will have their DNA taken and compared to CODIS. Zieler’s DNA matched up to the 1990 sample in the database.

Over the years, the crime was featured three times on “America’s Most Wanted.”