PANAMA CITY — Despite his claims of assisting a friend commit suicide by strangulation with a commando handsaw, Rex Stewart Jr. has been sentenced to spend the rest of his days behind bars.
Stewart, 27, appeared in court Thursday for a sentence hearing after pleading no contest to second-degree murder and robbery. He was arrested after authorities arrived Oct. 19, 2017, to the Coconut Grove Motor Inn, 9725 Front Beach Road, to find Gerald Richard Breen Jr., 36, strangled and robbed of cash, a phone and a speaker. Stewart, of Callaway, hugged his mother after being sentenced to life plus 15 years in prison.
Several of Breen’s family members spoke during Stewart’s sentencing. They said Breen was a generous man who was willing to go out of his way to help out a stranger, and that likely led to his death. His mother, Maureen Durden, told the court that several people, including Breen’s two children, will be deprived of that kindness because of Stewart’s actions.
“These children miss him terribly, as do I,” Durden told the court. “Our lives will never be the same. There is a hole that can never be filled because that was his place.”
Breen’s family called for the maximum sentence.
Stewart declined to speak during the hearing and averted his eyes during the testimony of Breen’s family. His defense attorney, Brian Hill, argued for a 20-year sentence at the lower end of punishment guidelines.
“Death is difficult — it leaves us all with a hole in the place of a loved one,” Hill said. “What happened that night — the why will never be known.”
Bay County Sheriff’s Office Inv. Amy Burnette walked the court through the course of the investigation after finding Breen strangled to death Oct. 19 inside the motel. After finding he also had been robbed of the cash in his wallet and other personal items, officers went through surveillance video that showed a 6-foot-6-inch man with a beard leaving the room that morning about 9 a.m. Burnette said they then tracked Stewart to his mother’s home in Callaway, where he was taken into custody.
Stewart’s story evolved from claiming that Breen had thought people were following him to eventually landing on a suicide pact between the two gone wrong.
Stewart “said they had been talking about committing suicide together,” Burnette told the court. “One idea was slitting their wrists together, another was using the commando saw.”
Stewart told investigators that at one point Breen became upset when Stewart started to back out of assisting in his suicide. Stewart claimed a struggle ensued and he ended up strangling Breen with the commando saw. Stewart then decided to rob him of cash, a cellphone and a speaker, Burnette said.
Prosecutor Bob Sombathy told the court the story didn’t add up. Breen had children and had gotten Stewart a job the day before doing landscaping, which was where the murder weapon came from. What made more sense, Sombathy said, was the evidence that came out about Stewart’s past drug addiction.
“The strangulation in such a violent manner, it didn’t make a lot of sense,” Sombathy said. “Being addicted to methamphetamine for two years may explain some rage. It filled in some holes in my mind and in the family’s.”
Stewart had been charged with felony first-degree murder, because the robbery occurred at the time of a killing. He threw himself on the mercy of the court in an attempt to avoid a life sentence and pointed out his lack of a criminal history.
Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet said neither the lack of criminal history nor his drug use factored into the sentencing decision. He said the circumstances of Breen’s death and then robbery demanded a life sentence.