St. Petersburg bar manager invokes stand-your-ground defense after patron’s death

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LARGO —The bar manager repeated the same story when a St. Petersburg police officer arrived at Hops and Props beer garden one afternoon in February.

The unconscious man on the ground had fallen backward and hit his head, Darren McFarland said, according to body camera video shown in court Friday. The man, 63-year-old Bruce Senesac, never woke up.

As McFarland recounted the story to the officer, she was receiving information from other 911 calls that McFarland had pushed Senesac, causing him to fall. McFarland later told police he had knocked Senesac’s hat off but didn’t touch him. Authorities ultimately charged McFarland with manslaughter.

Months later, in court records, McFarland presented another version of the events of Feb. 2: He did push Senesac, but it was in self-defense. Senesac “made an offensive move” by leaning in and poking McFarland’s face, according to a motion filed in August asking a judge for immunity from prosecution under Florida’s stand-your-ground law.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa denied that request during a hearing Friday, meaning the case will go to trial. McFarland could face up to 15 years in prison. The trial is set for March.

“I’m not saying you’re guilty,” Siracusa said. “I am saying I am not going to give you immunity based on the evidence I have seen.”

The judge didn’t elaborate further on his ruling, saying he didn’t want to risk giving prosecutors a leg up at trial. But the hearing shed more light on a death that occurred in broad daylight in downtown St. Petersburg, outside a bar at the foot of the popular St. Pete Pier.

Once a mild-mannered regular, Senesac, who police listed as transient, had become more belligerent on recent visits, bartender Jessica Ferris testified during the hearing. At one point, he defecated on himself, Ferris said. She asked him not to come back.

On the afternoon of Feb. 2, he returned to the bar at 335 Second Ave. NE and appeared to be impaired. Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Dr. Jon Thogmartin said that Senesac’s blood alcohol level upon admission to the hospital was 0.305, more than three times the limit at which Florida law presumes impairment.

Ferris asked McFarland to intervene, then headed to the kitchen to get away from the situation.

Senesac refused to leave, according to the motion. McFarland, who didn’t testify Friday, took a bag of Senesac’s belongings and put it outside the bar, the motion says. Senesac followed him, and the two came face to face on the walkway outside the bar. What happened next depends on who you ask.

Kyle Wooster, who was having a couple sours at Hops and Props after his shift as a cook at a nearby restaurant, said he saw McFarland “swat” Senesac with an open hand. He watched over his shoulder from inside the bar.

Kevin Twomey, a finance professional who was visiting from Massachusetts, painted a much more dramatic scene: McFarland said, “I’ll knock your ass out” three times, then punched Senesac in the face. Twomey watched from the pier about 20 to 30 feet away.

“I heard the sound of his fist hitting his face, and then of the man’s head bouncing off the concrete,” Twomey said.

Neither man said they saw Senesac advance toward McFarland. There were cameras at the bar, but the surveillance system wasn’t set up to save recordings, according to police. Doctors pronounced Senesac dead Feb. 9. Thogmartin ruled his cause of death as blunt head trauma and the manner as homicide. Senesac’s son declined to comment Monday while McFarland’s case was still pending.

St. Petersburg defense attorney Lee Pearlman relied on a grainy surveillance video from elsewhere that showed Senesac leaning toward McFarland “in what I would argue is an aggressive nature,” he said. At one point, Siracusa asked what danger McFarland felt like he was in. Pearlman said that didn’t matter. McFarland was reacting to Senesac moving toward him.

“While it’s not something you would do, I would do,” Pearlman said in his closing arguments, “it’s not outside of something that a reasonable person would do.”

Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Nash Licona, in his closing arguments, invoked McFarland’s own words. He quoted McFarland’s description of Senesac during an interview with St. Petersburg police Det. Brian Bilbrey.

“He wasn’t a threat at all,” McFarland said. “Totally harmless.”

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