October 19, 2019
by Arnaud Girard…
For nearly two years Ty Tucker has claimed he’s being framed. He’s accused of stabbing Matthew Bonnett to death one night in November of 2017.
It’s a Key West story. Matt was an old eccentric who used to go around Stock Island on a unicycle and his “tree house” on Laurel Avenue was known for its live-and-let-live sort of style and….well … for frail old Paula, an alleged crack dealer, living under a blue tarp on the top deck.
Here’s the official version: On November 17, 2017 Robert “Rory” Wilson (aka “Detroit”) and Franklin Tyrone Tucker went to the top of the tree house to rob Paula Belmonte. A third man, John Travis Johnson, was waiting outside with his truck. Tyrone and Rory were wearing masks and gloves. They had a billy club and a knife. Matt surprised them. Tyrone chased him down the stairs and killed him. His accomplices ratted him out. He was arrested and while in jail he bragged of his remorseless crime to a jail-mate who reported it to Sheriff’s detective Matthew Pitcher. Pitcher and Captain Penny Phelps were investigating what became known as the “Tree House Murder.” Or at least that was the story told by prosecuting attorney Colleen Dunne. As it was, Tyrone Tucker, known as “Ty,” a 48-year-old homeless man, would soon be tried, convicted and sent to prison with a life sentence.
But then something completely unexpected happened: While he was hopelessly waiting in jail Ty’s high school crush got word that he needed help. She is Lauren Jenai the co-founder of the 4 billion dollar CrossFit empire. “I looked into the case,” says Lauren, “The reports said Ty was on surveillance video – he was not. The reports said a lot of things that ended up not being true. And when I saw there was absolutely no credible evidence against him, I became 100% sure of his innocence.” Ms. Jenai hired a dream team of lawyers including one of the top defense attorneys on the island: Cara Higgins of the Horan and Higgins law firm.
Their first casualties are prosecuting attorney Colleen Dunne and head of the Sheriff’s detective bureau, Captain Penny Phelps.
ASA Colleen Dunne
Colleen Dunne is no shrinking violet. She became an instant local hero one evening after she was attacked on the sidewalk outside the Green Parrot. The robber tackled her from behind and, as the story goes, while he had her on the ground, Ms. Dunne mule-kicked him in the face, knocked him out with her hand bag and called police. I loved that story so much I thought of painting an eight-foot picture of her in heels, a foot on the hoodlum’s chest, like a trophy picture of a bloodied buffalo at the end of a safari.
Unfortunately, my hero seems to also have a darker side. According to court papers filed by Cara Higgins, Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunn is soon to go on trial herself, as the Florida Bar Association accuses her of having withheld crucial evidence in her prosecution of ex-police officer, William Skinner. Coincidentally, Ms. Higgins is a witness against ASA Dunne in that misconduct case. Ms. Higgins also claims ASA Dunne was dishonest with Judge Jones during Tyrone Tucker’s bond hearing.
The only independent witness who helped place Ty at the tree house the night of the murder is the jailmate who said Ty bragged to him about killing Matthew Bonnett. But how credible is this witness to such a gratuitous confession?
ASA Colleen Dunne assured the Judge that the jailhouse witness was not a confidential informant and that he had no expectations. He just wanted to tell the truth about the appalling murder. And the Judge denied bail – specifically referring to the great weight of the jailhouse witness’ testimony.
However, Ms. Higgins’ investigators discovered that the jail-mate, Naeem Jackson, is in fact a known contract informant with the Sheriff’s office. By looking at inmate movement records at the jail Higgins’ investigators were able to establish that Tucker and Rory were, one after the other, purposely moved to a bunk next to Naeem Jackson.
When Higgins was able to depose Naeem Jackson he admitted having met with Sheriff’s detectives who were investigating the “Treehouse Murder” before bunking next to Tucker and receiving Tucker’s alleged confession. Jackson explained that he’d been leaving messages for Detective Pitcher while talking on the phone with his girlfriend, who would then pass them along.
At one point Jackson met for a recorded interview with Detective Bernardo Barrios. Barrios encouraged him and told him to go back and see what else he could dig up. Before parting, Barrios asked, “What’s your endgame?” Jackson answered, “Of course I want something.” He then listed what he wanted: his charges dropped, to be released and his life back. ASA Colleen Dunne was assigned to Jackson’s case. He was released two weeks later.
That certainly is a far cry from the description ASA Dunne gave to the Judge about Naeem Jackson: “an individual who has no incentive, at least no identifiable incentive, not to be credible with respect to the statement he made to the detectives.”
Tucker has been awaiting trial at the Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island since late November of 2017 and the prosecution has indicated they’re not going to be ready before 2020.
“That is a long time,” says Lauren. Through this fight for Ty’s freedom the two have fallen in love. “We applied to get married in jail,“ said Lauren but, she explained, Ms. Dunne objected to the marriage, claiming the Court was against it. “That is not correct,” said Judge Jones in open court on October 3rd, adding that he doesn’t care who gets married. (Somebody is going to make a movie out of this.) With the Judge’s green light, the marriage of the millionaire queen of CrossFit and the homeless man accused of capital murder could happen in early November and it’s sure to attract a lot of attention.
The claims of prosecutorial misconduct are now at the core of a defense motion to have the formidable Colleen Dunne removed from the case. The state attorney’s office has announced that Ms. Dunne is currently off the “Treehouse Murder” case until further notice.
Captain Penny Phelps
Captain Penny Phelps is the head of the detective bureau at the Sheriff’s Office. Her recorded interview of Rory “Detroit” Wilson just days after the murder, shows how remarkably effective she can be when dealing with bad guys. Rory at first denies any involvement. (He had us convinced.) But Captain Phelps keeps up the pressure. She knows his weak point: Rory’s wife April is nearly nine months pregnant, their son is due any day. Phelps keeps telling him he should be going home to his wife because he is “a good and decent man” who simply was double-crossed by his friend Tyrone. “Ty did it. Ty did it.” she proclaims, pounding on the desk. It’s 1:30 am. Rory finally begins to crack. Her methods seem incredibly effective. Maybe a little too effective. When looking carefully at the time stamp on the video we realized that just before Rory changes his mind and signals that he’s ready to cooperate, there’s a 3 minute lapse in the recording.
We are told that there’s a fine line that police interrogators cannot cross: They can’t make secret promises to a witness. In the recorded interview Rory is steadfast, denying everything before the mysterious cut in the recording. His last words before the gap were, “I can go home? If I just say, ‘Yes. Tyrone done it.’?” Rory’s next line, three minutes later is, “I just don’t want to go down as no snitch.” (We’ve asked the Sheriff’s Office about the missing three minutes.)
But why was Captain Phelps so sure “Ty did it”? At the time she did not have the benefit of the medical examiner’s report. But we do now. All of the stab wounds were from back to front and from left to right, consistent with a man who attacked from the back, striking with his left hand. In a video of one of Rory’s interviews he’s seen leaning forward to sign a form. He takes the pen and signs with his left hand. In a recorded interview of Ty Tucker, Ty takes the pen and signs a similar form with his right hand. Paula Belmonte, who survived the attack with a four-inch gash in her neck, was interviewed on her hospital bed. She said her attacker was “Detroit” and that he held the knife in his left hand.
So, the question is why is Captain Phelps still so determined to fit a left-handed murder onto a right-handed man? Whatever the reason, what she did next got her booted off the case.
This is what happened:
Ms. Higgins had asked for a scheduling hearing to set dates for the motion requesting disqualification of Colleen Dunne and on the Naeem Jackson issue. The Blue Paper had received permission to film the proceedings.
A court case is a little like a wedding. The audience splits on both sides, the defendant on the right, the prosecution on the left. On the defendant’s side there was just the one Blue Paper reporter with a video camera, but the prosecution side was jam-packed with Sheriff’s deputies in full uniform and with well-known undercover agents dressed to a tea in suits and ties.
But the hearing was only about scheduling Ms. Higgins’ motions. No testimony was expected. So, why were all of those deputies and other Sheriff’s Office personnel there? Many had come all the way from Marathon. Shouldn’t they have been out fighting crime? Who ordered them to be there and why? Was somebody trying to put pressure on the Judge? If that’s what it was, it didn’t seem to work. Judge Jones granted most of Ms. Higgins’ requests for various hearings.
So, we gathered photos of all of the Sheriff’s employees who were there and sent them, along with a public records request, to MCSO asking for copies of any orders issued for the dispatch of all of those resources to the hearing. We were told that Sheriff Ramsey looked at the photos and “expressed concern.” In fact, he immediately referred the matter to his internal affairs unit. So far what we know is that for an unknown reason Captain Phelps ordered at least some of those deputies to the courtroom. Captain Phelps has also been removed from the “Treehouse Murder” case.
Is Ty being framed? What is clear is that the high-powered defense of a homeless man has caught our justice system by surprise. “Well,” says Lauren Jenai, “Kicking the hornets nest of Key West’s bubba justice was long over due.”
Debating a criminal case in the media is far from ideal. But in Key West the critical point has been reached, where the people must be informed of what justice looks like for the poor, the homeless, the little people.
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