by Arnaud and Naja Girard…
There’s a new ripple in the “Treehouse Murder” case. In a March 8, 2021 deposition, the lead detective claims his boss at the sheriff’s office had coached witnesses and used fabricated evidence in building a murder case against Franklin Tyrone Tucker.
On November 17, 2017 two masked men attacked 53-year-old Paula Belmonte, who lived on the roof of Matthew Bonnett’s “treehouse” on Stock Island. One of them put a knife to her throat and demanded money. Belmonte screamed at the top of her lungs. He cut a seven-inch gash in her throat.** Alerted by the screaming, Bonnett rushed upstairs. The two assailants went after him. He was stabbed multiple times from behind as he tried to run away. Belmonte survived but Bonnett was dead by the time police arrived.
According to state prosecutors Ty Tucker is the treehouse murderer: His roommate in a deserted warehouse, Rory Wilson, said he did it. A woman named April Walker saw him get rid of his bloody clothes the night of the murder and, after his arrest, he confessed to his cellmate, Naeem Jackson. Jackson said Tucker admitted to having stabbed 59-year-old Bonnett. He was so shocked by Tucker’s apparent lack of remorse that he spontaneously reported the confession to Sheriff’s deputies. Tucker is facing life in prison.
At least this has been the prosecutor’s official story.
The problem with that version of the facts is that there are two victims who did survive the assault: Paula Belmonte and Todd O’Quinn. And they both knew Ty Tucker and both insist to this day that he wasn’t there.
I must have told the detective “probably around ten times” that it was not Tucker said Paula in her September 28, 2020 deposition. Did she know what Tucker looked like? They were friends. The two had breakfast together three or four days after the incident at McDonalds.**
Around the treehouse, people have their own theory of what happened: a feud between two women had caused the death of an innocent man, old Matthew Bonnett. The women are Paula Belmonte and Anathea Clay, both believed to be informants for the Sheriff’s Office. A number of people came forward to detectives, including Paula, saying Anathea organized the heist which turned into murder.
The status of the “treehouse” itself is somewhat of a mystery. Every member of law enforcement who responded to the murder that night seemed to know that Paula Belmonte was dealing drugs in her makeshift apartment on the treehouse roof yet we found no records of drug arrests at that location for the nine month period just prior to the night of the murder.
A confirmed confidential informant told The Blue Paper that the Sheriff’s Office had been “working the treehouse.”
Some puzzling details have emerged: A marked $100 bill was found flopping around at the scene that night. An officer is heard saying, “Oh, it’s mine. You check the serial numbers. If it ends in 27 – it’s mine. 27 A – something like that.” The number ended with 72 A.
On a recording of an open mic at the detective’s bureau Captain Penny Phelps is heard warning the other detectives: “I hope Todd [O’Quinn] can ID him otherwise Jesus Christ we are all in trouble.” “Him” was Ty Tucker. Phelps does not elaborate further on what kind of “trouble” was lurking over “all” of them.
Matthew Pitcher, the lead detective in the case, was recently deposed by Tucker’s attorney, Cara Higgins. Higgins asked questions about the controlled-buy-gone-bad theory and why there was a sheriff’s cruiser parked across the street around the time of the murder. Detective Pitcher denied knowing anything about a drug operation that night.
However some of Pitcher’s responses do raise questions as to the integrity of the investigation and whether an innocent man, living at the KOTS homeless shelter at the time of his arrest, was somehow turned into the “treehouse murderer.”
The Fantasy Fest Photo
Cara Higgins: “And did she show you a picture of Ty Tucker in make-up holding a toy knife?”
Detective Pitcher: Yes
Q She pulled it off his Facebook page, yes?
Q And it was a recent picture from Fantasy Fest, right?
Q Fantasy Fest in the Keys is at the end of October?
Q What did the picture show?
A Just his face and him holding a knife.
Q A fake knife?
Q A plastic knife?
A As far as I could tell, yes.
Q And he had makeup on his face, right?
Q It wasn’t a mask?
Q So Danielle Malone and Penny Phelps make a big to-do over his Facebook post don’t they?
A I can’t recall if it was a big-to-do but definitely they were excited about it.
Q They were excited because he wore a costume on Halloween, right?
Q Okay. So based on that information they determine that he is a suspect, right?
A I believe that played into it, yes.
Q Played into what? You didn’t have anything else?
Q Are you okay with that? Are you okay with them developing him as a suspect because of a picture on a Facebook page from Halloween?
A I would not say suspect. A person of interest because of the fact he had also been walking with Rory the next day. (Note: Rory Wilson is a co-defendant who was recognized by Paula Belmonte and Todd O’Quinn as one of the aggressors. Tucker was seen with Rory two days after the murder at Metro PCS paying his phone bill.)
Q Are you aware that Danielle Malone testified under oath that she had not seen that picture nor showed it to anyone? She wasn’t made aware of it until months after Ty was arrested?
A I did not know that.
Q Because that is a lie, isn’t it?
A She showed me a picture.
During the deposition Detective Pitcher revealed that before finding the infamous Facebook photo the investigators had no evidence against Tucker.
Cara Higgins: Okay. At that point when you are executing a search warrant the only information that you have about Ty Tucker is that he walked to the store with Rory Wilson to pay his own cell phone bill and that he dressed up on Halloween?
A That is correct.
Q And again, you had no evidence, right?
Q So he was guilty by association?
A He was, he became a person of interest or suspect because of the association.
Q Do you think Penny Phelps acted properly throughout this investigation?
A No. Obviously she was released for one thing.
Detective Pitcher said it’s for a jury to decide whether Tucker was involved and whether he is the murderer, but Pitcher also claims that Captain Phelps coached and directed most of the testimony for the prosecution.
Robert (“Rory”) Wilson’s Testimony
It didn’t matter to Paula Belmonte that her attacker wore a mask. Through his body language and the sound of his voice she recognized him instantly: Rory, Rory Wilson, a black man also known as “Detroit.” She reported it to detectives that very night.
Captain Phelps however was pursuing a different angle. In a recorded interview Captain Phelps tells Rory Wilson that she believes he is a good decent man and a victim of the murderer, Ty Tucker.
Phelps: So you didn’t do it and I know you didn’t do it but I know Ty did and I also know this, Rory, you were there and there’s that two sides to the piece of paper and you get this one chance to tell us your side of the story. Rory – one chance. We’re all you got right now. Rory you didn’t kill anybody. I absolutely believe you. You didn’t but you were there when somebody died and it was an accident.
Rory: No — You gotta take that with Ty, I’m telling you I can’t just tell you – make up nothing —
Rory: I guess. Alright. OK. Just like me. I just say, ‘He done it’. I get to go home if I just say, ‘Yes. Tyrone done it’?
At that point the recording stops (or the tape was later edited). Nobody seems to be able to answer why there are 3 minutes missing in the recording. Did Captain Phelps make some promises to secure Rory Wilson’s testimony against Tucker? When the recording resumed, Rory had a change of heart. He will now endorse the “Tyrone did it” version, he just doesn’t want to be known as a snitch.
Cara Higgins asked Detective Pitcher what happened to the missing three minutes.
Q What happened during those missing seconds, minutes?
A That I don’t recall or I don’t know I should say.
Q Did you ever look for it?
A I believe that IT was asked to see if they could come
up with it.
Q Did they find it?
Q Okay. Prior to Captain Phelps coming into the room did Rory Wilson make any incriminating statements about Ty Tucker?
Q No. So Captain Phelps comes in and she tells him what to say too, doesn’t she ?
A She gives him a path to go down, right.
Q And she tells him what to say, right?
Q Were you concerned that she was feeding Rory Wilson a story?
A Yes, I did not care for the interview.
April Walker’s Testimony
April Walker told Captain Phelps that on the night of the murder she saw Tucker getting rid of some clothes.
At the time April Walker was pregnant with Rory Wilson’s son. Rory confessed to being at the treehouse but at her deposition Walker said Rory was home with her the entire night watching TV and making spaghetti. She also said Rory was nonviolent. That was not true either, police had previously responded to a domestic violence complaint against Rory at their place at the warehouse.
Again, Detective Pitcher appears uneasy with Captain Phelps’ interview of the witness.
Q I am asking you based on your observations watching the video of Captain Phelps confronting April Walker. Was Captain Phelps asking her questions or was Captain Phelps telling her what to say?
A In my opinion telling her what to say.
Q I am asking for your opinion if you are alarmed by that as the lead detective in this case. Are you personally alarmed by that behavior?
A Yes. It was very concerning.
Q April Walker hates Ty Tucker.
Q Penny Phelps was telling her what to say the second that she met her, correct?
A Yes. She was coaching her.
Q Do you believe that Penny Phelps manufactured evidence in this case?
A Yes, I believe she led some of the witnesses down a road.
John Travis Johnson’s Testimony
Travis Johnson is in competition with Ty Tucker for the “other guy” part; the other masked man who was with Rory Wilson during the treehouse invasion and presumed to be white.
Captain Phelps interviews Travis Johnson like she did Rory Wilson, giving him the story she wants to hear before Travis even opens his mouth.
Captain Phelps began by apologizing to Travis because she was “very very upset.” She claimed she had just learned that Tucker, the murderer, had threatened to kill April Walker and her baby. (Tucker denies making any threats.)
She then proceeds to tell Travis that he is a good man caught in a bad situation. All he did was drive Rory and Ty to the treehouse and then he left. “You’re gone. You don’t know what they did in the treehouse.” Finally she asks Travis: so, tell us what happened. And Travis responded: “You just told – you just said it.”
The problem with this version of the extent of Travis’ involvement is that a few weeks later Paula’s black backpack, which was stolen during the attack, would be found in the house in Big Pine where Travis was living when he was arrested 5 days after the murder. The bag had been shoved inside an air conditioning duct.
Naeem Jackson, the Cellmate’s Testimony
The alleged confession of Ty Tucker to his cellmate, Naeem Jackson, happened at a critical moment. At that time all the victims had denied that Tucker was involved and the coroner’s report had come back leading to the conclusion that the murderer was likely left-handed. Rory is seen in the Phelps interview signing a document with his left hand while Tucker is later seen signing with his right hand.
That is when Pitcher received a providential report. Tucker’s cellmate came forward claiming that Tucker had confessed to murdering old Matthew Bonnet and having deliberately struck with his left arm in order to frame “lefty” Rory Wilson.
At Tucker’s bond hearing, Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne used Jackson’s testimony to convince Judge Jones to keep Tucker in jail without bond. Jackson, Dunne said, was a man who had nothing to gain, “He had no incentive, at least no identifiable incentive, not to be a credible witness.”
Detective Pitcher told Judge Jones: “Mr. Jackson told me he wanted to talk to me because it very badly upset him the way Mr. Tucker talked about the murder, that he had zero remorse, feeling, or guilt; that it was just part of business.”
It worked. The judge denied bond.
Since then, however, the defense team investigated the movements of inmates in the county jail. They found that Pitcher and Phelps had had Naeem Jackson moved next to Rory Wilson and that he was then made to bunk next to Tucker. They also discovered that Jackson had been a professional confidential informant since 2011 and that, contrary to what had been told to the judge, Jackson was under contract as a CI with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office at the time he allegedly received Tucker’s confession.
In a recorded interview at the jail, Detective Barrios asked Jackson: “What’s your endgame here? Jackson responds: “Of course I want something (…) I want the charges dropped so I can go back home on probation.”
Jackson was released after his case was reassigned to Colleen Dunne.
Where the Case is Now
Since then, Phelps has been fired for ordering a subordinate to act like a “white supremacist” when questioning black suspect Rory Wilson.
FDLE’s DNA testing shows that Rory’s, Paula’s and Bonnett’s DNA are on the knife believed to be the murder weapon and on a mask found near the treehouse and that Ty Tucker’s DNA has not been found on any evidence linked to the case. In a text to Phelps, Dunne called the lab results “the crappy FDLE report.”
Dunne was reprimanded for prosecutorial misconduct in another capital case. She was removed from the treehouse case and resigned from the State Attorney’s office just prior to being barred from practicing law for one year by the Florida Supreme Court in January of 2020.
Judge Jones released Tucker on 2 million dollars bond nearly two years after his arrest, in November of 2019. He’s now under house arrest.
SEE RELATED: Treehouse Murder Gets National Attention
The public got a crack at discovering what criminal justice looks like for ordinary people caught in its gears. None of the prosecution’s disturbing methods would have come to light if Tucker, the homeless man arrested at KOTS, had not miraculously been given a dream team of defense attorneys and investigators. (Note: Tucker was rescued by his high-school sweetheart Lauren Jenai, the co-founder of the CrossFit franchise.)
** Correction: This article has been updated. It previously stated that the victim, Paula Belmonte, had suffered a 2-inch gash and that she had met Franklin Tyrone Tucker for breakfast at Burger King the next morning. Ms. Belmonte actually suffered a 7-inch cut and, according to Ms. Belmonte’s deposition, she met Mr. Tucker 3 or 4 days after the incident at McDonalds.
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