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Dontae Morris, suspected of killing two Tampa officers, lived a thug life

A photo of Morris is part of the file from his 2005 arrest in a shooting. He was acquitted.

Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office

A photo of Morris is part of the file from his 2005 arrest in a shooting. He was acquitted.

TAMPA — Dontae Morris rode his bike through the projects of east Tampa, Filas on his feet, crack in his pocket, money on his mind.

He hung out under the stairs at Jefferson and Kenneth Court, gray concrete-block buildings near his grandmother's house, where rent is $400 a month and the signs say no trespassing, loitering, gambling or alcohol.

He drank Seagram's gin from the bottle, smoked weed with his boys, and when police stopped him to ask for ID, they got his Florida inmate release card.

He cut a few rap tracks in a group called Gangreen. He bounced shirtless on the hood of a car in a music video. He rapped about the drug game and dead friends and not snitching.

Treat my gun like a pit bull, shake 'em baby.

But folks who live around the neighborhood say they never really knew the skinny guy with six siblings. He was a shadow under the streetlights, there but not really.

The details of Morris' life sit in evidence inventories, court testimony and jailhouse records.

"The only thing I can tell you about Dontae Morris," said Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, "is that he's a cold-blooded killer."

"I don't think he's a cold-blooded killer," said Devon White, 26, who has lived at Kenneth Court for two years. "I've seen him before. He never was a threat to nobody."

Many have seen him. Few knew him. It was hard to find people who spoke well of him.

Tamara Smith, 65, was riding her bicycle a few years ago when she hit a pothole, crashed and broke her ankle. Morris stopped his car, picked her up and drove her to the hospital. "He has always shown the utmost respect to me,'' she said.

Morris' parents won't talk to reporters, but their pastor, the Rev. John D. Anderson of New Testament Missionary Baptist Church in Thonotosassa, said they're shocked. "They never expected anything like this to happen."

Friday morning, Morris' mother, Selecia, had all seven of her children listed on her Facebook page. By the afternoon, she had removed Dontae Morris and left the remaining six. By evening, she had removed them all and replaced them with the words "PSALM 27."

Though an army besiege me,

my heart will not fear

Morris' childhood is missing. He doesn't show up in Department of Children and Families records. He repeated 10th grade at King High and dropped out in the 11th. He played wideout for the football team, briefly. One coach doesn't remember him at all. Another does, vaguely. "Just a kid going to high school, playing football."

If he left impressions, it was with bullets.

Police call him a suspect in four slayings. A man named Derek Anderson in May. A man named Harold Wright in June. Two police officers on Tuesday.

He was a suspect in another shooting in October 2005, in a case that fell apart in court. But the testimony of his friends paints the picture of a low-level punk with nothing to lose.

His friend Maurice Dyal told police and attorneys that Morris approached him at Kenneth Court.

"He asked me, did I want to go hit a lick," Dyal said.

"What's that?" an attorney asked.

"A robbery."

A few hours later, a man named James Wright had 100 shotgun blast pellets in his chest and shoulder. Police stopped Dyal's car. Morris was sitting on a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun. In his booking photo, he had heavy, bloodshot eyes.

Morris was acquitted. Five years later, Wright's scars still show. He lost his job and ran up $150,000 in medical bills, he wrote to a judge at the time.

"I lost everything," the 50-year-old said recently. "You don't know how bad that messed up my life. I wanted to see that guy behind bars five years ago."

Morris did spend time in prison, but for drug charges — three years between 2004 and 2008. Just three people visited him on his latest stint, from March 2008 to this April. His brother Dwayne Callaway Jr. visited Mayo Correctional Institution in the Big Bend region three times. His sister Audra Callaway visited once.

Cortnee Brantley, who drove the car when Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were shot and killed, visited four times. She signed in as a "personal friend."

On a March 2009 visit, the two were ordered to keep their hands above the table.

"Inmate Morris, Dontae, and visitor Cortnee Brantley was sitting side by side with inmate Morris' hand on her leg with her skirt pulled up," according to a prison report. "Inmate Morris and Ms. Brantley was advised for the second time of unauthorized physical contact. Was advised to sit across the table from each other for the remainder of their visit."

He was disciplined 10 times during that prison term, records show, mostly for petty stuff like disobeying officers. During a March inmate search, an officer found Morris with stolen property. Morris had hidden two books from the prison library.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947-1969, by Edmund Wilson, and The Art of Happiness, by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Times staff writers Justin George, Nandini Jayakrishna and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.

Dontae Morris, suspected of killing two Tampa officers, lived a thug life 07/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 3:30pm]

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