TAMPA — Charles Waits, on trial for first-degree murder, told jurors Monday he had lied.
On June 6, 2011, the day after two South Tampa teenagers were fatally shot in the head, Waits told the lead homicide detective that he had been forced to help rob the teens at gunpoint by a man named "Rocco."
Testifying in his own trial Monday afternoon, Waits, 21, said that Rocco — a man police were never able to find — was not at the murder scene. Instead, it was Waits' friend Tavari Grant.
The revelation refuted what jurors had heard Waits say on a recording just hours earlier.
Monday morning, they listened to an audio recording of Waits' initial interview with Tampa police Detective Charles Massucci. On it, Waits describes being forced at gunpoint by "Rocco" to knock on the door of a home where 16-year-old Kiara Brito was home that night with her 13-year-old brother, Jeremi.
Waits says on the recording that he and Rocco were going to buy marijuana and, at the last minute, Rocco pulled a gun on him and it turned into a robbery.
He said Rocco forced him to knock on the door. Kiara opened it, then Rocco robbed the children. Waits said he was running away when he heard gunshots.
The children were dead.
Waits says he did not know that at the time.
When Waits described that bloody morning on the witness stand Monday afternoon, the facts were similar. But instead of pointing to "Rocco" he blamed Grant, his friend who was arrested and also charged with first-degree murder on June 9, 2011 — three days after Waits' initial interview.
Waits said he lied because Grant had threatened him.
According to Waits' testimony, Grant said, "If you try to turn me in, I'm gonna come kill you, your mom and your brothers."
Authorities have not asserted that Waits pulled the trigger. But if they prove he was committing a robbery at the Brito house at the time, jurors can find him guilty of being a principal to murder.
Grant, 21, is being held in jail without bail and has not yet faced trial.
During Waits' nearly three hours of testimony and cross-examination Monday, he repeated several times that he had never planned to rob the Brito children. He had taken Grant to the Interbay-area house only to buy marijuana — an expensive hydroponic type that he knew Kiara sold.
Waits left the house before shots were fired, he testified, because Grant told him to "go get the car." When he heard pops, he figured they were warning shots.
"I knew Tavari," Waits testified. "I didn't think he would kill two defenseless kids in the house like that."
Waits said he tried to drive away by himself but accidentally came upon Grant down Van Buren Drive after Grant exchanged gunshots with a watchful neighbor, unbeknownst to Waits at the time.
Waits testified that he slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting Grant. Then Grant hopped in the car and yelled "Go! Go! Go! They're shooting," Waits recalled.
The next day, Waits said, his head was spinning. He went to several friends' houses and planned to ask one of them what he should do about it.
He never called police.
Waits went in to talk to detectives only the next day, after officers had impounded his mother's car — a Chevrolet Impala that Waits had been driving.
The trial will continue today with closing statements.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.