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Latest case wasn't first claim of teen rape by 'Poppa Love'

TAMPA — A teenage girl went to police in 2005, saying her father raped her repeatedly for two years, paid cash for her silence and for good measure, showed her a gun.

Prosecutors lacked enough evidence to pursue charges.

A year later, that same man raped a 12-year-old niece and slipped her $20.

He was John Jerome Speights Jr., a 45-year-old with more than 30 children and paternity claims from more than a dozen women. He calls himself Poppa Love.

Thursday, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe will decide how to punish Speights, convicted of fathering the niece's baby. It will be his first punishment but not the first such pregnancy.

"The detectives, they know about this guy," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "They know Poppa Love. They knew of him years ago."

He leaves women with babies and tattoos. His ex-wife's thigh "belongs to P. Love." Daughters are inked "Daddy's Girl."

Over the years, he has had access to many young girls, including his own daughters and other relatives.

There was only talk until a young girl got pregnant.

• • •

How Speights became Poppa Love is unclear.

His own father, who spoke only briefly, said the two have never been close. Speights' parents broke up when he was 4. He has seven siblings. His mother did not respond to messages.

Speights agreed to a jailhouse interview with the Times this week then backed out when a reporter arrived.

Paternity cases going back to the 1980s call him Poppa Love and detail chapters of his sex life. He met a woman at a bar and had sex at her apartment. He met another through a friend and had sex at his mother's house. He met a third in a park and had sex at a hotel — "and when he got a place," the woman wrote in her petition, "just about every day."

He flexed muscles, drove a Cadillac and flashed teeth of gold.

He has been married three times. He was charged as a bigamist in a 2006 file that names his current wife, Tashia, and his ex-wife Towanda. The charge was dropped. Court documents do not say why.

Files also give a glimpse into his current marriage. Six months into it, Tashia filed for a domestic violence injunction.

"He kicked me in my back and head and he threw a half gallon jug of water at me," she wrote.

He told her she went to the bathroom too much at a football game, that she must have had her eye on somebody, that she was up to no good.

• • •

His daughter was 14 when it started. At a family reunion in northern Florida, she told police, she ended up alone with him in a motel room.

He asked if she was a virgin, she told police. He said he was going to give her a test. Then he had intercourse with her, while telling her, "I am not having sex with you," she said.

It happened more than once, she reported. On a porch, in motels, in his car, near a graveyard. In the front yard of her aunt's home. In his house, after he locked the other kids out.

The daughter said he told her to think of him as her boyfriend. That he would whip her brothers if she didn't have sex with him. That if she told, he'd shoot himself, she said, or drive them both off the road.

More than a year passed. Her grades slipped. She wanted to hurt herself. Her mother asked what was wrong. She started to cry.

Speights denied the allegation. When police came, he fled.

They spoke to his wife. She said neither of them was employed and that she collected disability checks for the kids.

"Eight children live with them," the detective wrote. "She said that she doesn't know their ages because there are too many of them to keep straight."

The daughter reported seeing young girls taken out of the bedroom late at night, but none of them alleged abuse.

Speights skipped his interview with police. His wife told them his attorney had advised him against talking.

The following day, a detective presented the case to the State Attorney's Office and was told there was insufficient evidence. The case was closed but could be reopened with more proof.

"If he was stopped here, then my baby would've still been a child," his niece's mother says.

Three years later, police came asking about the niece who had his baby.

Court files suggest that wasn't the first baby he fathered with a teen. In 2004, he filed a child support case in one such case. He was 30 when their son was born. She would have been 15. She could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

When she failed to pay, the Hillsborough court held her in contempt and Gulfport police threw her in jail.

• • •

The niece's body was changing. Her family took her to a clinic and learned she was six months pregnant. She said she lost her virginity to "Uncle Pop." That's what she called Speights.

He had taken her out of the bedroom in the middle of the night, raped her on the living room floor and didn't stop when she said it hurt. Then, he slipped money under the bathroom door. He continued for a year, and once touched her as his 6-year-old son slept beside them.

Again, Speights denied it all. He tried to blame the pregnancy on his sons. The boys were tested, but the only DNA match came back to their father.

Twice it took a manhunt to find him. The first time, he bailed out of jail.

On the morning of his April trial, he showed up with an entourage of his kids. They had written the judge letters proclaiming his innocence. Speights didn't stay for his trial. He turned to his family, and with a flick of his hand, led an exodus.

He later vanished. The niece still took the stand, and a jury convicted him in his absence. For two weeks, the U.S. marshals fugitive task force searched, posting his mug on America's Most Wanted and CrimeStoppers' websites.

His niece saw him in her sleep.

Finally, detectives found him in a Golden Corral parking lot in Tampa. They said the man whose trail of women and children stretched to Virginia had been hiding in the woods alone.

He clutched a small sweatshirt. One detective imagined he used it to keep warm at night.

The next day, Speights appeared on a court television feed streamed in from jail. He wore orange. A judge mispronounced his name.

Speights stood in silence as he listened to all his charges — two counts of sexual battery by a custodial figure, incest, lewd or lascivious molestation and child abuse by impregnation.

No chance of bail. At sentencing Thursday, he could face up to 80 years in prison.

"We won't be seeing this guy for a long time," Circuit Judge Walter Heinrich said.

"You're excused."

And Speights took his seat amid a sea of men.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Latest case wasn't first claim of teen rape by 'Poppa Love' 05/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 12:09am]

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