Derek Pieper was trying to duck the crossfire in the local drug war.
He was 17, a student at Wesley Chapel High School who had started dabbling in drugs and developed a habit that made his friends worry.
In exchange for a dime-bag of marijuana, Pieper would give rides and other assistance to his suppliers, shadowy men who also sold cocaine and ecstasy and answered the door with guns drawn.
They were paranoid and territorial, and Pieper was growing more afraid of them as the summer of 2006 wore on. His friend, Thomas Mitchell, later told authorities about a couple of threatening incidents.
In mid July that year, he said, a guy named Luc Pierre-Charles, whom Pieper knew from school and had purchased marijuana from, demanded Pieper tell him the whereabouts of two other drug dealers.
But Pieper was hesitant to snitch.
Not long after that, Mitchell said, Pierre-Charles confronted him and Pieper outside a Walgreens store. He wanted to know if they had told the other dealers that Pierre-Charles was looking for them.
Pieper and Mitchell denied it.
"And then he said, 'Don't worry, Derek, I know where you live,' " Mitchell recounted later. "Those were his exact words. And he had this face, like this mean, evil look to his face, like, 'Don't worry, I know where you live.' That's what he said exactly."
A week later, Pieper and his friend Raymond Veluz were found dead, shot in the back on a dusty road in Trilby.
For two years, the case sat cold. Witnesses were afraid to come forward with what they knew. But information slowly leaked out, and last year detectives gleaned enough to name their suspects.
Pierre-Charles was on the U.S. Marshals' most-wanted list for six weeks last fall until authorities tracked him down in October. They found him hiding under some dirty clothes in a relative's house in Brevard County. In the Wesley Chapel High yearbook, his photo appeared next to Pieper's.
He's 21 now, charged with two counts of first-degree murder. His trial begins this week in Dade City. He faces a possible death sentence if convicted.
According to witnesses' and prosecutors' accounts, Pieper and Veluz left a party in Wesley Chapel late on July 27, 2006. Veluz wanted some marijuana. Pieper said he'd help him get it.
Pieper called Andre Pierre-Charles, Luc's brother, and agreed to meet him at the Pasco Woods apartment complex near State Road 54. Once there, witnesses later told detectives, Pieper and Veluz, Luc Pierre-Charles and a man named Tyree Jenkins piled into a car and left.
About an hour later, Andre's cell phone rang. He answered and put it on speakerphone. Angel Brooks, the girlfriend of another man in the group, overheard the call and told authorities later that it was Luc on the other end of the line. She could hear Pieper and Veluz in the background.
"Luc said that we had the boys or whatever," Brooks said, "and he was telling them to pray."
• • •
Brooks' boyfriend then was a man named Jeremy Hanson Henry. He was from Dade City and his first arrest came at age 11. At 19, he was charged with shooting a man five times outside a Trilacoochee nightclub, but a jury acquitted him of the charge.
Sheriff's officials called him a gang leader, a label disputed by people who knew him. But by all accounts, Henry was a man whose orders were usually followed.
He was known to deal drugs with the Pierre-Charles brothers, according to numerous witness accounts and court documents, and had been with them the night of the shooting.
Not long after Pieper and Veluz were found dead, the Sheriff's Office called Henry a "person of interest" in the killings and asked for the public's help in finding him.
The same week, a man who identified himself as Henry called the Tampa Tribune to proclaim his innocence in the homicides.
"I just want to let you guys know I had nothing to do with it. I do know a little about it," the Tribune quoted him as saying.
What he knew ended up getting him killed. He was found dead a week later, shot in the back on Chesterfield Road in Dade City.
Commie Pattmon, a 26-year-old from Tampa, is the man accused of shooting him.
He's also poised to be the state's star witness in Luc Pierre-Charles' trial.
He told authorities that he saw Pierre-Charles give Henry two guns to dispose of shortly after the teens were killed.
Handing them over, Pierre-Charles said those were the guns that would "get them a life sentence," according to Pattmon's statement.
And soon, Pattmon said, Pierre-Charles offered him $2,500 to "get rid of" Henry. He was furious that Henry had talked to the press and feared he was about to tell his story to the police.
Pattmon, who has admitted to murdering Henry, said he ended up getting paid $1,000 cash, a gold necklace and 14 grams of crack cocaine.
And there lies the thread connecting all the violence:
"This whole case," said Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia, "is based on a drug war."
• • •
Raymond Veluz and Derek Pieper, you might say, became casualties in that war.
Pieper was trying to escape when the bullets snared him. Mitchell, his friend, said he and Pieper had stopped smoking pot and started working out that summer. They were going to church.
"We tried everything to change the way we were," Mitchell said.
But Pieper was haunted by the fate that eventually befell him. In the weeks before he died, he told his friends and family he was scared and couldn't sleep. He told a detective he was being harassed by the people he was trying leave behind.
He even found and saved a bullet from one of their guns.
"If I die," Pieper told his mother, "this is going to be the bullet that kills me."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.