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Report: On police stop, Dontae Morris vowed to stay free

TAMPA — With two Tampa Police officers dead, amid the largest manhunt in this city's history, Dontae Morris called a friend and told her this:

"(They) think they're going to take me alive?... I'm going out with a bang. Tampa gonna remember me. I'm one step ahead of the snitches and I'm one step ahead of the police."

He succeeded for four days, and in those days, he imposed a code of silence upon those who might help the police. He commanded loyalty and fear. Those who knew him believed he wouldn't hesitate to kill.

Newly released court documents give 745 pages worth of glimpses into the investigation of the June 29 murders of officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis. They don't answer some big questions, like how Morris was captured, where he hid and who brought him to justice.

But they show police using every investigative weapon they had — search warrants, interviews, wiretaps, bugs, bloodhounds. They provide the best portrait yet of a man on the run — who he called, what he said, what people did when they heard from him, a man who moved with a gun tied to his right foot, a man they knew as Qwalo.

One friend thought that meant "God."

Another, "the devil."

• • •

For a time, he was also a ghost.

After the gunshots, documents say Morris disappeared into the dark, leaving only footprints through a 50th Street apartment complex, a ripped piece of zipper at the top of a fence and a faint scent.

Bloodhounds tracked him through a cemetery, over the railroad tracks and up to E Ellicott Avenue, where the scent stopped.

In the dirt, police saw fresh tire tracks.

It wasn't long until Morris sightings started trickling in. The evening after the shooting someone overheard a woman at a 7-Eleven say, "You really know everybody's looking for you. You need to turn yourself in."

Investigators found the tag of the woman's car and showed up at her house. She said she was only talking to a friend, telling her what she would tell Morris if she could.

The next day, somebody thought they saw Morris at the Kenneth Court Apartments. Police searched and searched, but found Morris nowhere.

The tips kept coming.

After each one, police returned to the massive command center they'd set up across from the crime scene on N 50th Street.

They kept taking calls.

• • •

Cortnee Brantley was in the driver's seat when it all happened. She heard the shots, saw the men fall, called out to the shooter, sped off as the officers bled.

After all of that, she exchanged text messages with Morris in which he seemed to be telling her to move the car. He told her he'd better shut off his phone.

But before the conversation ended, she told him, "I love you with my last breath."

"Yea," he replies, "Just lean bak stay loyal."

Brantley sent text messages to four others:

"U haven't seen me. U don't know where I'm at. Please don't tell anyone anything. Erase these messages!"

But, according to witnesses, Brantley talked.

Her ex-lover, Samuel Oglesby, told police of a conversation he said they had about what happened as soon as Morris saw the police lights behind their car:

Morris grabbed for his gun and said he wasn't going back to prison — "I ain't going back, I can't go back."

Oglesby said that when he asked Brantley why she fled, she shook her head. And when he asked whether she would turn in Morris, she said this:

"Naw, I can't do him like that. That's my man."

He said she'd spoken of her man in the past, and of the robberies they'd committed. He'd seen her with nice jewelry, heard her stories about Morris pistol-whipping victims.

According to Oglesby, Brantley said they were going to go robbing the night of the shooting.

He told detectives she said she planned to reunite with Morris.

"They was going to go off somewhere," Oglesby said.

Detectives also spoke with Janiesha Carmouche, a friend Morris stayed with after his release that April from prison, where he served a two-year sentence for cocaine charges.

Carmouche was with Brantley before the shooting. They went to a 7-Eleven, bought gas, eggs and chips, then ended up at Carmouche's apartment. Some time before 2 a.m., Brantley told her she was leaving.

The police timeline puts the shooting at 2:20 a.m.

Carmouche said Brantley soon came home.

In the morning, Brantley shook Carmouche out of sleep and told her to look outside. She saw police and heard helicopters.

"Tell them that I'm here," Carmouche remembered Brantley saying.

The police found her in the Bristol Bay apartments and tried to question her. They released her, but federal prosecutors charged her, saying she knew Morris was a felon who illegally had a loaded gun and hid it from authorities. Prosecutors said Brantley would not tell detectives who the passenger in her car was, refusing to answer the question more than 100 times.

U.S. District Judge James S. Moody dismissed the charge.

He said that what she did, in the eyes of the law, was not concealment.

• • •

Others encountered the ghost.

Christina Rivera said she watched him play cards. It was the day after the shootings, at an apartment. She said Qwalo seemed calm.

Rivera didn't know Morris was being hunted for murder.

Ashley Price, another Morris friend, told detectives he called her at 3:30 a.m., just two hours after the murders. She was in bed. He had already tried to call four times.

He said he needed a ride.

She didn't think anything of it. He often called for rides.

He was going to Jacksonville. Then he was going to leave the state.

Where was the murder weapon?

Someone's gun was stashed in the apartment of the girlfriend of Morris' brother, Dwayne Callaway.

The girlfriend said Callaway had brought a chrome revolver with black grips to her home on July 2, the day after Morris was arrested. It first was put in a clothes closet, but she moved it. She said she wrapped it in cloth and stuck it under a "big couch."

The next day, Callaway was heard telling a caller named Joseph Haines where to find the gun. He called it a "ratchet."

When the girlfriend got home, she said she found the cloth on a table.

The gun was gone.

• • •

Morris, 25, sits in solitary confinement, facing death if convicted. He is also charged with the unrelated murders of Harold Wright, Derek Anderson and Rodney Jones.

Detectives reassure witnesses that he will never breathe free air again.

But some still don't believe they're safe.

In an interview last July with one woman who knew Morris intimately, detectives asked her why she had been so reluctant to help. He had beaten her. He had used her. But when they had talked to her before about other crimes, she had kept silent.

"Do you love Qwalo?" asked Detective Mike Kirlangitis.

"No."

"This is just a curiosity thing: How come you never told us?"

"I didn't want to have nothing to do with it."

"Out of loyalty to Qwalo?"

"If I was to tell and he found out, I know he'd probably try to come for me."

Two weeks ago, jail officials cut off visits from friends. They took away Morris' phone privileges.

The reason:

"To protect the safety of witnesses."

Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde, Richard Danielson and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Report: On police stop, Dontae Morris vowed to stay free 04/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 12:58am]
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