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St. Petersburg woman kick-started investigation into son's murder

ST. PETERSBURG

The nurse gave Lisa Wheeler-Brown something to empty her stomach. The St. Petersburg mother already felt like she had been gutted. Days earlier, she had learned her firstborn was dead, murdered along with another man in a mysterious incident at a Lealman building that housed an auto repair shop and recording studio. Detectives had no suspects. Wheeler-Brown tried to purge the pain with vodka. On the seventh day of her binge, she ended up in a hospital bed, an IV in her arm. Wheeler-Brown closed her eyes, saw her son's face and made a promise. To him. To herself. To the community. And to the killers.

"They took my son's life, but they didn't know his momma," the 44-year-old said recently. "And if they knew how close I was to Brady, they would have known: I would not stop."

• • •

On Tuesday, one of the men police say murdered Cabretti "Brady" Wheeler, 21, and his friend, Kyle Lynn Ellis, 24, in September 2008 will go to trial in Pinellas County.

Jerry Jones, 23, was charged last year with double homicide and the attempted murder of a third man who survived. That man, who has never been identified publicly by authorities, is expected to testify at trial. Authorities said he picked Jones out of a lineup.

Authorities don't believe Jones acted alone and detectives continue to seek accomplices.

When Pinellas deputies were called to the building at 8191 46th Ave. N, Wheeler and Ellis were already dead inside.

The man who survived told police he lived in an apartment above the business and heard gunshots about 2 a.m. When he went downstairs, he was shot five times.

He ran outside, hid in a retention pond and watched as a gold Oldsmobile was driven away. Jones owned a gold Oldsmobile at the time of the killings, authorities said.

For Lisa Wheeler-Brown, the trial is more than just a chance to get justice for her son.

It's the culmination of years of work by a woman who has since become a well-known community activist and a vocal critic of what law enforcement calls the "no-snitching" culture.

She is a mother who, when she felt like police weren't doing enough in their investigation, went to the streets herself for answers — and got them.

• • •

Wheeler-Brown had always been strict with her two sons. She had Cabretti at 18, and his brother Chris three years later.

Wheeler-Brown feared what would happen if her black boys became black men who ended up in jail or in a gang. She raised them with discipline she learned during her Army career.

Cabretti was still living with her in September 2008. The 21-year-old worked as a pool tech. He and his girlfriend had a 1-year-old son and another on the way. On the weekends, he liked to hang out with Ellis. Both liked rap music.

"He was responsible," his mother said. "He worked hard."

Wheeler-Brown had a rule for her kids: Call if you weren't going to be home at night and check in with mom by 11 a.m. the next day.

Cabretti Wheeler followed that rule — until Sept. 6, 2008.

That morning, Wheeler-Brown was waiting for her son to return home when his stepbrother showed up with the news.

• • •

Two days later, detectives from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office came to her home to update her on the investigation.

It wasn't much.

But Wheeler-Brown knew the answers were out there.

"The streets always know who did it," she said. "People talk in the streets."

Soon enough, people approached her at church, in the grocery store, at the gas station. They dropped nicknames of possible suspects. They passed on rumors.

But both Wheeler-Brown and investigators struggled to get people to come forward. No one wanted to be called a snitch.

After about a year, Wheeler-Brown felt like authorities were treating the case like a cold one.

In reality, they were.

In a deposition this year, Detective Todd Greene said the murder case had been "suspended" when he got it in 2010, the same year the case was featured on a billboard after Wheeler-Brown pressed authorities for answers.

But Greene said Wheeler-Brown's work and tips helped kick-start the case.

In depositions, Greene said she "took it upon herself to go start an investigation talking to people in the community."

The two began talking weekly. Wheeler-Brown gathered tips from the community and passed them to Greene. One was about a heavy-set man with a scar on his head. That also matched the survivor's description of the shooter.

• • •

Wheeler-Brown cut back her schedule as a private nurse aide and devoted her life to finding out who killed her son.

But she was angry. With the murderers, and with those who would not talk.

"I don't understand the mentality," she said. "If death comes knocking on your door, and takes one of your kids, you're going to want someone to talk."

Wheeler-Brown created a foundation in her son's name. She organized marches against crime and fundraisers for victims' families.

The St. Petersburg Police Department called on her to help unveil a new gun bounty program a short time after the April 2009 murder of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton stunned the city.

"She does a good job of being out front on some of those issues," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon. "I wish there were more people like her."

When a St. Petersburg woman was caught in the crossfire of a Sunday morning shootout at a busy intersection last month, Wheeler-Brown stood on a corner with signs and shouted "Enough is enough!"

A couple weeks later, she was in front of a class at her son's old school. She pleaded with the Boca Ciega High School students not to get trapped by fears of being labeled a snitch.

"She's an advocate for doing the right thing," Harmon said. "We don't solve crime without the community's help."

• • •

Wheeler-Brown is expected to take the stand this week. Prosecutors have told her she needs to bring her "A-game."

Her son's oldest, Cabretti Jr., is 5. He has been crying at school lately, asking for his dad. He told a teacher he wanted to die so he can go to heaven, too. Cabria, 3, was born a few months after her father was killed. The little girl knows his face through the T-shirts her grandmother still wears two or three times a week.

Wheeler-Brown, who is now studying to be a paralegal, said she will continue to wear the shirts and to gather tidbits from the streets — because there are other killers still out there.

"You know how people talk about getting closure? To me, there's no closure," Wheeler-Brown said. "You just learn to live and accept."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

St. Petersburg woman kick-started investigation into son's murder 11/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 11:29pm]
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