LARGO — The way Stephen C. Harper told the story, the men loading rounds into assault rifles didn't bother to discuss their plan for going after the guy they knew as Monster. They didn't really have one. They just wanted to get him before he got them.
"It was just like a thing that went and got done," Harper, 20, told St. Petersburg police later. "Like a thing but, like, defense. Self-defense."
They piled into a red Ford, he said, and 30 minutes later shot up a house at 771 Preston Ave. S. Inside the house was no Monster. Inside was an 8-year-old girl named Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, whose shooting death two years ago sparked so much outrage in St. Petersburg that the street was renamed Paris Avenue in her memory.
Harper's statements to police — not previously revealed publicly — were the center of a legal dispute Monday. Attorneys for the two men Harper named as the ones who fired the assault weapons — Duong Dai Nguyen, 21, and Dondre James Davis, 21 — wanted Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Ley to either toss out Harper's statements or separate his murder trial from that of their clients.
At issue were three separate tape-recorded statements Harper made in April 2009 after police found ammunition in his bedroom at the Citrus Grove Apartments that appeared to match the casings left outside the 8-year-old's house.
A fourth defendant, driver Mario Lewis Walls, pleaded guilty earlier this year and has promised to testify against the others. He has told attorneys that the shooting grew out of tensions between the Bethel Heights Boys, based in the Citrus Grove Apartments in the Bethel Heights neighborhood, and 8-Hype, a group based closer to Preston Avenue.
In a pretrial deposition, Walls said he and the other defendants had been looking for a man they knew only as "Monster." They wanted revenge because Monster — whom police later identified as Markeath Fielder — had shot in their direction outside a dance at the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue S.
Harper, in his statements to Detectives Gary Gibson and Brian Taylor, said he helped Nguyen and Davis load the weapons, and then they got into the red Ford Focus driven by Walls. He said Nguyen sat up front while he and Davis sat in the back. They drove around for 20 or 30 minutes before deciding to shoot up the Preston Avenue house, Harper told the detectives, because "we just seen him there before." The house was shared by the girl and her aunt.
Harper estimated that Nguyen and Davis fired "30 or 40 shots" from the two AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, and then they drove off, satisfied. One shot hit the girl in the back, killing her.
"Had you guys not drove over there, would that girl still be alive?" Detective Gibson asked Harper.
"Yes sir," Harper replied, his voice soft.
"The tape can't hear you, man," the detective said.
"Yes, sir," Harper said a little louder.
Gibson asked him if he understood now how wrong their actions had been.
"Yeah," Harper said, "a stupid thing to do."
Judge Ley, after hearing arguments from prosecutor Richard Ripplinger and defense attorneys Edward Panzica and Mike O'Haire, said she would separate Harper's case from that of Nguyen and Davis, who are set for trial in November.
But then Ripplinger said he would not use Harper's taped statements in court — unless Harper decides to testify. So Panzica and O'Haire withdrew their motions to separate the trials, and all three are now scheduled to face a jury in November. Walls, 21, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, has not been sentenced.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.