TAMPA — Jermel Allen doesn't know why he did it, but when he heard gunshots on the morning of June 5, 2011, he went to find the shooter.
Allen told a jury Tuesday that he soon spotted a man running from the home Judy Brito shared with her two teenage children in the Interbay area. He said he drove up to a gray car on Van Buren Drive, thinking it belonged to police and he could get help.
Instead, Allen saw a young man leaning against the vehicle with a gun in his hand. The man jumped in the driver's seat and peeled away.
Allen spotted another man near a day care center down the street. That man fired several shots at Allen, who was armed and shot back, before jumping into the gray car. Allen followed long enough to get the license tag. Then he went back to the Britos' house and peeked inside.
Two teenage children had been shot in the head. Blood was everywhere. Allen looked away, left and called 911.
On Tuesday, the first day of the first suspect's murder trial, Allen was the prosecution's star witness — the one who said he saw a suspect leave the Brito house just after 16-year-old Kiara Brito and her brother, 13-year-old Jeremi Brito, were fatally shot in their living room.
The tag number Allen gave authorities led them to Charles Waits, then 19.
In court Tuesday, Allen, 35, identified Waits as one of the two suspects.
Waits and his close friend Tavari Grant are each charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the Brito children's deaths. Authorities are not sure who fired the fatal shots, but if they were both robbing the Brito children while the teens were killed, as prosecutors say they were, they can each be found guilty as a principal to murder.
Waits' trial is expected to last nearly two weeks. More than 60 witnesses are expected to be called by both sides. Grant's trial is scheduled to start Oct. 28.
In its opening statements, the defense made its argument clear: Waits was forced at gunpoint to knock on the Brito children's door. Waits did not want to be there, said his lawyer, Octavio Gomez. Because Waits participated in the crime under "duress," he should be found not guilty, Gomez said.
When first interviewed by detectives in 2011, Waits claimed an acquaintance named "Rocco" forced him to help rob the Brito children, who authorities say were selling marijuana and other items from their home.
In her opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Michelle Doherty called the story about "Rocco" a lie. Instead, detectives quickly tracked down Grant and found perfume, a purse and Michael Kors watches belonging to the Britos in his home.
Waits and Grant also were communicating on their cellphones just before and after the murder, Doherty said.
"The evidence will show that it is the defendant and his good friend who committed all of these crimes," she said.
After Allen testified, Gomez worked to point out inconsistencies in his memory. The prosecution had already told jurors that Allen has been convicted of 10 felonies. He should not have had a gun the night he exchanged fire with one of the suspects. That's why Allen initially lied to detectives, he said. Allen was not charged.
Both sides agree on one thing: It was a brutal, bloody murder. "One of the worst," a police officer said.
Police found puddles of blood when they arrived at the home early on the morning of June 5. Kiara was already dead. Jeremi was breathing but couldn't talk. He died at the hospital.
Their mother, Judy Brito, went from being a single mother of two to being alone. Many have criticized her for allowing her children to sell marijuana from home. Her 13-year-old son drove a BMW the night of the shooting. Kiara stayed out until about 5 a.m., clubbing and hanging out with friends.
Judy Brito was in Treasure Island with her boyfriend the night of the murder.
No one will likely make an issue of that this week. Instead, Judy Brito watched the trial Tuesday surrounded by loved ones and a victim's advocate, who followed a sobbing Judy Brito out of the courtroom when the testimony became too much.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.