In Tampa, police say, reign of terror had its beginnings on Easter

TAMPA

When their shift ended on Easter morning, the day was still dark.

After a couple of years working overnights, after catching countless druggies and drunks, Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were used to their days ending when everyone else's were about to begin.

Their work that night had been routine. Curtis had driven prisoners to jail. Kocab had pulled people over for traffic violations.

At 6:30 a.m., after turning in their reports, they turned onto the highway. Each had a long drive home.

Curtis, 31, steered north, heading an hour to his house in Webster. He loved living up there, surrounded by acres of land where his four boys could zipline from trees.

Kocab, also 31, always drove into the dawn, more than an hour east, past old orange groves and shiny strip malls. Awaiting him at their Kissimmee home was his wife Sara, whose belly was just beginning to swell. By summer, they expected their first child.

That same morning, back in Tampa, two other young men were making plans for the day.

Derek Anderson, almost 21, was walking to his girlfriend's house to make her breakfast and see his infant son. As always, he had a burgundy backpack slung over his shoulder.

And nearby, Harold Wright was planning to take time away from his busy job dealing drugs to have Easter dinner with his mother.

He had 64 days left to live.

The young dad with the burgundy backpack had 44.

And the cops had 86.

The only significant thing they had in common was the fifth man, the one they never saw coming.

Two hundred miles away that Easter morning, in North Florida, a man was waiting for his sister to pick him up at Mayo state prison. Dontae Morris had just served two years for selling cocaine.

Guards let him out at 9:27 a.m., gave him $100. His sister brought him clean clothes and he climbed into the car.

It's doubtful he celebrated Easter. He generally didn't observe holidays.

"He had his own religion," his friend Rodney Moore would say. "He believed he was God."

Easter, April 4

Every morning after his baby was born, the young man with the backpack got up early. He walked 15 minutes to his girlfriend's house to see his son. "Like he had a job," said his sister Tamora Dorn.

Derek Anderson was a quiet kid, a loner, tall and thin, about to turn 21. "He dressed like a white boy," his sister said: skateboarding shorts, Vans and Chuck Taylors. His baseball hats had curved brims.

For years, his dreadlocks spilled to his waist. But a few months earlier, just before his son's birth, he had his sister chop off his hair. If he was going to be a dad, he should look like a man.

On Easter morning, Anderson fried eggs and cooked grits for his girlfriend. He changed his son's diaper, put him down for a nap. Then he walked back to the Kenneth Court complex, where he shared an apartment with his mother.

When his mom got home from church, she asked if he wanted to go to a barbecue. Anderson grabbed his backpack, stuffed with the two things he always carried: a bottle of red Gatorade and a battered basketball.

On the way to the barbecue, he talked to his mom about his kid. He wanted to buy the boy everything. But first, he knew, he had to get a job.

• • •

Harold Wright showed up at Easter dinner with his 2-year-old son. It was a special weekend because his mother was visiting from Georgia. This was the first time he had seen her in a year.

Everyone, even his mom, knew what he'd been up to. Wright, 25, was always in a hurry, checking his phone, taking off for late-night errands, promising to "be right back."

He'd never had money as a boy, and now he made thick rolls of cash. He liked that. He bought his toddler a pair of Air Jordans every time Nike churned out a new model.

But dealing drugs was a risky way of life. One night, Wright got into a shootout with some guys who jumped his friend. Nobody died, but prosecutors charged him with aggravated assault with a firearm. His court date was coming up soon.

The shooting scared him. His father had gone to prison for killing a man and Wright had grown up without a dad. He didn't want the same thing to happen to his kids. After the shootout, he vowed he would never again carry a gun.

But he kept moving drugs, kept justifying it as support for his four kids and their three mothers.

On Easter weekend, the drug dealer's mother looked at him and began to cry.

"Harold," she said. "You need to stop."

• • •

In East Tampa, a pocked road slices a neighborhood known for its name: 43rd Street. Weeds choke the pavement, strangle empty lots. Bed sheets cover broken windows.

One side of the road is flanked by faded houses. The other is filled with a gray concrete housing complex.

This is Kenneth Court: dark, square apartments with rusty railings, where babies play in puddles and fountains overflow with dirt.

Derek Anderson moved here after high school. Harold Wright's relatives live nearby.

Morris grew up in this neighborhood. His mom's house is just steps from his grandmother's, which is steps from Rest Haven cemetery, where Morris visited his dead friends.

Everyone here knows everyone else — if not by name, then by nickname.

And word spreads fast when someone comes home from prison.

When Morris got to Tampa on Easter afternoon, he called his brother: "Nigga, I'm home!"

• • •

Tall and wiry, with cropped hair and wide eyes, 24-year-old Dontae Morris has a cross tattooed on his face. Etched in his left arm is "venni, vetti, vecci” — a rapper's allusion to "I came, I saw, I conquered."

His nickname also is on his arm: Qwalo.

His parents were teenagers when he was born. Not long after his second birthday, his father was accidentally shot dead in the bathroom of a crack house.

At Kenneth Court, Dontae Morris was a fixture. He rode his bike through the projects, smoked under stairways, hung out in the parking lot. He wrote raps, cut a few tracks for a group called Gangreen. In a music video on MySpace, he bounces on a car preaching about getting your buddies' backs. "I'll Never Change on Yah," he promises.

He first got arrested as a teenager, then kept adding to his jacket: grabbing a teacher, selling crack, beating up a kid in juvie. When an officer pulled him over in a stolen Ford, according to the arrest report, Morris protested that he "gave a Puerto Rican $200 worth of crack for that car!"

In 2005, prosecutors charged Morris with attempted homicide, saying he blasted a man with a shotgun. A jury let him go.

He was in and out of prison on cocaine charges. Behind bars, guards said he threatened a witness, masturbated in front of them. He hid library books in his cell, the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

Guards also wrote him up for pulling up the skirt of a female visitor, a community college student named Cortnee Brantley.

Two things were important to him, said his friend Rodney Moore. "His money and the women."

Morris was tight with his younger brother and sister, too.

Last year, his sister was in a truck near Kenneth Court when a drive-by shooter sprayed 10 bullets down the street. One tore through her jeans and sent her to the hospital. She survived, but police never nabbed the gunman.

Morris was still locked up then. He couldn't protect her.

"That could've did something to him," said Ronald Swinson, who used to rap with him. "You don't know."

• • •

Officers Curtis and Kocab were an odd duo.

Kocab, slender and swift and fueled by Red Bull, would ping-pong across a scene collecting facts, jumping fences, chasing bad guys. He so resembled the tornadoing cartoon Tasmanian Devil that the guys on the squad called him Taz.

Curtis towered over him, a mountain of muscle with a mellow smile. He always carried a spoon for the next minimeal of chicken or yogurt or whatever filled the cooler in his squad car. He once got stopped at the courthouse for trying to bring his spoon past the metal detector.

Instant nickname. Spooner.

Curtis could — and did —wrestle with cattle. But one day, he called Kocab for backup. Kocab arrived to find his partner alone, freaking out. He had found a spider in his car. Kocab took care of it. And Squad 306 never let Curtis live it down.

They were zone partners, the closest of relationships at the Tampa Police Department. Like a married couple, they had learned to communicate without speaking. When one stopped a car, the other drove by without being called.

It would be a challenge to find partners who complemented each other quite like Curtis and Kocab. They just fit together, said their corporal, Julie Moore, "like puzzle pieces."

• • •

May 9

Curtis got to spend Mother's Day with his family. His wife, Kelly, sat by the water with their four boys, ages 9, 8, 5 and 8 months. Curtis took a knee behind them and smiled as someone snapped a family portrait.

Only a week earlier, the couple had watched 8-year-old Sean celebrate his First Communion. As part of the Mass, the boys brought flowers to the Blessed Mother.

Kocab also had Mother's Day off. Soon, his wife, Sara, would be a mom too.

Everyone said he was going to be a great dad. He had a way with kids. The oldest player on the Tampa Bay Vengeance paintball team, Kocab called his teenage teammates before matches to make sure they hadn't gotten grounded. He was their mentor, always pushing them to be better, said Aaron Vega, a Tampa cop who owns a paintball store.

By Mother's Day, he and Sara knew they were having a girl. Her name would be Lilly.

• • •

Mother's Day in Tampa:

The young man with the backpack brought his girlfriend white, pink and yellow flowers, and gave his mom a hug. Derek Anderson told her, "I gotta get you something, Ma. I don't have any money. But I got love. I love you, Ma."

The drug dealer with the worried mom took flowers to his girlfriend. Six days earlier, they had learned they were having a baby. Harold Wright predicted a girl.

Dontae Morris went to church with his mom.

• • •

By May, Morris had moved across town to live with his friend Janiesha Carmouche. Her place was much nicer than the projects.

Morris always woke early, she said, showered and fed her three kids. He would pour himself a bowl of Froot Loops with marshmallows. Then he would leave. Carmouche never knew where he went.

At night, they would sit at the kitchen table and play cards: Tonk and poker. Morris smoked Newports. Drank Hennessy.

He was different from other guys, she said. He spoke softly. Wouldn't eat meat, except seafood. Didn't celebrate holidays.

And he was always reading.

At Carmouche's house, Morris kept two books: The Fall of America by Elijah Muhammad and a paperback with a black cover called The Five Percenters.

• • •

You say someone is reading the Bible and that says something. But what? Do they advocate an eye for an eye? Or believe the meek will inherit the earth?

Some think of the Five Percenters as those well-dressed men down on the corner, preaching empowerment. To others, they're racist cop killers.

"Five Percenters," says the book by Michael Muhammad Knight, "combined a bit of Islam with ganglike esprit de corps." Most of them believe white people are the devil and blacks the original man.

Every black man is his own God. Their women are Earths.

Only 5 percent of the people understand that.

The movement began in the early 1960s when a man named Clarence Edward Smith split off from the Nation of Islam over its strict prohibitions against drugs, music and girls. His followers called him Allah.

Some Five Percenters thought of white cops as "genetically engineered beasts with smaller brains," according to the book, and urged members to "smack police off horses."

"Allah knew the mentality of a soldier," The Five Percenters says. "You've got to have the heart to kill."

In the 1960s, the FBI labeled the Five Percenters a racist hate gang. Smith, the Five Percenters' Allah, was gunned down in 1969. His murder is still unsolved.

Dr. Felicia Miyakawa, an associate professor of music at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote her dissertation on Five Percenters' influence on hip-hop.

Many have been in prison and have "a healthy disrespect" for law enforcement officers. "They don't all believe white people are evil," she said. "They just don't trust the system to truly bring justice."

Deep in their lessons is the idea that they have to destroy the people who are oppressing them, she said. "But the devil is more of a metaphorical concept. Nobody is trained to kill anyone."

Morris' friends don't know how much of the book he read, or even if he had gotten through Lesson 1:

"What is the duty of each Muslim in regards to four devils?" the lesson asks.

"Muhammad learned that he could not reform the devils, so they had to be murdered," says the answer. "Each Muslim is required to bring four devils."

• • •

May 14

Officer Curtis marched to the center of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. He wore a long-sleeved uniform — silver buttons, white gloves — and stood next to a wreath honoring the 116 officers killed in the United States last year.

It was Police Week, dusk. Tampa's Honor Guard came every year, but this year, a new name was etched in the polished granite walls: Cpl. Michael Roberts, gunned down in Tampa last fall.

Curtis had stood guard at Roberts' wake and carried his casket into the church. Paying respect, and helping grieving families, was his calling.

When his turn at the wreath was over, Curtis held his hand to his hat in a final salute.

Etched in the wall nearby was this Proverb:

The wicked flee when no man pursueth;

but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

• • •

May 18

Derek Anderson was excited. He had a big job interview the next day. Maybe he could finally get a place where he and his girl and their baby could be together.

At his girlfriend's house, he slung off his burgundy backpack, picked up his 4-month-old son. "Say Dada," he cooed at the boy. "C'mon, you can do it, Da-da."

Just before noon, Anderson put his son down for his nap, hugged his girlfriend goodbye. Jelisha Johnson, 21, gave him $20 — bus fare to get to the job interview.

"Good luck tomorrow," she remembered telling him.

He promised, "I'll call you tonight."

A friend stopped by Anderson's apartment that afternoon. He goes by Man-Man. They played PlayStation, smoked on the stairs. Anderson never had any money, his sister Tamora Dorn said, but he always had good weed.

That night, Anderson went to Man-Man's house to wash clothes for his job interview. After 11, they walked back across 43rd Street, Anderson's backpack bulging with warm laundry. Man-Man stayed with him until they got to the gate outside Kenneth Court. But Anderson crossed the dark parking lot alone.

A neighbor whose window was open heard someone shout, "Don't run!" Then he heard a gunshot.

Two buildings back, Anderson's mom didn't hear anything — until something heavy thudded outside her door.

She opened it to find her son face down on the cement floor, blood oozing through the back of his T-shirt, with a bullet hole where his backpack should have been.

• • •

People planted candles by the blood-stained stairs. Police spoke to reporters. A week after Anderson's murder, it was still unsolved.

Police called it a robbery attempt, but there are other theories.

"We heard that bullet was for someone else," said Dorn, Anderson's sister. Maybe if he still had those long dreads he wouldn't be dead.

Police initially looked at a man known as Zay, who lived at Kenneth Court. But around the apartments, people were whispering another name: Qwalo.

• • •

Early June

Dontae Morris got the call on a Tuesday. Police wanted to talk to him. They had heard he was at Kenneth Court that night Derek Anderson was killed. Would he come down to the station and answer some questions?

"I don't like the police," Morris told the detective. "I'm not talking to the police. I'm not coming in."

He hung up. And never answered any more of their calls.

• • •

Harold Wright had a court date coming up. The shooting charge carried a maximum of 20 years. But Wright's lawyer, Joe Caimano, kept telling him his case looked good. It was self-defense. No way would he do time.

But something was weighing on Wright.

"Man, I'm telling you, this is freaking me out," his lawyer remembered him saying. "I'm scared of everything."

His friends had noticed a change in him. His roommate Devin Burney caught him reading the Bible and asked if he was okay.

"God just been talking to me lately," Wright said.

He said he wanted to open a carwash with a barber shop. He would drive around pointing out possible locations. But he didn't stop dealing drugs. Burney told him, "Straighten up."

Wright asked a favor of his roommate. "If anything happens to me, would you take care of my kids?"

"You're playing," Burney said.

"No, I'm being serious."

• • •

June 7

A week before his court date, Wright moved his girlfriend, Keaira Crum, into an apartment near where Morris had been staying.

Everyone who saw Wright that day said the same thing.

"He was moving real fast," said his roommate. "In and out the house, up and down."

"The whole day," his girlfriend said. "On the go, quick, quick."

His aunt saw he had three bags of marijuana in his pants. She gave him the same warning his mother did two months ago.

It didn't stop him. His girlfriend said he wanted to make some quick cash for her and his kids.

"He thought he was going to jail," she said. "He needed money. He was ready to get it however, just in case."

She was soaking in the tub when she heard him leaving.

"Kee," he called, "I'll be right back."

Less than a mile away, just after midnight, Wright was found on the side of a dark road, face down in a puddle of blood. His pockets were inside-out.

The car doors were open, the glove box ransacked. It smelled like marijuana.

In a few weeks, a woman would tell detectives that Morris had admitted robbing and killing Wright. They found Morris' fingerprint on the rental car.

The morning after the murder, on his MySpace, Morris posted a message:

R.I.P. my mutha f------ nigga Harold J. Wright.

• • •

Mid-June

So many mourners packed the church sanctuary, they spilled into a second room. Inside the casket, Wright wore a suit. His girlfriend wailed. His son slept in the arms of another man.

Burney, his roommate, offered a warning to the other men.

"If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone in this room," he said. "We all need to straighten up."

Wright's casket was lowered into the ground at the Rest Haven cemetery, just steps from Derek Anderson's. Both graves were marked with white wooden crosses, $5 Walmart price tags slapped on the back. In the weeks to come, Wright's girlfriend would tack something else to the cross — an ultrasound.

It was a girl.

• • •

On the same day, in the center of the state, friends threw a baby shower for Kocab and his wife. "It's a girl!" streamed across the room filled with pink and blue balloons. The dad-to-be sampled baby food.

• • •

June 28, late afternoon.

Before he started his long drive to work, Curtis left four roses for his wife — one representing each son.

The joking began the second he walked into the Tampa Police Department gym. He was just coming back from some time off.

"Whoa, whoa! Where you been?" asked Officer Jerome Graham. "I located a missing person!"

"Come on, man. Don't give me a hard time," Curtis said.

Curtis was a gym regular. There, he was "Big Curt," the go-to guy if you needed a spot or a push. "One more!" he'd always say. But the music had to be just right, high energy, something to pump him up for a long night.

Michael Jackson filled the gym, Beat it.

Graham tried to moonwalk. Curtis did a spin.

They had so much fun together, Graham always invited Curtis out to party. But Curtis always said the same thing. "I'm hanging with my boys."

He was always telling stories about his boys. Kelly home-schooled their sons. And Curtis took them fishing and four-wheeling. He lit up when he spoke about taking them to a Monster truck rally. He had already bought tickets for the next year.

It was getting late. Curtis headed to the shower, off to roll call, to meet up with Kocab and the squad.

He emerged in full uniform, bulletproof vest under his shirt, gym bag slung over his shoulder, and threw up two peace signs.

"Peace," his gym buddy remembered him saying. "See you out there."

• • •

That day, Morris and his friend Rodney Moore watched All About the Benjamins, an Ice Cube movie about a bounty hunter and a guy who skipped bail.

Morris was spotted at a club that night. The Char-Pal Lounge is across from Busch Gardens, attached to a battered liquor store. Christmas lights drip from the roof.

Sometime that evening, or early the next morning, Morris left the bar. By 2:13 a.m. he was in the passenger seat of a 1994 Toyota Camry with a gun and a girl named Cortnee Brantley.

Brantley, 22, was the only person except for relatives who had visited Morris during his last stint in prison. Guards had reprimanded Morris for reaching up her skirt.

Now, according to investigators, he was beside her as she was steering south on 50th Street, not far from Kenneth Court, as a cop car pulled behind them and started tailing them, one block, another, more than a half-mile, all the while its blue eye blazing through the back window.

• • •

Curtis had no idea who was in the car he was following. All he knew was it had no license plate, and he was stopping it. This is what he did most, what he'd already done that night.

"When it's late at night, most people are in bed," said Cpl. Julie Moore. "If they're out here moving around, they're up to no good."

Curtis approached. He asked Brantley for ID. Then he tried to talk to the guy in the passenger seat.

Curtis asked him his name.

The man mumbled something.

Curtis asked him to repeat it.

He mumbled again.

A third time, Curtis asked. That time, he got it.

Dontae Morris.

Curtis returned to his car to run the name. The man had a warrant, for writing a bad check in Jacksonville. Authorities would later figure out the warrant was a mistake. But in Curtis' mind, on that night, he had to bring the guy in.

Officers rarely arrest alone. They always call for backup.

Curtis didn't have to. Kocab was pulling up behind him, partner's intuition.

They approached the Camry, together.

Epilogue

Dontae Morris is in Hillsborough County Jail, charged with the first-degree murders of David Curtis, Jeffrey Kocab, Derek Anderson and Harold Wright. The state is seeking the death penalty in the case of the police officers, who were shot in the head at close range.

Morris' next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 14.

Cortnee Brantley is charged with the federal offense of misprision — failing to report a felony. She is on house arrest and faces up to three years in prison if she is convicted.

Jeffrey Kocab's daughter, Lilly Nicole, was stillborn on July 21 — three weeks after her dad was killed. Her family dressed her in pink and laid her on a black T-shirt honoring Tampa's fallen officers. She was buried beside her dad.

The address for contributions to the police officers' families is the Tampa Police Memorial Committee P.O. Box 172995, Tampa, Fla., 33672.

About the story

For a month, Times reporters Alexandra Zayas and Lane DeGregory gathered information for this story. It is based on police, court and state documents, funeral eulogies, personal photos and videos, Facebook and MySpace pages, Times archives, and The Five Percenters by Michael Muhammad Knight.

The reporters interviewed family or friends of all the main figures in the story, including the officers' co-workers; Derek Anderson's dad, mom, sister and girlfriend; Harold Wright's aunt, cousin, sister, girlfriend and roommate; and Dontae Morris' roommate and friend.

Harold Wright's aunt Claudette Michel and sister Tamika Rudolph were present when his mother asked him to stop dealing drugs. The phone call Dontae Morris made to his brother on Easter was overheard by Janiesha Carmouche.

The Rev. John Anderson of New Testament Missionary Baptist Church in Thonotosassa reported that Morris went to church with his mother on Mother's Day. Morris' conversation with a detective was relayed by Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

The description of Curtis' traffic stop of the Camry comes from a search warrant filed in the case and interviews with police.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com, Lane DeGregory at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

In Tampa, police say, reign of terror had its beginnings on Easter 08/13/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 15, 2010 12:11am]

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