TAMPA — An 18-year-old Orlando man has been charged with two murders in the gruesome gang-related shooting and stabbing attack that left three men dead in a Brandon back yard last week.
Prentiss Earl "Dollar" Jackson was arrested on New Year's Eve in Osceola County, where he is being held on two charges of first-degree murder, one count of aggravated battery with a firearm and one count of aggravated assault with a firearm.
Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said Jackson fatally shot Vincent Thomas and Tony Black, both 22, after arriving at Thomas' house, 507 Oakwood Ave., shortly after midnight on Dec. 29.
One other person, Rafael Guadalupe, 21, was stabbed to death about 20 feet away. Deputies have not said who they think killed him.
Investigators are still trying to figure out why it happened.
"We've been told, 'a drug deal,' we've been told 'a hit,' " Gee said. "We don't know. It could all of the above."
Gee said suspects Jackson and Esteban Merchan, 19, of Kissimmee were among five people who arrived at the residence in a red Mercury Cougar.
Though the victims expected the visit, Gee said, they apparently didn't expect the wrath that met them 15 minutes after the group arrived.
Here's what investigators say happened next:
Black and Thomas were together in the backyard shed and game room when Merchan pulled a knife on Black and started stabbing him in the shoulder and back.
When Thomas stepped in to try to help Black, deputies said, Jackson shot Thomas.
Then, deputies say, Jackson turned his gun on Black and fired again.
Black and Thomas died inside the shed.
Nearby, Guadalupe suffered multiple stab wounds. When deputies arrived they found him dead in the back yard. Sheriff's officials have not said who they think killed him.
After the killings, deputies said, Jackson and Merchan ran from the back yard to the front yard, where they confronted a fourth man.
Ralph Arroyo, 21, had been sitting in the front passenger seat of a Nissan Altima. They ordered him out of the car. Deputies say Merchan stabbed Arroyo in the back of the head, then tried stabbing him in the neck.
Jackson also beat Arroyo, deputies say, striking him about the face with his gun. The men knocked Arroyo to the ground, kicked him and punched him repeatedly.
Despite a dislocated shoulder, a knife wound to his head and multiple cuts and scrapes, deputies say, Arroyo managed to flee into some nearby woods.
Deputies are still seeking Merchan, who is wanted on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said additional charges are likely.
Merchan is an active member of the Bloods gang, is armed and dangerous, and is thought to have fled to the Northeast, Gee said. Multiple agencies, including the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are assisting in the search.
Gee called the case, "one of the most confusing and convoluted stories I've ever run across," noting that the agency has devoted 20 people to the investigation.
Detectives are still trying to decipher what roles were played by the other three people who drove to the residence with Merchan and Jackson that night. Gee would not comment when asked if they'd been interviewed. He said detectives know who all the players are, but they're still trying to sort out how everyone is related.
"Even the cooperation we have had has been limited," he said.
Central to the investigation is the mounting evidence of gang involvement.
Law enforcement already knew victim Black to be an active member of the Bloods. Thomas had past arrests, but had been working as a school bus driver when he was killed. Prior to the triple homicide, his name was not listed in a law enforcement database of known gang members.
But when detectives searched Thomas' home, Gee said Monday, they found certified letters written by known gang members and sent from within the state correctional system.
Additionally, Gee said, deputies found pages detailing gang rules, which the sheriff described as "bylaws" specifying how things needed to be done within the confines of the group.
"Because your name is not in the … database," Gee said, "doesn't mean you're not in a gang."
He added that though detectives did not locate drugs at the scene, they haven't ruled that out as one possible motive. And they are trying to find out whether someone else instructed the men to kill one or more of the victims.
"It clearly involved gang activity," Gee said.
One other tidbit Gee released Monday:
On their way to Brandon that night, the men stopped at a store and bought gloves.
Jackson is being held without bail and is expected to be transported to Hillsborough County to face his charges. State records show he has been arrested three times before on charges that include domestic battery, aggravated battery and failure to appear in court.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.