ST. PETERSBURG — Duong Dai Nguyen has been identified by police as the fourth suspect in the murder of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.
"I think we can say at this juncture that he is a suspect," said St. Petersburg police Maj. Mike Puetz. "But in terms of having the level of evidence that we need to charge him, that has not occurred yet.
"The investigation is still ongoing. The case is still being worked."
Paris died on April 5 when her home was hit by a barrage of semiautomatic gunfire. Members of the Bethel Heights neighborhood gang were targeting a member of rival 8-Hype inside, police say. Instead, they shot and killed Paris, who was living with her aunt.
Stephen Cortez Harper, 18, was arrested hours after her death, and police launched an intense hunt for three other suspects. Four days later, police captured three men: Dondre James Davis, 19, Mario Lewis Walls, 18, and Nguyen, 19.
Davis, Harper and Walls were all arrested on first-degree murder charges and indicted by a grand jury.
But Nguyen wasn't charged in the girl's death and still hasn't been. Nor have police clarified what role they believe he may have played in her death. When Nguyen was caught with Davis and Walls, he was arrested only on a charge of possession of marijuana.
But like the three other suspects, Nguyen has been held in the Pinellas County jail ever since his capture. When he was arrested, he was awaiting trial on 2008 charges of grand theft, burglary and possession of burglary tools. After this latest arrest, his bail on those charges was revoked by a Pinellas judge.
Authorities say Nguyen is a member of Asian Pride, a known criminal gang, and state records show that his criminal record started when he was 15.
While authorities have named four suspects in the murder, they believe that only two actually fired AR-15 semiautomatic rifles at the house. They suspect Davis may be one of the shooters, but police haven't named who they think the other shooter might have been.
After the murder, police say, they found a cache of weapons, including two AR-15 rifles, in Harper's apartment complex. But police now say that only one of those rifles has been forensically linked to the crime scene. Police are looking for the other rifle.
Authorities tried to track down the ownership history of that cache — two AR-15s, two shotguns, a hunting rifle and a .22-caliber pistol — only to discover that just one weapon had been reported stolen, an AR-15.
Records indicate the rest of the weapons had all been sold legally at gun stores as recently as 2007 in New Port Richey and as long ago as 1981 in Columbus, Ohio. But the government doesn't track private gun transactions, so authorities may never find out how this group got all that firepower.
That didn't surprise St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, who publicly criticized the availability of semiautomatic rifles to criminals after Paris' murder.
The chief said that when it comes to some private weapon transactions, money may be trumping morality.
"I think there's some moral obligation," he said. "I wouldn't be selling an AK-47 with a 50-round clip to somebody I don't know. But the driving factor isn't morality; it's the money factor."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.