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Hunt for Dontae Morris ends in 'quiet' capture at South Tampa law firm

TAMPA — In east Tampa, a command post of more than 200 law enforcement officers deployed wave after wave of search teams into the surrounding blocks with assault rifles, dogs, battering rams, even an assault tank.

If police were going to find the most-wanted man in Tampa Bay, it seemed likely they would catch Dontae Morris on the east city streets he grew up on.

Instead, the four-day manhunt for the suspected police killer ended quietly miles away, in South Tampa.

Jenny Van Pelt had settled into watching a TV crime drama when, around 10 p.m. Friday, she heard voices outside the law office next door.

She saw six marked and unmarked police cars at Fernandez Larkin & Garcia PA, a law office in a converted house on Azeele Street.

On the porch, Van Pelt and her husband, Jon, saw a man amid the cars. Jenny Van Pelt heard an officer say, "It's your call." She asked a couple near the driveway what was going on, and they didn't answer.

Soon, a sport utility vehicle sped off and the cars followed. The city's largest manhunt had ended with no police lights, sirens or fuss.

"It was very unobtrusive," Jenny Van Pelt, 55, said.

"Quiet," Jon Van Pelt, 54, added.

The Van Pelts didn't know that they had witnessed the suspected killer of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis being taken into custody.

Jenny Van Pelt, an Academy of the Holy Names teacher, taught Curtis' wife years ago.

"You live in a quiet little neighborhood and you start wondering, 'Are we safe?' " Jon Van Pelt said. "Was he hiding down here?"

• • •

No one is saying where or how Morris eluded the manhunt.

Jail records show he turned himself in at the law office address, but police said Sunday they would not confirm whether the law firm helped capture him.

Through a representative, the law office declined to comment. The small association's lawyers often handle criminal cases, most notably representing a father last year accused of beating a man who he thought had murdered his son.

The surrender was brokered by a person police Chief Jane Castor described as a criminal informer. That person stands to gain a $100,000 reward put together by the FBI, state police, various police funds and CrimeStoppers, all of which have varying rules on who can collect.

"Those stipulations are now being reviewed to determine if Morris' associate who helped bring about his arrest will receive any, a portion or all of the reward money," the police said in a statement Sunday.

Morris has also been charged with the May 18 murder of Derek Anderson at the Kenneth Court apartments in east Tampa.

In an arrest report in that case released Sunday, police checked "yes" on a box asking whether Morris is a gang member, and wrote in the gang: Bloods.

• • •

Morris, 24, remains confined in an isolated cell of the Orient Road Jail, which also holds his brother, Dwayne Callaway, 21.

Although he has not been charged with aiding Morris on the run, Callaway's arrest report released Sunday makes a link. It notes police identified him as "providing refuge."

Callaway was arrested early Saturday on charges of drug possession and violation of probation. The charges were upgraded Sunday to include being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Records show that a search of the motel on Fowler Avenue where Callaway stayed revealed a Taurus .22-caliber revolver.

Sunday morning, a judge denied bond for Callaway, who will have another hearing today.

The Public Defender's Office was searching for a private lawyer to represent Morris after one of its defenders cited a conflict.

One of the office's lawyers told a judge that it had represented Cortnee Brantley, 22, last week. Police say Morris was a passenger in the car driven by Brantley when Morris shot the two officers during a traffic stop Tuesday morning.

While Morris fled on foot, police said Brantley drove away. She was questioned and released Tuesday — but then arrested Friday on a federal charge of witnessing a felony and failing to report it.

John Fitzgibbons, a Tampa defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor who is not involved in this case, said conflicts of interest are common in cases with multiple defendants.

"The first client that you represent disqualifies you on the rest," Fitzgibbons said. "It's sort of 'first come.' Because if client number one tells you about the case, you have attorney-client privilege. If you passed that person on and took client number two, you have information client one gave you."

Brantley is accused of knowing Morris was a felon in possession of a gun, a federal violation. Some argue that the law conflicts with the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from being witnesses against themselves.

"It is rarely used and there is an ongoing debate as to the constitutionality of the statute," Fitzgibbons said. "I am quite certain that whoever represents her will challenge the statute."

Police have said they didn't have evidence to charge Brantley as Morris' accomplice.

• • •

In the pews at the New Testament Missionary Baptist Church in Thonotosassa on Sunday, Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, and stepfather, Gary Watson, listened to gospel music and a service that did not mention last week's events or Morris, who was last seen at the church on Mother's Day.

"They have been coming to me for guidance, comfort and strength," the Rev. John Anderson said after the service. "They are still taking it hard. The problem is not over."

Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and Nicole Hutcheson contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or

To donate

Cash donations to help the families of David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab can be made at any branch of Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union.

More information is on the Facebook page, "In Honor of the Fallen Officers, Dave Curtis and Jeff Kocab."

Hunt for Dontae Morris ends in 'quiet' capture at South Tampa law firm 07/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 5, 2010 12:12pm]
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