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More arrests in girl's slaying after tips pour in to police

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon announces the arrests of more suspects in the fatal shooting of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton on Sunday. Now in police custody are, from left, Mario Lewis Walls, Dondre Davis and Duong Dai Nguyen. Nguyen faces a drug charge. Stephen Cortez Harper, right, was arrested shortly after the girl's murder.

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon announces the arrests of more suspects in the fatal shooting of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton on Sunday. Now in police custody are, from left, Mario Lewis Walls, Dondre Davis and Duong Dai Nguyen. Nguyen faces a drug charge. Stephen Cortez Harper, right, was arrested shortly after the girl's murder.

ST. PETERSBURG — It is the rule of the streets, one that keeps residents scared, police clueless and thugs free: Thou shalt not snitch.

But days after an 8-year-old girl was gunned down in her home, shot three times in the back as she ran for her life, a stronger commandment has taken hold: Thou shalt not kill a child.

An outraged community helped St. Petersburg police track down the three most wanted men in the city on Wednesday: 18-year-old Mario Lewis Walls and two 19-year-olds, Dondre Davis and Duong Dai Nguyen.

Walls and Davis were arrested in connection with Sunday's murder of second-grader Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. Nguyen was arrested on a drug charge as police try to determine if he played a role in the shooting.

What ended the nearly four-day manhunt? Tips from a community furious that a child lost her life to an act of gang retaliation.

"I think the fact that a child was murdered led to a lot of tips that helped us locate the suspects," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

• • •

The three men arrested Wednesday joined Stephen Cortez Harper, 18, in the Pinellas County jail. Harper was arrested Sunday on a charge of being a principal to first-degree murder.

Davis is the first suspect police have identified as one of the shooters. He was arrested on charges of first-degree murder, armed burglary and possession of marijuana.

"I didn't do it," Davis said Wednesday night as police led the prisoner through a scrum of TV cameras. He laughed when a photographer tripped and fell.

Walls was arrested on charges of accessory to first-degree murder and marijuana possession.

Nguyen was not charged in the girl's death, but police said they will ask a judge to revoke his bond on a pending drug charge while they investigate whether he is connected to the shooting.

Police said more arrests are possible.

All three teens taken into custody Wednesday have criminal records, and the longest belongs to Nguyen.

Davis' burglary charge is linked to a surveillance video police released of a burglar hurting himself in a failed residential break-in March 30. Davis can be seen on the video laughing at his injured accomplice, police say, but he also left his fingerprints behind at the scene.

While the suspects in the girl's death remained at large, tips led police to scour the Tampa Bay area for them. But the one tip that paid off led undercover detectives to a home in the northwest corner of St. Petersburg.

There police watched and waited.

Then Walls, Davis and Nguyen piled into a blue Honda sedan and drove off. It was 3 p.m. when police made their move near 29th Avenue N and Fourth Street.

Taken by surprise, the three men surrendered without a fight.

"It was a very tactical takedown," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "They were kind of overwhelmed by the number of officers involved."

• • •

Paris was an innocent bystander, police say, who fell victim to an escalating neighborhood feud between warring youths from Bethel Heights and Harbordale.

A fistfight six weeks before led to a shooting attempt Saturday night that led hours later to Sunday's murder, police say. It was about 2:20 a.m., police say, that a group of Bethel Heights Boys armed themselves with semi-automatic rifles and riddled the victim's home at 771 Preston Ave. S.

They fired more than 50 shots into the home — as Paris lay asleep in her bed in the enclosed front porch. Their real target was a Harbordale gang member staying at the home.

Nine people were in the home that night. But the only one injured was the 8-year-old girl. She was struck, police say, as she ran to her aunt Shenita Joseph's room. She died within the hour at Bayfront Medical Center.

Harper, 18, was the first one arrested hours after the attack. He, too, has a long criminal record — and a "bh4-life" tattoo.

When police arrested him, they seized a cache of weapons at Harper's apartment complex, the Citrus Grove Apartments on 15th Street S. The complex used to be called the Bethel Heights Apartments, which is where the gang drew its name from.

Police are focusing on two AR-15 semiautomatic rifles found in that cache, which also included two shotguns, a hunting rifle and body armor. They say shell casings from AR-15s were found at the crime scene.

The Tampa division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is tracing the weapons for police, who want to know how they ended up in gang hands. The weapons are also being tested to see if forensic evidence will link them to the shooting, the alleged shooters and any other crimes.

• • •

Paris lived with her aunt because the girl's mother, Robin Whitehead, died in a fall two years ago. The girl's father, Robert Hamilton, was away in the military, the family said, but is on his way back. The funeral is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at New Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church.

The nightly vigils at Paris' home continued Wednesday, as more than three dozen gathered outside her home to mourn, light candles, sing hymns like Pass Me Not — and vent.

"If you love yourself and you love your neighbor," preached Elder Bernard Jenkins, a Bible in his right hand. "How can you harm your neighbor?"

The victim's aunt thanked well-wishers. She no longer sleeps at the home, her family said, because of the shooting. She has declined to speak to reporters since Sunday.

Shakeyla Jenkins, 24, said her two nieces went to school with Paris. Far too many children in the city have lost friends, she said.

"I got to see my friends grow up with me," she said. "They're not going to do that."

Times researcher Will Gorham and photographers Kathleen Flynn and Scott Keeler contributed to this report, as did reporter Kameel Stanley. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com.

To see video of the failed burglary Dondre Davis is accused of taking part in, go to tampabay.com/video.

More arrests in girl's slaying after tips pour in to police 04/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 10:16am]
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