Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Records reveal how teens' bungled robbery turned into grisly slaying in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The teenagers claimed they didn't know anything.

They never saw the missing green Impala. What late-night cellphone call? And, no, they didn't know anything about the body found in the front yard of a Coquina Key home they all had been at the night before.

In the early hours of the investigation into the mysterious death of college student Jeremy Mayers, 20, detectives were getting nowhere.

But then they went back to 3632 Sea Robin Drive SE, the house where Mayers was found early July 8. There, they met a 13-year-old runaway. Her nervous giggle prompted an officer to pull her aside.

I'll tell you everything, she said finally.

Several hours later, police made a startling announcement: Mayers, they said, died after being beaten and robbed by three teenagers, the youngest being a 14-year-old who would later go on the run for nearly three months.

Newly released court records paint an even more disturbing picture. They portray a group of young people who planned their ambush, luring a stranger with the promise of sex. And then, according to witnesses, they bungled it — they didn't even have ammunition for the gun.

But that didn't stop them, the records say. They beat Mayers with the unloaded gun, even after he wrested it away from them to defend himself.

• • •

Four teenage girls had gathered at the Coquina Key home that night. They were hanging out, doing each other's hair. One was a 16-year-old from Pinellas Park named Brittany Detwiler.

Three boys joined the party. Among them were Franco Harris Thomas, 14, of Pinellas Park, and Scionti Hill, 16, from St. Petersburg.

They heard Detwiler talking about Mayers, who was studying business and music, and worked at his local Sweetbay Supermarket. Detwiler had recently started chatting with him on Facebook.

According to some of the other teenagers' interviews with investigators, Detwiler borrowed a cellphone to invite Mayers. She said she planned to have sex with him.

The boys had another idea.

"Oh, is it all right if I rob him?" Hill asked Detwiler.

"She was like, 'Yeah, s---, I don't care,' " one of the teenagers in the home told police.

The teens worked out the details. Detwiler would meet Mayers once he got to the house and hook up with him in the garage. The boys would jump him as he left and do a "jack move," slang for taking his car and leaving.

Mayers never made it inside.

After he pulled up in his Impala, witnesses said Detwiler took him to the side of the house. The boys grabbed a shotgun out of their car, but the driver left — leaving Hill and Thomas without a ride or ammunition.

Detwiler went back into the house minutes later.

"They fixing to rob him," Detwiler said, according to a 16-year-old girl who was there.

Those inside heard what sounded like a scuffle. Mayers, they said, was running. He'd gotten the gun away somehow and was trying to fight back. Hill and Thomas were chasing him. They continued to fight and Thomas got the gun back.

At that point, the teens said, Hill got mad — because he stumbled and his white, Air Force One shoes got dirty. Hill punched Mayers, witnesses said, as Thomas hit Mayers with the shotgun.

One of the teens told authorities that Mayers was hit about eight times. He fell to the ground, losing consciousness.

Hill and Thomas took Mayers' wallet and cellphone, and left in his car, witnesses told police. Detwiler stayed.

"Did she seem to care?" a prosecutor asked one of the teen girls during a formal interview.

"No," the girl replied.

"Did she seem to care that there was a dead guy in your front yard?" the prosecutor asked.

"No."

• • •

Youths are more likely than adults to kill in groups, said Kathleen M. Heide, a University of South Florida criminology professor.

Often, she said, youths don't start out planning to kill. They may be planning a burglary or just "talking big." But once things start, no one wants to look weak and back out. Other emotions such as stress, anger and excitement can build and cloud judgment. Teens, in general, have less impulse control and foresight, she said.

After the crime unfolds, she said, it often happens that "the kids are sort of shocked, like, 'We never really intended to do this.' "

Authorities didn't discover Mayers' body until hours later when they were called to the neighborhood for an unrelated car accident.

When police went to the home, a teen girl answered the door and said she hadn't seen anything. But after the 13-year-old spoke to detectives, the others at the home that night started to talk, too.

Hill and Detwiler were arrested shortly after the murder. Thomas disappeared, but was found earlier this month at a relative's home in Tallahassee.

Prosecutors decided to charge all three with first-degree murder, despite their ages, and try them as adults.

But their ages will prevent them from facing the death penalty. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling prevents people from being executed for crimes they committed under age 18.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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