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Shoplifting suspect faces murder charge in Tampa Target security guard's death

TAMPA — It's no secret where he comes from: Mervin "Greg" Bettis is a thief.

The 35-year-old has been in and out of Ohio prisons, thanks to what his mother calls a "compulsion" to take things that don't belong to him.

Even his 13-year-old son knows his father can't stop and dreams of one day owning his own store — so his father can steal in safety.

A thief, but not a killer, his family insists.

But that's exactly what the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says he is.

Bettis, accused of stealing thousands of dollars in merchandise from Target stores in May, now faces a much graver charge: murder.

Deputies say Bettis is responsible for the death of a Target security guard who collapsed and died from heart failure in May minutes after struggling to detain him for theft.

An autopsy concluded Russell Horner's death was the direct result of his struggle with Bettis, deputies said.

And that led to an unusual charge Tuesday: third-degree felony murder. A person can be charged with felony murder if a death occurs during the commission of a felony, in this case grand theft.

Horner, 65, a retired FBI agent, died at Town & Country Hospital on May 27, less than an hour after he struggled with Bettis, deputies said.

Store employees first spotted Bettis walking past the cash registers at the Target at 11627 W Hillsborough Ave. He was pushing a shopping cart filled with about $1,100 in stolen merchandise, deputies said.

An unnamed Target loss prevention agent had been investigating Bettis for similar crimes at two nearby Target stores. The agent chased Bettis and stopped him before he could get to the parking lot, deputies said.

They fell to the ground and Horner jumped in to help, deputies said. The fight spilled out onto the sidewalk and ended nearly five minutes later with Bettis in handcuffs.

Horner took Bettis to a holding room to await authorities, but began experiencing shortness of breath. He continued breathing heavily as he sat down and examined a bruise on his elbow, surveillance footage showed.

Seven minutes after the fight with Bettis began, Horner collapsed on his way to an adjoining room, officials said.

Paramedics performed CPR but it was too late. Less than an hour after Bettis was first spotted in the store, Horner was dead.

Horner was not known to have any health problems before the incident, said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Bettis has been in jail since his arrest on charges of robbery, grand theft and battery on a person 65 years or older. The third-degree felony murder charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

His mother expressed shock at the latest charge.

"When I got to talk to him shortly after he was locked up, he told me he was trying to steal something to get enough money to come home," said Bettis' mother, Patricia. "Now I'll never see him again."

Mrs. Bettis, a 65-year-old woman of modest means, said she doesn't understand why her son can't stay out of trouble. "He was raised better than that," she said. "But it doesn't matter. He just has to steal something all the time."

He arrived in Tampa in April, Mrs. Bettis said. He was in Florida vacationing with a friend and she expected his stay to be brief. The next thing she heard, her son was back in jail.

Bettis, who installed silos for a living before he was fired for driving without a license, has been in and out of prison in Ohio. He has been arrested numerous times on offenses including theft, burglary, criminal mischief and heroin possession.

He is being held in lieu of $211,500 bail.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Marissa Lang at mlang@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Shoplifting suspect faces murder charge in Tampa Target security guard's death 09/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 29, 2011 12:25am]

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