ST. PETERSBURG — Police say 18-year-old Jaqueal Edward Harris had some special help robbing a convenience store last year: mom and dad.
James and Evette Harris were arrested Thursday on armed robbery charges, accused of driving their son and three of his friends to rob a store at gunpoint.
The parents even got a cut of the cash, police said.
But the parents deny everything. They told the St. Petersburg Times that police arrested them to pressure them to implicate their son in the murder of a 15-year-old runaway.
Malayshia Gamble was found shot dead on Jan. 9. Jaqueal Harris has been questioned by detectives in her death. Police say the two were in a relationship. Harris told police he saw her the night she was last seen alive.
Police have not said if they have a suspect. But James and Evette Harris said that police do have a suspect: their son.
"They're trying to manipulate and harass everybody to get one person to say 'yes' and it's wrong," the mother told a Times reporter Thursday night in a call from the county jail. "God's not with it."
St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt said the parents' claims are just "not true."
He said the parents put themselves at the scene of the robbery, and that other witnesses implicate them as getaway drivers.
"We've talked to a number of other sources who have implicated them as not only participating in the robbery," Proffitt said, "but also profiting from the money stolen in the robbery."
Harris, 18, has been in jail since Jan. 10 on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, armed burglary and bribery.
According to police, Harris offered a sergeant $17,000 to "interfere" with a homicide investigation in which he might be a suspect.
Harris denied to police any involvement in Malayshia's death. But is he a suspect?
"It's still an ongoing investigation," Proffitt said. "We're not going to put a label on him."
Police on Thursday added two more charges of armed robbery against Harris. The three armed robbery charges are for incidents that took place on July 18.
Police also arrested Timothy Cornell Gipson Jr., 19, in Lake County on Wednesday in connection with one of the robberies.
In one of the holdups, police said four masked men robbed the Sunshine Foods of St. Pete store at 2210 62nd Ave. S.
The Harris parents told the Times they dropped the kids off and picked them up in an area near the store that day, but denied knowing they planned a robbery.
Sunshine Foods of St. Pete owner Samer S. Hamed remembers that day.
He said only one of the four was armed. The armed robber wore a bandana and had a T-shirt pulled over his face.
"He screamed, 'All the money,' and he pointed the gun in my cashier's face," Hamed said. "I told the robber, 'You'll get whatever you want. Just calm down.' "
Police haven't said if Jaqueal Harris was the one wielding the gun that day, but they say detectives know he was there.
Harris' felony criminal record stretches back to age 13. He has been arrested for crimes involving violence, theft and drugs.
He also was an important witness to one of the city's most infamous incidents: the fatal police shooting of armed teenager Javon Dawson on June 7.
Officer Terrence Nemeth has been cleared in the shooting death of Dawson, who police say opened fire on a crowd of teens, then pointed a gun at the officer.
In a July interview with investigators, Jaqueal Harris backed the officer's account. Harris said he saw Dawson shoot a gun moments before he died.
While the armed robbery and murder investigations continue, Harris is being held in the Pinellas County jail in lieu of $220,000 bail.
Both his father, 38, and his mother, 33, are being held without bond because they violated probation from previous arrests.
The parents said they've answered all police questions in the 15-year-old's murder, but said they don't have what detectives want: an admission of guilt from their son.
The parents said their son described to them the last time he saw Malayshia, the night before she was found dead.
Jaqueal said a man pulled up in a car and threatened them. They split up. Harris said he heard arguing and gunshots.
Harris told his parents he didn't go to the police because he didn't know someone was shot.
Does the father believe his son?
"Really, it's hard to say," he said. "Jaqueal brings in a lot of trouble."
But the mother said she hopes police find Malayshia's killer "no matter who it is, because she didn't deserve to die.
"Even if it's my son. It doesn't matter. If he did this he needs to pay the price for it."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.