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Suspect in Tampa police killings linked to three other murders, police chief says

TAMPA — The man accused of killing two Tampa police officers was implicated Thursday in three other local homicides.

All the killings happened after Dontae Rashawn Morris was released from prison in April, police Chief Jane Castor said.

That revelation provides a possible motive for the killings of Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. Police say Morris shot them point-blank when they tried to arrest him on a worthless check warrant.

The officers didn't know about Morris' possible involvement in any killings during Tuesday's fatal traffic stop in east Tampa, Castor said. At the time, Morris was a "person of interest" in just one shooting death — which would not have appeared on the officers' patrol car databases, Castor said.

In the last few days, Morris, 24, also became a suspect in a May 18 killing and a "person of interest" in two other homicides that the chief would not detail. None was random, Castor said.

It's unusual for a person in the bay area to be connected to five killings in such a short time.

"He's a cold-blooded killer," said Castor, who promised he would be caught.

The huge manhunt for Morris sent armed brigades of law enforcement into several parts of the city Thursday, and expanded to Jacksonville after investigators heard he may have fled there.

Wanted posters with Morris' photo greeted travelers at Tampa International Airport. He was featured on the FBI's most-wanted list and was the top story on the website of America's Most Wanted. His face appeared on CNN.

The hunt even led to the gates of MacDill Air Force Base after a tip indicated Morris was inside. That spawned a two-hour lockdown as officials inspected cars leaving the facility.

Castor said investigators are checking cemeteries, lots and abandoned buildings. She said they haven't ruled out the possibility that Morris is dead.

If alive, Castor said, he would be smart to give himself up.

"We're tightening the net.''

• • •

Of the three additional killings Morris was linked to, Castor said the strongest evidence involves the May 18 slaying of 21-year-old Derek Anderson.

Anderson was shot just before midnight while walking to his Kenneth Court apartment at 5715 Steven Court. Police called it a failed robbery attempt. Anderson died at a local hospital.

The whispers started a few days later.

"Dontae's the one who shot Derek," neighbor Montray Mack said he remembered hearing around the complex.

"The rumor was it was Dontae," said another neighbor, Treena Stanley, who said she saw Morris at the complex a few days before the officers' deaths. "Something was wrong with him … like he had issues."

At first, police said a group of people gunned down Anderson, who friends and family described as a good-natured man who avoided trouble. Officials later said the killer was a lone man dressed in white with a bandana over his face.

CrimeStoppers of Tampa Bay offered a $1,000 reward for information about the Anderson case. Only four tips came in, said Deputy Lisa E. Haber, and the case remains unsolved.

Morris was named a "person of interest" almost immediately, Castor said. That didn't mean police thought he was the killer. It could have meant someone saw him near the scene of the killing.

Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Morris had not been questioned by the time officers Curtis and Kocab pulled him over. There's a chance Morris didn't know police were investigating him, McElroy said.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Castor would not discuss the two other homicides in which Morris is now considered a "person of interest." And she wouldn't say what led police to upgrade Morris to "suspect" in Anderson's killing.

But Anderson's mother was relieved when she learned Thursday that Morris is now linked to her son's death. Wanda Gilchrist said she has suspected Morris was her son's killer since the officers' deaths, when neighbors told her the rumors.

"His name's been in the air. His name kept popping up," Gilchrist said. "I really hope they get him."

Anderson's sister, 19-year-old Tamora Dorn, said she never met Morris but had seen him and heard stories about him. When she saw his face on television after the officers were shot, her stomach sank.

"I was like, 'If he could kill two cops, he could kill my brother,' " Dorn said.

Both women said they're relieved that Anderson's death won't be forgotten, but they can't relax until Morris is caught.

"I don't want to see the man dead. I want to see him in court," Gilchrist said. "I've got a question for him: Why?"

• • •

Authorities in Tallahassee and Jacksonville are asking questions, too, trying to determine if they made a mistake when they let Morris leave prison in April despite three bad check warrants waiting for him.

Two were misdemeanor warrants and one was for a felony. But state prison officials apparently knew about only one of the misdemeanor warrants when they asked a Jacksonville sheriff's officer in October if the agency wanted to pick Morris up after he was released.

The officer declined, saying the county would not place a hold on Morris nor extradite him. So he was let go.

The Sheriff's Office said it doesn't extradite people for misdemeanor warrants unless they're in nearby Clay, St. Johns, Baker or Nassau counties. But the felony warrant — which went undetected by prison officials — would have let the Sheriff's Office go anywhere to pick up Morris.

State prison officials don't know why that warrant didn't appear when they checked national and state criminal databases twice, corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Thursday.

Law enforcement agencies typically crosscheck their own warrant records, and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is trying to determine whether their records and identification clerk missed the felony warrant.

"We are continuing our own investigation," spokeswoman Lauri-Ellen Smith said.

In Hillsborough County, deputies bring back all released inmates with outstanding warrants unless the State Attorney's Office declines to press charges or if both agencies agree that a crime is too old, too minor or that a suspect has an extenuating medical condition.

That determination weighs the cost of extradition versus the alleged crime, Hillsborough Cpl. Tony Vidal said. Hillsborough County spends more than $200,000 a year extraditing out-of-state prisoners.

If the State Attorney's Office had dropped Morris' charges, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office should have deleted his warrants from a statewide database.

Duval County State Attorney Angela B. Corey said the warrants would have been dropped since Morris was in prison in April 2008 when someone wrote three bad checks of more than $100 to three Publix stores.

Times staff writers William R. Levesque, Katie Sanders, Richard Danielson, Jessica Vander Velde, Nandini Jayakrishna and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Suspect in Tampa police killings linked to three other murders, police chief says 07/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 7:49am]

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