Two Tampa men caught up in street crime they warned against

TAMPA — In poor east Tampa neighborhoods, Romey Battle and Michael T. Brown were known to salvage wrecks.

Take the promising running back incarcerated for three years. With Battle's help, he emerged with a college scholarship.

Or the prep wide receiver national scouts regarded as Tampa's best. Grades threatened to sideline him until Battle guided him back in bounds.

Criminal records, poor grades, vanishing potential — the teens' obstacles didn't matter. Battle and Brown mentored them, paid for football camps and begged college coaches to take a chance. Some even ended up in the NFL.

Yet the nonprofit they started, hoping to pry open doors, failed to replenish itself, friends and coaches said. With few donations or grants coming in, Battle and Brown are accused of turning to the dead-end streets they had steered teens away from.

Police said they became drug dealers.

During interviews they told authorities why: They did it, they said, for the kids.

• • •

Battle and Brown worked together at the Corporation to Develop Communities, an organization that helps people with jobs and housing in east Tampa, where the two men grew up.

Battle, 36, served as a youth program director. Though on the shorter side, his gravelly voice commanded the attention of teens who towered over him. Brown, 34, was a counselor. He's 6-feet-3 and 335 pounds but his stepfather, Dennis Range, described him as a teddy bear.

Their passion for sports drew them to high school athletes, and by August 2007, each had left the CDC and together formed a nonprofit called the Center for Urban Programs and Services.

In a promotional video Brown leads an elementary class in chants:

"I am somebody!"

"I am responsible for my behavior."

"I should not accept excuses."

Another clip shows Javier Arenas, a former Robinson High School star, breaking a punt return for a touchdown at the University of Alabama.

"When Romey came in with the foundation, he kind of structured everything for me, set a road, set a map," Arenas says on the video. "I followed it and did everything the foundation laid on the table for me, and it has me where I am right now."

For years, Brown and Battle worked through the CDC and then their nonprofit to take high school students to college games, urging them to dream big, coaches and players said. They helped teens fill out job applications or found them odd jobs washing cars or mowing lawns. Battle made highlight films for scouts and bought athletes plane tickets to college.

In 2007, Bank of America awarded $5,000 to their program and named Battle a "local hero."

"Kids that need things, he's just there for them. He's a giver," Elon University assistant coach Dave Ungerer said. Ungerer recruited Arenas to Alabama when he coached there.

• • •

Some say Battle gave more than he could.

On July 11, he and Brown hosted a free football camp at the University of South Florida for about 175 kids. They had hoped sponsors would pay for water, food and about 200 T-shirts. But Battle ended up paying after pledges failed, said Raymond Neal, a running back for Fort Hays State in Kansas who helped with the camp. "He was the only one putting in the money."

On the day of the camp, Brown told a St. Petersburg Times reporter, "If this isn't a success, I don't know what is. We didn't get the sponsorship we wanted, but we had almost 100 percent turnout from our players."

Battle always hoped teens he invested in would make it to the NFL and financially support his cause, said Al McCray, who coached in Tampa high schools for more than a decade and now works at Fort Hays State.

"This economy is hard," McCray recalled Battle telling him. "It's just tough to get people to help with money."

Range heard the same things from his stepson, Brown.

"I know they were having budget problems," Range said. "Things were tight."

• • •

In early April, Tampa police got a tip that Brown and Battle were selling drugs, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. They had started this latest venture a few weeks earlier, she said.

Undercover officers called Brown and set up a deal, then went to Battle's home at 3103 E 27th Ave.

The pair recently had been ripped off during a buy, McElroy said. "So they jacked up their price to make up for it," she said. "They appeared inexperienced."

Police say they bought crack multiple times from the pair. At one point, police say, Battle led them a few blocks from his home to 2211 E 27th Ave., a vacant "stash house." Property records say the house is owned by the estate of Menefee White. Battle lived there at one time, McElroy said.

In a subsequent raid, officers found 182 grams of cocaine in the stash house. Including the drug buys, they seized 250 grams of cocaine. McElroy said the pair would cook powdered cocaine into crack.

Detectives also seized $1,800 and two vehicles. Battle and Brown turned themselves in July 16 on charges of trafficking in cocaine and conspiracy to traffic in cocaine. No court date has been set.

Tampa police say they do not believe the pair sold drugs to the youth in their programs.

It was the first arrest for Brown. Battle's state arrest record includes a 1991 robbery charge that was dropped. He also was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of drunken driving.

Brown and Battle told investigators that they were unemployed, and that they sold drugs to keep their center alive, McElroy said.

But police said that the pair seemed to be pocketing whatever they earned.

Battle's wife, Kenya Gambrell, is licensed as a pharmacist, according to state records. In 2007, she bought the family's $220,000 house in east Tampa, according to Hillsborough property records.

Brown, who lives in Riverview, worked mostly for nonprofits or public schools, Range said.

According to GuideStar, a national nonprofit database, the two men's Center for Urban Programs and Services was not required to file an annual IRS return because its income was less than $25,000.

Battle declined to comment for this story after messages were left at his home and e-mail. A message left for Brown through Range was not returned.

"I never envisioned that out of him," Range said. "If he did it, we want him to be man enough to step up to it."

• • •

Now students, athletes and coaches who know Battle and Brown are grappling with the news.

Neal had been an explosive high school running back before he spent three years in prison after several arrests. Battle visited and helped him get a scholarship upon his release in 2006.

"When I was down and out," Neal said, "he was the one who uplifted me and motivated me."

Some teens Brown and Battle championed, including Neal, have transferred colleges. Some dropped out. At least two have died from gun violence.

Others, including Brodrick Bunkley and Stoney Woodson, are in the NFL. Rhonne Sanderson and Moses McCray play for Florida State University.

Neal finds it hard to stomach that Battle, the mentor who had warned him about the dangers of marijuana, could have succumbed to the streets.

"I talked to him, and he told me that he doesn't have anything to say," Neal said. "It's just that he was out of work and wasn't thinking with a clear head. He was just thinking of a quick way to get some money and to support his program and to support kids in the community."

O.J. Murdock, another Battle protege who is now at Fort Hayes State, said he won't distance himself from someone who gave him repeat chances. Once nationally recruited, Murdock is trying to reclaim his NFL dream after an arrest and transfers.

He doesn't judge Battle and Brown, he said. What matters now is what they will do to salvage their own future.

Times staff writers Eduardo A. Encina and Brian Landman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Two Tampa men caught up in street crime they warned against 08/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 4:17pm]

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