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The capture of cop killer Dontae Morris (w/video)

TAMPA — Nearly four years after authorities waged an unprecedented manhunt for Tampa cop killer Dontae Morris, a fundamental question remains:

How did they capture him?

Morris' crimes, imprisonment and trials have been extensively reported, but police have never said how he ended up in a South Tampa law office four days after he fatally shot two Tampa police officers in June 2010. For years, police simply said Morris turned himself in through a third party at the office of Fernandez Larkin & Garcia PA.

Those are not his lawyers, so why was he there? And how did he get there?

Morris was taken to the office by a drug dealer and informer who, police say, was paid $90,000 in reward money for his work, according to new reporting by the Tampa Bay Times. Tampa police had no idea Morris was nearby when they arrived for a late-night meeting with the informer. They were surprised when they learned he was downstairs, sitting handcuffed in a chair.

Morris was startled, too. He was expecting to be handed to the FBI, and became nervous when he learned Tampa officers were taking him instead.

Morris told his mother he doesn't remember how he was brought in — only that a bag was thrown over his head before he was driven to the lawyers' office in a sport utility vehicle, she says.

The Times learned more: The frantic hunt for Morris ranged hundreds of miles from Tampa. Officers searched his relatives' homes in Miami, Jacksonville and North Carolina, where they banged down doors and looked through attics.

During those four long days, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor made repeated promises to prosecute anyone who helped Morris. However, Castor recently said her agency never figured out what he did while on the lam — or how the informer knew Morris' whereabouts.

She says people who may know have not cooperated with police.

"We may never know what occurred during those four days," she says now.

Lingering questions

The Times has asked the Tampa Police Department about Morris' arrest for nearly four years. For most of that time, police were silent.

Then, late last year, after Morris was convicted in November for the murders of Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, the Times obtained a report that for the first time named the three law enforcement officers present at Morris' arrest at the law office of Jaime Garcia.

The Times attempted to interview the three, as well as Garcia. The lawyer and police Lt. Calvin Johnson declined to talk. Retired police Maj. Kenneth Morman and Hillsborough County sheriff's Sgt. Jim Bradford shared some — but not all — of their memories. Castor also broke her silence, and Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, talked.

Pieced together, their memories provide the most comprehensive account yet of what happened after the fatal shootings. It is a story about an intense, desperate search that occasionally shut down portions of East Tampa — and a very unusual arrest far from the fray.

What would he do?

It was just a traffic stop. Cortnee Brantley's car didn't have a tag, and when Officer Curtis pulled it over, he got her passenger's name — Dontae Morris — and ran it through a computer.

When Curtis learned Morris was wanted on a misdemeanor charge, he called for back-up. Officer Kocab arrived. Morris stepped out of the car. He pulled the gun so quickly the officers didn't have time to react. He shot both at close range.

Brantley sped away, and Morris ran. Bloodhounds tracked his scent to a nearby apartment complex, where it vanished.

As the officers' families grieved at Tampa General Hospital, Tampa police launched a massive search. Other agencies joined at a growing command center near Interstate 4. Castor insisted her officers not work around the clock, but many tried anyway.

If a man was willing to kill two police officers — an almost guaranteed death sentence in Florida — then what else would he do, police wondered. Castor soon shared that police suspected him in two previous murders and that Morris was a "person of interest" in a third slaying.

Armored SWAT teams kicked dozens of East Tampa residents out of their homes as they searched. Billboards displayed Morris' face across Florida and into Georgia.

Officers pulled over innocent black men in their cars. Authorities secretly tapped phones.

They searched the homes of Morris' relatives — including one attending college in Charlotte, N.C.

Castor apologized on television for disrupting peoples' lives but said it was necessary. She pleaded for the public's help, and donations poured in to reward anyone with information.

The pot soon reached $100,000, and police sorted through hundreds of tips.

As the sun set on the fourth day, a Friday, the command center continued to buzz. Meanwhile, 7 miles away, a small group was quietly meeting at lawyer Jaime Garcia's office to talk with a tipster who wanted assurances about his safety and his access to the reward money.

'He's here'

Garcia, the two Tampa police officers and sheriff's Sgt. Bradford gathered about 10 p.m. upstairs at 3105 Azeele St., according to Castor, Morman and Bradford.

An informer who claimed to know Morris' location was also there. He was concerned about the potential for retaliation, Morman said, and wanted assurances the reward money was real.

Once the informer was satisfied, Castor said, the lawyer told the group: "He's here."

"Who's here?" Morman, then a lieutenant, recalls asking.

"He's here. Dontae Morris is here."

The group went downstairs and found Morris, sitting in a chair. His hands were cuffed in front of him, Morman remembers.

Morris did not seem resistant or hostile.

"He was there willingly," Bradford said. "He was sitting in a chair, calm as could be."

He was with several other people, Morman said. The police lieutenant did not know them at the time, and he did not get their names.

Morman would not be more specific about what police have learned since. He would not tell the Times who police now believe those people were, nor would he give a precise number of other people present. He says there still could be retaliation against them.

And at the time, Morman says, his priority was arresting Morris.

With only three law enforcement officers on scene, Morman says, they were outnumbered. And though no one was antagonistic, Morman said he did not know who else could be nearby.

Was it ever an option, if the conversation with the informer did not go well, that Morris would not have appeared downstairs?

"Perhaps there was a contingency plan," Morman said. "That's one reason we tried to remove (Morris) quickly. Because we didn't know what was there."

Though cooperative, Morris was clearly nervous when he realized he was dealing with Tampa police.

"This is not the way it is suppose to be," Morris said, according to a report, the only record of Morris' arrest. It is two paragraphs long, both written by Morman.

Morris thought the FBI was going to be arresting him — not the Tampa Police Department, the agency still reeling from the slaying of two of its own. Morman would later note in his report that Morris "grew anxious and was becoming agitated, wanting to know why the FBI was not present."

Morman asked Morris a few questions to ensure it was really him.

Then he took off Morris' handcuffs and recuffed him behind his back.

Rumors, dead ends

Morris was brought to the law office in an SUV, but how willing was he? Did Morris truly "turn himself in," as police initially said?

Rumors about how Morris was apprehended have been passed around so much, it's hard to tell what is true. Castor says she has heard "a series of different stories," though she would not expound on any.

"They sound like a very interesting crime novel," she said.

Morris did not tell police what happened. He also did not respond to a reporter's repeated requests to talk about his arrest.

The Times has tried to interview Garcia about his involvement for nearly four years. At first, he said he would talk later. In recent weeks, Garcia, a defense lawyer who handles DUI, drug and other misdemeanor and felony charges, has not returned calls, emails or a certified letter sent by a Times reporter.

It is unclear how he got involved in Morris' surrender. Police won't say.

Castor said she is not surprised that people involved in Morris' arrest don't want to be interviewed. She said they fear Morris' friends.

Lt. Johnson, who works in District 3, which covers East Tampa, downtown and Ybor City, declined to be interviewed for this story. Sheriff's Sgt. Bradford shared some memories, but otherwise deferred to Tampa police, saying it was mainly their investigation.

Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, said that, from jail, her son told her that someone put a bag over his head before he was taken to the lawyer's office. He doesn't remember much else, Watson said.

She believes her son was drugged. When television news cameras recorded deputies escorting Morris to jail, Watson says her son's eyes looked strange. It could also explain the memory loss, she said.

Castor says it's possible the informer or someone else put a bag over Morris. If that did happen, it was removed by the time authorities saw him at Garcia's law office, she said.

Morman said Morris did not appear injured, and he did not complain about any crimes being committed against him. In Florida, regular citizens are allowed to detain people wanted on felony charges. These rules aren't spelled out in statute but are part of common law, which comes from England. In Florida, precedent shows that as long as the suspect is wanted for a felony, citizens can do things that might normally be considered kidnapping in order to get the suspect to police.

Morman and Bradford don't believe Morris' mental state was altered.

"He was very cognizant of what was going on," Morman said. "He understood where he was and what he was doing there."

Castor recently said she is certain that more than one person helped Morris hide — including someone who picked Morris up in a vehicle near the murder scene. But she has not charged anyone with helping Morris, and his attorneys have not pressed for answers.

No one has said where Morris was hiding or where the informer found him.

Morris' public defense attorneys say they never asked Morris how he hid. The lawyers, with the Criminal Conflict & Civil Regional Counsel, have not seemed to care how he was apprehended, either.

When describing the officers' murder to jurors in November, the attorneys skipped over the four days and simply said Morris "was arrested."

Police say they briefly questioned the informer after they got Morris, asking him two questions:

Did he know where the gun used to kill the officers was? ("No," he said.)

And would the reward money go to Morris' friends or family — or anyone who helped him hide? ("No.")

"At that time, he didn't provide any more information past that," Castor said.

Police say the informer got $90,000 of the total reward money. He was ineligible for $10,000 offered by Crime Stoppers because the informer had not called the tip line.

Castor said she does not want to appear flippant, as if the Police Department did not try to get answers. She says her agency gave it a great deal of effort and that she, personally, is curious what happened during those four days. But because the informer, Morris and other potential witnesses would not talk, her efforts were stymied.

"If we had a complaint or people were cooperating, we might have found out more," she said.

She likens the investigation to a cold-case homicide at this point — a classification that indicates some hope. Sometimes it only takes one good lead, one good witness, to solve a case.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

The capture of cop killer Dontae Morris (w/video) 03/01/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2014 8:11pm]
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