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Slayings case hits another hurdle

A new trial in a kidnapping case complicates efforts to build a case in a string of prostitute killings.

Homicide investigators worked frantically in 1996 to build a murder case against James Franklin Greenfield, a New York native police suspected in a string of prostitute murders in Pinellas County.

They faced an unsettling deadline _ Greenfield's scheduled release from prison on unrelated theft charges.

Within days of Greenfield's prison discharge, prosecutors had yet to uncover enough evidence against him that could stand a test in court. But they nonetheless built a case that at the least would keep him behind bars while the murder investigation continued.

They charged him with kidnapping a prostitute who, prosecutors said, barely escaped with her life.

It has been two years since a jury convicted Greenfield of kidnapping and a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge sentenced him to 10{ years in prison. Police investigators appeared to have all the time in the world to link Greenfield to at least three murders they had publicly linked him to.

Greenfield, 35, after all, wasn't going anywhere soon.

But four years after the death of the last of three prostitutes whose bodies were all dumped in or near garbage bins in St. Petersburg and unincorporated Largo in the spring and summer of 1995, prosecutors may again face a looming deadline.

Last week, the 2nd District Court of Appeal granted Greenfield a new kidnapping trial because a judge improperly granted a request for a dictionary by a deliberating jury that wanted to look up the word "terrorize" on their instructions from the court.

Only the judge, and not a dictionary, can provide legal definitions for jurors, the appeals court said.

The appeals court decision highlights the fact that despite years of investigation and the knowledge that their chief suspect was behind bars, albeit not on murder charges, the 1995 murders of area prostitutes remains a frustrating unsolved case.

And keeping Greenfield behind bars is no sure bet.

Retrying Greenfield, should prosecutors lose their expected appeals of the 2nd DCA decision, is not going to be an easy affair, his defense attorneys say. The case is a veritable minefield for even veteran prosecutors who will undoubtedly try the case.

The victim, Yvonda Johnson, is less than an ideal witness. Johnson is an admitted crack addict and prostitute now serving time at the Pinellas County jail on a drug charge. Portions of her testimony at trial recounting her 1995 abduction were inconsistent, said defense lawyer Karen McHugh. Those inconsistencies are bound to grow with time, she said.

At Greenfield's 1997 trial, prosecutor Bob Lewis successfully blunted Johnson's liabilities as a witness, telling jurors, "The state is not asking you to put some stamp of approval on her lifestyle. . . . But he doesn't get to prey on her . . . because she's not a good witness."

There were other difficulties for prosecutors in proving Greenfield's guilt. Foremost among them: No physical evidence linked Greenfield to the crime.

And much of the prosecution's case was built on the testimony of three witnesses with less than stellar backgrounds: jailhouse snitches.

"He-said, she-said cases are always the toughest to prosecute, all the more so when you're dealing with testimony from jailhouse snitches," said Pinellas defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg. "Those kind of cases stand or fall on the credibility of witnesses."

Prosecutors have already won a conviction against Greenfield, so they have overcome the case's weaknesses once before. And two of State Attorney Bernie McCabe's most-experienced assistants, Lewis and Jim Hellickson, are expected to retry Greenfield if they are forced to bring him to court again.

The prosecutors and St. Petersburg police declined to comment. "It's our policy not to talk about pending investigations," Lewis said.

Little is known about what evidence police may have linking Greenfield to the murders. The circumstances of Johnson's abduction is perhaps the most obvious link.

Johnson told St. Petersburg police detectives and later testified that Greenfield in July 1995 picked her up in his car while she was working as a prostitute near 22nd Avenue S and Fourth Street S.

She said Greenfield locked the door and ordered her to undress, so she took off everything but her shoes. She said he took her to a house in the vicinity of Third Street S and tied her up in the bedroom. But when he left for a few minutes, she said, she freed herself, grabbed her clothes and fled.

During the encounter, prosecutors said, Greenfield choked Johnson and threatened to kill her.

Defense lawyers said Johnson and Greenfield engaged in consensual sex and that he did not ever attempt to harm her.

The kidnapping occurred between the discoveries of the second and third prostitute bodies.

Greenfield was not charged with the kidnapping until 18 months had passed.

In court papers filed more than two years ago, prosecutors said the kidnapping of Johnson had features similar to the slaying of Emily Cummings, 34, whose nude body was found in an alley in the 1700 block of Beach Drive NE just weeks before Johnson's kidnapping.

Prosecutors have previously not commented on that link, except to say that both Cummings and Johnson had been bound.

The first of three slain prostitutes was Doris Katherine Nelson, 27, a mentally handicapped woman whose body was found May 7, 1995, in a trash bin on Belcher Road.

Then, in July, Cummings' body was discovered by a landscaper working at the home of former City Council member Ron Mason. A month later the body of Zelda Pierce, 31, was found in a trash bin in the 1100 block of 24th Avenue N.

McHugh, Greenfield's lawyer in the kidnapping case, said St. Petersburg detectives she talked to seemed fairly confident that they would eventually be able to indict her client on one or more murder charges.

"I don't know what they think they're missing," she said. "Detectives told me at one point they had evidence that may have linked him that they sent to a lab for testing. But somehow the evidence was tainted. That's about all they told me. . . . Without that evidence, I don't think they felt confident about proceeding."

Investigators had also learned that Greenfield's car was towed to a St. Petersburg garage from the Old Northeast neighborhood where one of the slain woman's bodies was found in a trash bin.

In the car was a strong odor, say the mechanics who worked on the car. When Greenfield was asked about the smell, he told the mechanics that a cat accidentally had been locked inside and died.

Investigators seized the car in hopes of finding trace evidence of body fluids, hairs or fibers linking Greenfield to any of the dead prostitutes. But what investigators found, if anything, remains unknown.

Schwartzberg, who is on a court-appointed list of criminal defense lawyers qualified to try a murder case and who formerly defended another defendant accused of killing prostitutes, expects to be appointed to represent Greenfield should he ever be charged with murder.

If prosecutors suspect Greenfield of murder, Schwartzberg is puzzled why the state has failed in its only effort in 1996 to win an indictment.

"They say a prosecutor can win an indictment of a ham sandwich before the grand jury," he said. "So you would think they'd indict him if they had any solid evidence. But the state attorney's office isn't one of those groups that charges someone and tries to prove it later."

One thing that may make police feel confident that Greenfield is their man is that the prostitute murders stopped and have not resumed since Greenfield has been behind bars.

"We have noticed that," Lewis said without offering further comment.

A trail of murder

St. Petersburg police have identified James Franklin Greenfield as the prime suspect in the 1995 slayings of three prostitutes. So far prosecutors have been able to get him convicted on a charge of kidnapping a prostitute who said she escaped from him unharmed. And now that case has been overturned by the 2nd District Court of Appeal. Following is a map showing the names and locations of where the prostitutes bodies were found.

The first of the three slain prostitutes was Doris Katherine Nelson, 27, a mentally retarded woman whose body was found May 7, 1995, in a trash bin in an industrial park at 12350 Belcher Road in Largo.

The body of Emily Cummings, 34, was found in an alley in the 1700 block of Beach Drive NE on July 20, 1995. She was nude and had trauma to the upper body.

A month later the body of Zelda Pierce, 31, was found in a trash bin in the 1100 block of 24th Avenue N. She had trauma to her head and face.