Just days after they said he had viciously robbed and killed two Tampa teenagers, prosecutors unexpectedly dropped all charges against Tampa resident Tavari Grant on Friday afternoon, offering little explanation.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office said in a statement that it had dismissed its case against Grant, 21. The investigation into the killings will continue, however, and Tampa police officials said Grant remains a suspect.
Grant was scheduled to go to trial in just 10 days on murder charges for the execution-style shootings of Kiara Brito, 16, and her 13-year-old brother, Jeremi. The case was in the public eye this week as Grant's co-defendant, Charles Waits, was found guilty by a jury on Tuesday.
Grant will now be transferred from Hillsborough County to state prison, where he will serve a seven-year sentence for an unrelated armed robbery conviction, according to police.
The sudden decision to dismiss charges against Grant was all the more puzzling because Waits testified at his trial that Grant was the shooter and had threatened to kill him if he told anyone about the crime.
"All of the evidence in this case shows this defendant and his good friend Tavari Grant intended, planned and decided to commit a robbery and a burglary," Assistant State Attorney Michelle Doherty told Waits' jury in her closing argument Tuesday.
Officials at the State Attorney's Office declined to comment on why charges against Grant were dropped, except to say in their statement, "The investigation in this case as to any accomplices of Charles Waits remains open."
Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said events at Waits' trial over the past two weeks had nothing to do with the decision.
"After recent developments in the case, we met with the State Attorney's Office, and we both agreed that the charges should be dropped, for now," McElroy said. "But it's still an open investigation into any accomplices, including Tavari Grant."
Even as law enforcement officials were signaling that they remain interested in Grant, his mother expressed joy and relief at the case's dismissal.
April Grant, 38, said that after Waits - who had been a family friend - testified at his trial that there was "evil" in her son's eyes, she sought divine aid in her efforts to weather the case.
"I actually prayed and prayed and prayed," she said. "And the day that Waits was convicted, I had a peace that was put over me. And that peace was from God because he knew that I had been through a storm."
Grant said she was filled with anger and a sense of helplessness at what she saw as the media vilification of her son, whose face is adorned with tattoos of a dollar sign and a skull. Yet she said she felt compassion for Judy Brito, mother to the slain children.
"I understand her anger," Grant said. "I just always wanted to look at her and give her a hug and say, 'I'm sorry for what happened to you, as a mother.'"
Grant's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Charles Traina, said he learned of the dismissal on Friday but declined to comment on any knowledge he had of why prosecutors relented.
"I was happy to hear that news today, and I think it's consistent with my opinion of how the case should have been handled," he said.
The Brito case's lurid details have attracted interest from the start. Police found the teens amid pools of blood on June 5, 2011. Their mother was in Treasure Island with her boyfriend the night of the slayings.
Judy Brito came under scrutiny after their deaths amid reports that she had allowed the children to sell marijuana from their home near the northern rim of MacDill Air Force Base.
Waits' attorney, Octavio Gomez, said he expected charges against Grant would be dropped. Among other factors, he noted that prosecutors had shredded the credibility of Waits - the only witness to Grant's alleged role in the slayings - when he testified Monday in his own defense.
A prosecutor repeatedly called Waits a liar. Jurors heard, among other things, that he had initially fabricated a tale about how a mysterious man named Rocco had forced him at gunpoint to take part in the robbery.
"Ethically, how can they call him now as a witness?" Gomez said.
Other evidence against Grant is scarce. When detectives found items stolen from the Britos in his bedroom, he said that Waits had confessed to the crime and given him three Michael Kors watches to "hold." Otherwise, he was not cooperative and did not make any statements.
Cellphone records showed that Waits' phone and Grant's phone were near the Britos' house around the time of the murder. But while Waits alone used his phone, Grant shared his with a younger brother, Denzel Baker.
That brother saw Grant and Waits leave together before the killings, then return to his house after the crime with the stolen items, Gomez said - but Baker has refused to cooperate with prosecutors. He is now in jail for contempt of court.
"It's not what you know," Gomez said. "It's what you can prove."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.