TAMPA — The man accused of killing 14-year-old Nilexia Alexander was once condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Ronny Tremel Walker in 2010 was found guilty of manslaughter for shooting Elaine Lanier Caldwell in her head during a home invasion robbery.
But there were problems with Walker’s trial. An appeal sent the case back to court. Lawyers then struck a deal: a guilty plea in exchange for eight years.
He got out in 2016. A subsequent probation violation sent him back for four more years.
Walker, 44, last left prison in November. Nilexia was killed in May.
Questions about Walker’s journey through the criminal justice system loomed over a news conference Friday at Tampa police headquarters, where police reiterated news of his arrest.
“The reality is that most people who go through the criminal justice system don’t go to prison for life,” said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. “Back in 2010, I’m confident the State Attorney’s Office did everything they could to convict him of the charge against him.”
Police declined to answer questions about how they came to suspect it was Walker who killed Nilexia.
But a court paper filed late Friday seeking to hold Walker in jail while he awaits trial illuminated an investigation that relied heavily on surveillance video and cellphone records.
The crime occurred a little before 4 a.m. May 6, in a vacant, weed-choked lot at 110 W Floribraska Ave. just south of Tampa Heights. Neighbors reported hearing gunshots. Someone stepped outside and found a girl lying dead in the field. She’d been shot in her head.
On her right arm, police noticed a tattoo that bore the name “Arthur.” When an image of the tattoo was broadcast on local TV, Ashley Alexander recognized it as her daughter’s. She phoned police, who confirmed it was Nilexia. The girl had run away from her mother’s Temple Terrace home 10 days before she was found dead.
Video surveillance from Floribraska Avenue showed a dark sedan turning around in the dead end, then stopping near the field for about 30 seconds. The car drove away with its headlights off. Images from city surveillance cameras recorded the car, a Ford Fusion, moving through downtown toward Tampa General Hospital. At the hospital, cameras caught the license plate, which was registered to Walker.
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Police identified a number for a cellphone that Nilexia used. Records of the cellphone signal showed it appeared to take the same path as the car, according to the court paper.
Police obtained a search warrant for Walker’s car. They found blood on the front and rear passenger doors. DNA tests matched the blood to Nilexia.
When questioned, Walker claimed he didn’t know her, the paper states.
Police located more video from near the Belmont Heights home where he was staying. At 3 a.m. May 6, Nilexia was seen walking in the area, dressed the way she was found, getting into Walker’s car, the paper states.
The paper notes that after the crime, the car stopped at a gas station near Armenia and Hillsborough avenues. Video showed Walker getting out to pump gas. Another man was seen in the front passenger seat.
It’s not clear if any more arrests are forthcoming.
Ashley Alexander stood Friday in Tampa police headquarters before a bank of TV cameras and broke into tears.
“I want to thank God for this day,” she said of the arrest. “To the Tampa Police Department detectives, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”
Department of Corrections records show Walker has been to prison six times since his late teens. He has a litany of prior convictions that include burglary and grand theft.
The killing of Elaine Caldwell occurred a couple of months after his release in 2003.
Court records and news archives depict a horrific crime.
Raymond Lee would testify that he was clipping his girlfriend’s granddaughter’s toenails in the den of his home on Eskimo Avenue when a man he’d never seen before walked in wielding a gun. The man held a finger to his lips in a gesture to stay quiet.
He patted down Lee, took $500, and asked where he kept the rest. Lee said he didn’t know what the man was talking about. The man asked who else was home. Lee told him his girlfriend was in the master bedroom.
The man grabbed Lee around his neck with one arm and grabbed the girl, Veronica Turner, with the other. He pointed the gun at Lee’s head as he moved them to the bedroom.
Caldwell, who was perming her hair, screamed when she saw the stranger with the gun.
“Shut up,” the man told her. She kept screaming.
He shot her in the head.
Veronica then started to scream.
The man knelt, kissed the girl on the head and spoke. He said he wouldn’t shoot her, because he had a daughter himself, Lee later recalled. He asked again where there was more money. The girl told him there was money in a car trunk.
They went outside to a car. After Lee opened the empty trunk, he grabbed the man’s arm. The man dropped the gun. As the pair struggled, Lee told Veronica to run. She took off.
The man later picked up the gun and ran away.
About a month after the shooting, Lee told police he’d heard information “from the streets” that ultimately led him to identify Walker’s mug shot in an online database.
Although Walker was considered a suspect, the case remained unsolved for several years before he was charged in 2009 with felony murder. In the interim, Walker returned to prison for drug-related convictions, records indicate.
He was charged with first-degree felony murder in 2009. A trial ended with a hung jury.
Before a second trial, the state reduced the charge to second-degree murder. A second jury found Walker guilty of manslaughter.
His status as a repeat criminal brought a life sentence.
“Today you’ll be held to account for the vicious crime,” Judge Emmett Lamar Battles told him at sentencing. “Justice is a long time coming for Elaine Caldwell, her family and for you.”
Then came the appeal — hearsay testimony at trial overturned the conviction — and the reduced sentence.
“This brought back so many memories,” Caldwell’s daughter, Veronica Denson, said Friday. “This man is an animal. I just want them to do everything in their power to not let this man walk again on the street.”