Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Hillsborough

Her ‘baby brother’ got a second chance. Then he was accused of carjacking and murder.

Cynthia McLemore says she let her brother James Hanson Jr. stay with her after his prison release to help him get his life on track.
James Hanson Jr., the suspect in Tuesday's Valrico bank robbery and subsequent carjacking and murder, is seen at a pre-trial detention hearing on Friday, at the Hillsborough County courthouse in Tampa. He was on life support Wednesday after trying to kill himself in the county jail. ALLIE GOULDING | Times
Published Aug. 14
Updated Aug. 15

VALRICO — For more than a dozen years, Cynthia McLemore thought her brother would die in prison.

But James Hanson, Jr. got a rare second chance at freedom when a judge vacated his life sentence for armed bank robbery. When Hanson was released last month at the age of 39, he came to stay with McLemore and her teenage daughter in Valrico.

“When I found out he was getting out, it was one of the happiest days because I was getting my baby brother back,” said McLemore, 42. “I wish I’d known it wasn’t the same baby brother.”

Last week , 35 days after his release, Hanson was arrested and charged with robbing a Valrico bank and then carjacking and murdering a 68-year-old retiree.

RELATED STORY: Hearing replays bank robbery, carjacking and attack that ended in Valrico father’s death

When Hanson called his sister from jail a day later, McLemore told her brother she was dead to him.

On Tuesday, McLemore got a phone call from a sheriff’s detective. Her brother was on life support, he said, and she should come say goodbye.

• • •

When they were children, McLemore and Hanson, who was known as J.R. or Jay, lived with their mother in Tampa. They later spent time in a foster home together.

She described her brother as happy and loving back then.

“He was my best friend,” she said. “We did everything together. He was always wanting to protect me.”

James Hanson, Jr., front, is seen in a family photo with his now-late mother Pamela Ann Hanson and his three sisters. Sister Cynthia McLemore, front left, let her younger brother move in with her last month after he was released from prison. He kept this photo in his cell. "We were best friends," she said. [Photo courtesy Cynthia McLemore]

When Hanson was about 12, he went to live with his father in North Carolina. In 1996, at the age of 16, Hanson was arrested for an armed robbery in North Carolina. He served five years in prison and was released in 2002. One month later, he was arrested on an armed robbery charge after he held up an AmSouth branch in Tampa. Because of his prior criminal history, he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2016, a judge vacated Hanson’s life sentence and allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge with a 20-year prison term with credit for time served. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office said prosecutors agreed to the deal because he stood a chance of winning a new trial on appeal and also served as a critical witness in an unrelated murder case.

In a 2016 court filing, Hanson wrote that he had undergone “a complete change of perspective." He claimed to have been a ranked member of the Gangster Disciples but had disassociated himself from the notorious prison gang and earned a general equivalency diploma and a computer maintenance certificate.

Florida Department of Corrections records show Hanson drew disciplinary action over the years for infractions such as drug use, battery and weapons possession but was still able to earn time off his sentence for good behavior. He was released on July 2 after serving 17 years, the 85 percent of his sentence required by law.

McLemore said she exchanged regular letters with her brother while he was in prison and agreed to let him live with her. When he arrived McLemore and her 15-year-old daughter were grieving the recent unexpected death of McLemore’s husband.

McLemore and Hanson both thought she could help him get his life on track.

“He even made a comment one time that he knew that I was the only one out of his three sisters who could keep him out of trouble,” she said. “He had to do it himself, and he should have been able to do it because I had his back 100 percent.”

Hanson moved into McLemore’s single-wide manufactured home and slept on an air mattress in the living room. He got a job packaging mattresses for shipment and told McLemore he had enrolled in online college courses.

But McLemore said prison had clearly changed her brother.

“He wasn’t as loving,” she said. “He didn’t show emotions except when he got angry."

Last Tuesday, Hanson asked McLemore to drive him to a meeting with his probation officer that afternoon, but she couldn’t because she was working. She was still at work when she got a call about deputies at her house investigating a bank robbery and stolen car.

Later that day, authorities say, Hanson confessed to robbing the CenterState Bank, carjacking Mathew Korattiyil in the parking lot and then, according to Hanson’s account, strangling Korattiyil with his own belt after he punched him and tried to get away.

“I really lost it when I learned he’d taken someone’s life," she said. “I cried over the victim and his family, not J.R."

Mathew Korattiyil, 68, was carjacked in the parking lot of the CenterState Bank in Valrico, then murdered by James Hanson, Jr., according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Authorities say Hanson told investigators he strangled Korattiyil to death with his own belt. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

McLemore was also angry that Hanson told investigators he robbed the bank in part to help her because she was being evicted. She said she told Hanson two days before the robbery that she had resolved that problem.

When Hanson called her while in custody, she asked why he killed an innocent man. He said it was “for the fight." She’s still not sure what he meant.

“I told him a 68-year-old man couldn’t hurt you that bad that you had to take his life, and then I told him he can live without me because I’m dead to him," she said. "And then I hung up.”

• • •

Tuesday morning, during a time reserved for inmates to shower and exercise, Hanson walked into a recreation yard with a bed sheet hidden under his towel, tied the sheet to a basketball goal and tried to hang himself, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy spotted Hanson, brought him down and started life-saving measures.

McLemore went to Tampa General Hospital, where doctors said the prognosis was grave. As several deputies stood guard nearby, McLemore stood by her unconscious brother’s bedside and apologized for what she’d said in their last phone call.

“I told him I wanted him to pull through so I could see him go through court, and that I loved him even though I was angry at him,” a tearful McLemore recalled Wednesday.

McLemore wishes she could have done something to change the course her brother chose that day, so that the the people who loved Korattiyil, a beloved grandfather whose funeral and wake drew several hundred mourners, wouldn’t be grieving now.

“I just want the family to know that I’m deeply, deeply sorry,” she said. “I know what it’s like to lose a loved one so I can only imagine the pain they’re going through.”

James Hanson Jr., the suspect in a Valrico bank robbery and subsequent carjacking and murder on Aug. 6, is seen at a pre-trial detention hearing Friday at the Hillsborough County courthouse in Tampa. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]



ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Sam's Club fulfillment center manager Nick Barbieri explains to a shopper how the new Scan & Go shop works at 5135 S Dale Mabry Highway. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The shuttered store has been reinvented and debuted to the community.
  2. Yogi Goswami
    The Molekule Air Mini is a scaled-down version of its original purifier.
  3. 4 hours ago• Business
    The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin in January with passengers headed to Tampa. For departure times and fares for this season, which will go from Nov. 1 through April 30, check thecrossbayferry.com. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Now in its third year, the ferry will run Wednesdays through Sundays, with service for every Tampa Bay Lightning home game.
  4. Earlier today• All Eyes
    Travis Malloy who runs an 8-acre farm with his assistant Shelby Alinsky on the east side of Temple Terrace, raises organic beef, pigs, turkeys and chickens. Malloy has also set up a number of...
  5. The University of South Florida revealed a new plan for the school's consolidation Thursday morning. Unlike the first plan presented in September, it promises a high level of authority to leaders on campuses in St. Petersburg, shown here, and Sarasota. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    A proposal by USF President Steve Currall and two regional chancellors would keep strong leadership over academics and spending in place across all three USF campuses.
  6. An arrest warrant has been issued for Orlando Proenza Jr., who deputies say fired multiple shots from a paintball gun into a motor vehicle Tuesday in Carrollwood. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
    Deputies are asking for the public’s assistance in locating Orlando Proenza Jr.
  7. Rocky Johnson, father of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, has moved back to the Tampa Bay area where he achieved his own professional wrestling stardom in the 1970s. Johnson has released his autobiography, "Soulman: The Rocky Johnson Story." OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Rocky Johnson was Florida’s first African-American heavyweight pro wrestling champ. You can read about it in his new book.
  8. A group of Sulphur Springs residents is working to raise funds to preserve the water tower, which has not been repainted in 30 years. CHRIS ZUPPA  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The 214-foot tall water tower along the Hillsborough River hasn’t been painted in 30 years.
  9. Thousands are expected to come out for the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. American Cancer Society
    The nonprofit has shifted its annual walk to the home of the Buccaneers
  10. Earlier today• Hillsborough
    Travis Malloy, left, and Shelby Alinsky pose for a portrait at TrailBale Farm near Temple Terrace. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Travis Malloy left a career in engineering for free-range farming. He raises turkeys, chickens, pigs and sheep and sells the meat directly to customers
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement