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.
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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.
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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.”
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.
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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."
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.”