TAMPA — A Brandon man who killed two men at a Clair-Mel gas station in 2017 was acquitted of murder last week after a jury found he fired the shots in self-defense.
It was at least the fourth Hillsborough murder case this year that has ended in favor of the defendant.
The verdict came more than four years after Raynald Joseph Lamothe, now 35, shot the men on Sept. 12, 2017, as they tried to rob and carjack him outside a Chevron station at 7710 Madison Ave., he said. The confrontation came within a day after Hurricane Irma passed through the Tampa Bay area.
There was never any question that Lamothe fired the shots, said Grayson Kamm, spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office. But he was prosecuted on murder charges because of evidence that the shootings were premeditated, Kamm said.
Lamothe fled the scene after the shooting and most of the bullets were fired into the backs of the dead men, Dremaine Vashaun Johnson, 24, and James J. Nicholas, 23, indicating they may have been trying to get away.
A witness identified Lamothe as the man he saw leaving the Claire-Mel gas station, and Lamothe was arrested the next day at an Orlando gas station on charges of murder and stealing from the Orlando business, prosecutors said.
A Hillsborough County jury found Lamothe not guilty Oct. 14.
Lamothe sought to avoid a murder trial by invoking Florida’s stand your ground law, under which an individual faced with a violent confrontation has no duty to retreat and can use force if in fear of imminent harm.
He failed in his attempt and prosecutors opted to take the case to trial because they didn’t believe Lamothe’s self-defense claims.
Lamothe took the stand during his murder trial last week to give his account of the shootings. Nicholas and Johnson confronted him at the Chevron station and entered his car, he said. They ordered Lamothe to leave his keys and money and get out. He refused and said Nicholas pulled out a gun and pointed it at him.
Lamothe was able to wrestle the gun away and opened fire on the two men out of “fear of his life,” he testified.
“The front seat passenger pulled the gun on me and reached it over the console,” Lamothe testified. “It happened so fast, everything happened so fast. I didn’t even get a chance to think because the gun was right there.”
Kamm said prosecutors were disappointed with the jury’s decision but respected it.
Earlier this month, a jury acquitted a man accused of murder in a robbery that left three people dead. Last month, a judge granted a motion for judgment of acquittal for two men accused in a shooting death on Interstate 4. And in May, a jury acquitted a man accused of murder in another shooting death.
Lamothe returned to court Friday to face probation violation charges arising from the theft at the Orlando gas station. He was on probation at the time and had seven felonies on his record, most recently aggravated assault with a deadly weapon from 2017.
He violated his probation when he left Hillsborough County, committed the theft in Orlando and was found in possession of a gun.
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The State Attorney’s Office asked that Lamothe be given a 10-year sentence. He had violated his probation a number of times earlier, between 2012 and 2017.
But Judge Samantha Ward sentenced Lamothe to 15 years in state prison. He’ll be credited with the four years he has been in jail awaiting trial for murder, so he’ll serve 11 years.
“He is a menace is what he is,” Ward said. “I’m flabbergasted that the state is only asking for ten years.”
Johnson’s mother, Cicely Graham, said Friday she wishes Lamothe had been found guilty in her son’s death but is relieved he’ll spend time in prison.
“I don’t want him out here harming others,” Graham said. “If he gets into a rage, he’s going to hurt someone. And I don’t want any more families having to go through what I did for four long years.”