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    Still waiting for justice

    It's been a year since Johnnie Bolden's son Clarence was shot and killed at a card game. No one has been charged with the murder.

    By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 9, 2003


    CLEARWATER -- The spurt of violence that riddled Clearwater last year began on a chilly February night in a cottage tucked away from Fulton Avenue.

    A group of friends huddled there on Thursday nights to play cards. They wanted to stay off the street, to mind their own business.

    That ended with a rap on the door. One of the card players opened it. Two men in black burst in. Before saying a word, the tall one fired a shot from a dark-colored handgun.

    Clarence Bolden, a 37-year old husband and father, was hit in the upper torso. The men in black scooped up the pot on the table and ordered all the other card players to hand over their cash.

    The armed man suddenly shot another card-player, hitting him in the arm. The robbers sprinted from the cottage to a white car down the street. The man shot in the arm lived.

    But Bolden died where he lay, the first victim in a vicious series of robberies that tormented city neighborhoods for six months.

    His death also left a family with a haunting and familiar grief, a pain they had felt many years ago after another act of violence.

    Bolden's mother, Johnnie Baldwin, was at home that night when she got a call from Clarence's wife, Andrea. "Clarence was shot," Andrea said, but Baldwin thought it was a wound to the arm or foot.

    Unable to drive because of poor eyesight, Baldwin dispatched her daughter to the Fulton Avenue cottage. Baldwin waited at home with her sister, staring at the phone. She began dialing her car phone, but no one picked up. She feared something was wrong.

    Clarence was the leader of her family, even though he was the second-youngest of Baldwin's seven children. On all her emergency contact numbers and insurance papers, Baldwin listed Clarence.

    The phone rang. Baldwin's sister answered. She listened to the news.

    "She just threw the phone across the room," Baldwin said. "And that's the last thing I remember."

    * * *

    In the year since Clarence Bolden was killed, detectives Steve Bohling and Clarence Calloway have been up to their chins in violence.

    On May 7, three months after the murder, an armed man confronted Johnnie Michael Thomas outside his Parkwood Street home, forced him inside, stole money and jewelry, then shot and killed him. The robber had an accomplice, maybe two.

    Thomas, 35, was murdered less than a mile from where Bolden was killed.

    The rat-a-tat-tat of robberies picked up its pace: There was another in June and three more in July, six in all. People were shot in three holdups, though no one else died.

    The descriptions of the suspects were about the same: Two men in dark clothes, their faces covered by masks or shirts. The robber who wielded the gun was tall and thin; the one who did most of the talking was short and bulky. In some cases, witnesses saw a third accomplice in a getaway car.

    The detectives believed the robbers were relying on street intelligence to target victims: It was well known that the Fulton Avenue cottage housed card games where money was exchanged, while street talk was that some of the victims carried lots of cash.

    Late last summer, they caught a break that led them to identify a suspect. By fall, charges had been filed in connection with several of the shootings, including the Thomas murder.

    But to this day, no charges have been filed in the death of Clarence Bolden.

    * * *

    This was not the first time for Johnnie Baldwin. She remembers what this felt like, how much this tore at her heart. She remembers her son, Chris.

    Clarence and Chris were in the same class. They were both terrific athletes, Clarence in basketball and Chris in football.

    The brothers were close in their youth, but graduation in 1982 brought a change.

    Chris was lured to a Texas college by a football scholarship.

    Clarence was a gifted basketball player. But he wanted to stay home, to remain close to his mother and his siblings, some who needed help with their own children.

    As Chris' first year in college was winding down, his mother called him. He planned to head to a schoolmate's hometown for summer vacation. But his mother asked him to come home. She wanted to make sure he was doing okay living so far away.

    Chris listened to his mother. Looking back, she wishes he hadn't.

    On the night of June 12, 1983, Chris was on N Greenwood Avenue. A fight had broken out at a nearby park, then shifted onto the street. A crowd swelled to nearly 150 people. Chris retreated from the pack and watched while leaning on a nearby car.

    Suddenly, a man pulled a revolver from his boot and shot into the crowd. A single bullet pierced Chris's head.

    Though he lived through the night, Chris never regained consciousness. He died at the hospital late the next morning.

    Chris was 20 years old when he died. The fight that broke out that night was over a necklace.

    Where Chris fell to the ground is less than a half-mile from where Clarence died from gunfire 19 years later.

    Clarence often visited his brother's grave site, particularly on holidays. The brothers are now buried at the same cemetery, three rows apart.

    * * *

    Two days after Chris Bolden's death, police got a warrant for the arrest of the shooter, who later was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

    The arrest and rendering of justice brought some relief to Johnnie Baldwin and her family. That has been absent with Clarence.

    "It would be a relief to know that the person who did this was arrested," Baldwin said. "This was done on purpose, and it makes me anxious to get somebody, to make an arrest."

    Bohling says solving Clarence Bolden's murder is his highest priority. His work has generated enough paperwork to stuff three six-inch binders.

    Bohling and Calloway began investigating Bolden's death the night of the shooting. They also were assigned to Johnnie Thomas' slaying and the spate of robberies that followed.

    The cases were hard to crack. Witnesses and people in the know were either scared or disinterested. Stories were sketchy, leads were thin.

    Drugs were a currency in some of the holdups.

    "These are tough cases," Bohling said. "They're tough because you deal with people who don't really want to be dealt with, even when they become victims of horrendous crimes."

    A break came in June when robbers, this time sans masks, pushed a woman into a S Fort Harrison Avenue hotel room and tried to rob her and her boyfriend. During the struggle, the boyfriend was shot in the groin.

    A witness recognized one of the robbers, but didn't know his name.

    But officers began to a hear the name of a potential suspect, a man named Eric Anderson. He had stints in jail beginning at age 16 and a violent criminal history. He had been sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was released eight months before the robberies began.

    Investigators learned that Anderson, 27, matched the description of one of the robbers -- the tall one with the gun.

    Bohling found a recent booking photograph of Anderson and placed it in a pack of five other similar-looking men. Then he showed the pack to the witness of the hotel robbery.

    The witness picked out Anderson's photo as one of the robbers.

    Police got a warrant and launched a massive manhunt for Anderson. As word spread that police were looking for him, Anderson heard. He called Calloway and asked him what it was all about.

    On Aug. 30, Anderson turned himself in at the Clearwater police station. He refused to speak with investigators. He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on multiple charges of robbery and aggravated assault with a firearm.

    Six weeks later, the detectives placed a murder charge on Anderson after developing evidence they say implicates him in Thomas's death.

    But when victims and witnesses were reluctant to cooperate, the state later dropped many of the robbery and assault charges.

    Anderson remains in the Pinellas County Jail, held without bail, awaiting trial on charges he murdered Thomas and shot the man at the hotel.

    Anderson has entered pleas of not guilty to all charges in those cases.

    Bohling says Anderson is a person of interest in the Bolden investigation, as are others.

    "He's definitely being looked at very closely," Bohling said. "What it comes down to is we have to be able to have evidence. We can't just have a theory. The MO's definitely match up."

    To date, however, no charges have been filed against Eric Anderson in the shooting of Clarence Bolden. The investigation continues.

    The lack of witness help has crippled the search for Clarence Bolden's killer. Some of the reluctant witnesses are other card players, friends of Bolden's.

    When Bohling finds people reluctant to talk, he takes out a photo of Clarence with his wife and daughter, Tyra, who was 7 when her father died.

    "I tell them, "You need to help me find out who ripped this family apart,"' Bohling said. "And people just kind of stare at that photo. There's usually a pretty emotional response to it."

    * * *

    During Clarence's memorial service, when his wife and mother shook and wept, Tyra Bolden told them not to cry.

    "She's handled this very well," Baldwin said. "I just hope it doesn't take effect of her later. I know she understands because she talks about it quite often."

    Andrea and Tyra Bolden often go to Clarence's grave site, where Tyra releases balloons.

    "That's her way of talking to him," Andrea said.

    Andrea and Clarence began their relationship about 12 years ago. They later married and had Tyra, who is now 8 years old.

    Clarence was a doting father. He took Tyra, now a giggly second-grader, on trips and played with her on the living room floor. He called her Baby.

    Clarence ran a landscaping business from home. He often mowed lawns for free, particularly for churches or the elderly.

    Clarence, whose father died of a heart attack when he was young, also stepped forward to tend to his nieces and nephews. At one time, he had eight children living in his house.

    "Clarence was kind of the man of the family," his mother said.

    Clarence's social life outside his family was simple: He played basketball or cards.

    "He loved to play cards, and that's where he lost his life," Andrea said. "To stay off the streets, they went to a place they called special, just to play and have fun and shut out everyone else."

    Andrea said she misses the sound of her husband coming through the door and calling out to her. She misses cookouts and trips. She misses seeing her husband's delight as he watched his daughter grow.

    "There's nothing that I don't miss," she said.

    * * *

    Bohling said there are people who could help find justice for Clarence Bolden and his family. He said they should come forward and tell what they know.

    "This family's been through quite a bit since this happened, especially his wife and daughter," he said. "This case means a lot to me. I want to solve it."

    Andrea Bolden said witnesses need to talk.

    "Friends who say they're friends, I'm sure they know more," she said. "My daughter and I both would like to know."

    The mother who has lost two sons to bloodshed 19 years apart still has memories of those horrible days flicker vividly in her mind. She said an arrest would help her cope.

    "If you lose a child, one or two or three, the pain still hurts," she said. "I don't care how many times you go through it, it's still painful. It doesn't get easy. Losing a child is a very difficult thing to accept."

    -- Chris Tisch can be reached at (727)445-4156 or tisch@sptimes.com .

    To call

    If you have information about the slaying of Clarence Bolden, call Detective Steve Bohling at 562-4422.

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