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Special report: The homeless struggle

Unrelated arrest led to murder suspects

A teen says he was there when two homeless men were killed.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published February 8, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Keith Bentley, 42, who's been homeless since a car accident more than four years ago left him disabled, observes Wednesday's Midday Market in Williams Park.

ST. PETERSBURG - For weeks, police searched for a lead in the killings of two homeless men. They interviewed dozens of people, made covert buys from drug dealers, canvassed neighborhoods.

On Monday, they finally got a break.

Detective Ron Noodwang interviewed a 17-year-old who had been arrested that day on various charges, including burglary. They sat next to each other at a table in an interview room. The teen was just another fish caught in the big net police had tossed out, and he wasn't saying much.

But Noodwang, a veteran detective with a reputation as one of the department's best interviewers, said he could sense that the teenager knew something from the way he looked away and gave vague answers whenever the shootings came up. So he kept the conversation going, for more than two hours.

The 17-year-old began to talk. He said he knew about the shootings. Finally he admitted he had been with the shooters - two of his friends - when they gunned down the homeless men.

"He gradually started and stopped and, finally, he just started talking about the whole thing," Noodwang said. "It was eating him up inside."

After the interview, the rest of the investigation fell into place quickly. By Tuesday night, police arrested Cordaro Hardin, 18, and Dorion Dillard, 20, on two charges of first-degree murder each.

Was it robbery?

On Jan. 16, Hardin, Dillard, the 17-year-old and another 18-year-old friend were wandering through the streets of Central Oak Park. Around 11:30 p.m., police said, they came across Jeff Shultz, 43, a homeless man who was riding his bicycle. Police are not naming the 17-year-old and 18-year-old because they are witnesses.

Sgt. Mike Kovacsev, the head of the department's homicide unit, said at a news conference Wednesday that the 18-year-old ran away, sensing his friends were about to do something bad. The other three approached Shultz to rob him, police said.

Dillard had a .45-caliber handgun and Hardin had a .25-caliber handgun, Kovacsev said. They both fired, killing Shultz.

About an hour later, the three young men came across David Heath, 53, who was just a few blocks away from a friend's house where he planned to spend the night in a backyard hammock. Dillard and Hardin gunned him down, too, Kovacsev said.

Kovacsev said the three young men confronted Shultz because they wanted to rob him. It is unclear why they killed Heath, though robbery may have been a motive in his slaying as well.

So what did they get from the homeless men?

"It doesn't appear that they got anything from either one of them," Kovacsev said.

Both Dillard and Hardin spent their teenage years getting in trouble, landing in jail and serving probation.

Hardin was arrested several times on charges of crack cocaine possession and was on probation at the time of the shootings. (He also faces charges of burglary and violating probation.) He was taking classes recently at the Life Skills Center of Pinellas County.

Dillard was arrested on charges such as auto theft and crack cocaine possession and was put on probation as well. He once worked at a Church's Chicken, according to an arrest affidavit.

Family members of the two could not be reached for comment. Dillard and Hardin were staying with Dillard's girlfriend in Childs Park when the police came for them Tuesday.

Looking for leads

The Police Department dedicated large resources to the shootings of the homeless men but didn't come across a major lead until Noodwang's interview with the 17-year-old. Detectives Joe DeLuca and Lorry Dunn, the lead investigators on the case, were among the investigators who interviewed dozens of people, including students at local schools.

Police later found the 18-year-old who fled before the shootings. He corroborated parts of the story.

Then, officers picked up Dillard and Hardin. Dillard confessed to everything Tuesday night, police said. Hardin made incriminating statements, police said, but stopped short of saying he shot and killed Heath and Shultz.

The 18-year-old who ran away does not face any charges. The 17-year-old is in custody but does not currently face any charges related to the homicides. Police said they will allow the state attorney's office to determine whether any charges are warranted.

On Tuesday morning, before the police came, Dillard's girlfriend said on her MySpace page that the couple planned to get married.

By Wednesday night, she had changed the headline. It now reads: "LET MY BABY FREE."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Eddy Ramirez contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified February 8, 2007, 12:00:22]


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