Unplanned road excursion turns into disaster
They came to Florida to escape hard times and say they ended up witnessing a murder.
By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published March 27, 2007
The two Ohio friends just wanted to get away.
Stoney Dendinger had been arrested - again. His marriage was faltering, and he thought he'd bring some Florida sand back to his wife and baby daughter. Christopher Hollis had plenty dogging him, too, including a drug charge.
An impromptu road trip to Florida seemed like a good escape.
They took off from the small town of Findlay in early August, in Dendinger's stepfather's Jeep Cherokee. Stealing gas along the way, they made it to Florida in a couple of days and met people in Tampa who promised construction jobs and a place to crash.
For two lazy days, Hollis and Dendinger told authorities, they hung out and smoked marijuana at a Tampa public housing complex.
And on the third night, on a sinister drive to an unfamiliar place, they witnessed the murder of one of Pasco County's most wanted men.
* * *
Jeremy Henry had been on the run for two weeks. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office wanted to question him in the deaths of two Wesley Chapel teenagers who were found executed on a dirt road in Trilby.
Authorities never called Henry, a 20-year-old with an extensive criminal past, a suspect in the murders. But he was hiding out just the same, staying in a mobile home on a sandy road in Dade City.
Hollis and Dendinger met him in Tampa while hanging out with men they knew only by their street names: Smoke. Toledo. Blackjack.
Early on Aug. 13, the group asked to use Dendinger's car. He agreed, on one condition.
"I told them I had to go with them," Dendinger later told an attorney, "that I wasn't trusting nobody to just take off with it considering that was the only way of transportation."
* * *
Back in Findlay, 20-year-old Stoney Dendinger had a wife and young daughter.
"He shouldn't have even been in Florida," his stepfather said recently.
Ohio records show he has tangled with the law since 2005 on charges such as driving without a license, drug abuse and domestic violence. He said he joined a gang when he was 13.
Dendinger couldn't be reached for comment in Ohio. He was in jail, serving time for the domestic violence charge.
His stepfather, Eugene Evans, said Dendinger is basically a good kid who is drawn to the wrong people.
"He's more or less of a follower. He's not a leader," Evans said. "He allows himself to get in situations by hanging around people who are doing drugs."
Hollis, 21, also has a troubled background.
Records show seven arrests since 2004, on charges including possession of drug paraphernalia, traffic violations, receiving stolen property and underage consumption.
Neither Hollis nor his family members could be reached in Ohio.
According to police reports, Hollis called his aunt and mother from an Effingham, Ill., gas station where Dendinger dropped him off at the end of their ill-fated road trip. They picked him up and delivered him to authorities, who were already looking for him to find out what he'd seen.
* * *
Henry was behind the wheel. The crowded Jeep stopped first at an apartment in Wesley Chapel, where the group drank and smoked pot. Next stop, Dade City, where they planned to break into a mobile home.
For providing the vehicle, Dendinger was promised part of the take.
Hollis was pretty sure somebody was armed. They arrived at the house and piled out of the Jeep.
Hollis didn't see the first shot, only heard it and smelled the gunpowder.
But as Jeremy Henry staggered away, Hollis watched as at least three more rounds were fired into his back.
Smoke, Blackjack and Toledo walked up to the body, now facedown in the sand. Hollis said they took a wallet, a gun and some marijuana. Then Blackjack fired twice more, once at Henry's head, once in his back.
On the way back to Tampa, Dendinger drove, and Hollis rode shotgun. They were warned: there was one bullet left.
* * *
They got back to Tampa before daybreak. Hollis and Dendinger crashed for a few hours and saw Blackjack later that day.
Dendinger said Blackjack seemed set on convincing them Henry needed to die. Said there was a price on his head.
They slept at Blackjack's apartment for another night or two - they had no choice, really, because Blackjack had the keys to the Jeep.
One night, Hollis and Dendinger said, Blackjack drove them back to the scene of the crime and held them at gunpoint, making them swear to tell no one what they'd seen.
Then, an opportunity. Dendinger had the keys to the Jeep. He and Hollis fled, stealing gas all the way back to Ohio.
Evans, Dendinger's stepfather, was angry at first about his stolen Jeep. But gradually, he coaxed the story of what Dendinger had seen out of him.
"He was more or less in shock," Evans said. "It was like he didn't want to relive it again."
Neither Hollis nor Dendinger face charges in Pasco County.
* * *
On Sept. 15, a grand jury in New Port Richey indicted 24-year-old Commie Lateel "Blackjack" Pattmon in connection with the murder of Jeremy Henry.
The trial is scheduled for May. Dendinger and Hollis are listed as witnesses for the prosecution.
Pattmon's attorney, Joe McDermott of St. Pete Beach, deposed Dendinger and Hollis. He said he doesn't believe the randomness of their story, that they didn't know anyone in Florida before they got here.
He declined to elaborate.
In the deposition, Dendinger said he and Hollis got $80 from Blackjack for their trouble, for providing the car that took Henry to his death.
They haven't spoken much since about the killing, except once when they were in jail together.Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story is based on police reports, court documents and depositions given by Stoney Dendinger, Christopher Hollis and Hollis' aunt, and a telephone interview with Dendinger's stepfather.
[Last modified March 26, 2007, 23:37:38]
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