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Expired tag led to rape arrests

The driver could have thwarted Tuesday's attack, Pasco officials say.

By ERIN SULLIVAN AND THOMAS LAKE
Published March 30, 2007


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ZEPHYRHILLS - Marijuana smoke poured from the window of a beige Infiniti about noon March 7 as Sgt. Joshua O'Nolan investigated an expired tag. Inside he found cocaine, silver scales and a short black knife.

The most important item was in the trunk: a camera stolen during the March 1 robbery and rape of a 66-year-old woman.

O'Nolan arrested the driver, 17-year-old Andre Brathwaite, on drug charges and traffic violations. But he let the passenger walk away.

The passenger, authorities say, had committed not only that rape.

On Tuesday, Bobby Lee Black III raped a 68-year-old woman and threw her into a limestone quarry, they say.

Black, 18, was one of three teens arrested Wednesday and Thursday in connection with two rapes that put this Pasco County town of 12,000 on edge.

Could he have been caught before the second attack?

Yes, said sheriff's officials, if an informant hadn't sent detectives after the wrong men.

Meanwhile, law enforcement observers say the officer at the March 7 traffic stop had little choice but to let Black go.

* * *

To be sure, according to O'Nolan's Zephyrhills police report, Black was riding in a car full of illegal drugs.

But at the time, O'Nolan had scant grounds on which to charge Black. It was not until later that pictures of the rape victim were discovered on the memory card of the digital camera.

"My gut feeling is that it's a pretty experienced officer who knows how things work," said defense attorney Rick Leal, a former Hillsborough prosecutor.

"He knew he wasn't going to make a pot case on the passenger, or at least one that would stick."

And, Leal pointed out, Black could have quickly bailed out of jail on the misdemeanor charge.

The camera convinced detectives that Brathwaite, the driver, knew something about the first rape. But according to sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll, Brathwaite said he had bought it, not stolen it. He then misled them into investigating two people who turned out to have nothing to do with either crime.

It was only after the second rape, when detectives interviewed Brathwaite again, that he implicated Black, as well as 18-year-old Jathniel McMichael. The two were charged in both attacks.

Brathwaite was charged with home invasion in the first attack. All three suspects are from Zephyrhills. McMichael and Black are being held without bail at the Land O'Lakes jail; both face up to life in prison if convicted. Brathwaite is in the juvenile detention center; he faces up to 15 years.

As Sheriff Bob White announced the arrests Thursday, authorities released new details of the brutal crimes.

* * *

This is what happened, according to arrest reports:

On March 1, the 66-year-old woman woke up in Winters Mobile Home Park with McMichael pressing a knife to her throat. He demanded jewelry and the personal identification numbers for her bank cards. Black took jewelry and a camera. Then McMichael grabbed the woman's arm and forced her to take off her clothes.

Both men raped her, the reports state. Then McMichael stood up and kicked the woman in the face.

They also took her rosary beads, which detectives found wrapped around Brathwaite's rearview mirror.

On Tuesday, Black and McMichael staked out the home of the second victim. She was watching TV at her home in the Ramblewood mobile home park when they threw a brick and shattered a window and climbed inside. When the woman tried to scream, Black punched her face so hard that a neighbor later said the bone under her eye shattered and she needs surgery, the reports said.

They took $200 and made her get into her van at knifepoint. Black raped her while McMichael drove. She begged for her life. They went to an ATM and withdrew another $200. Then they drove her to a lonesome, deep quarry near the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, where McMichael said Black pushed her over the side, then rolled the van after her.

She climbed out, up more than 20 feet of a steep incline, and flagged down a passing motorist.

The Times is not identifying the victims because of the nature of the crimes.

The first victim's brother, who lives in Zephyrhills, said his sister is happy with the arrests.

"It's barbaric what they did to my sister," he said. "She's fortunate to be alive."

* * *

Residents at the places where the crimes took place talk about wanting to shoot the suspects themselves. People are scared. They're angry. They can't sleep. Every noise jars their senses. One man keeps a meat cleaver near him in his house.

They're comforted by the arrests, though their peace of mind won't be the same.

Little was known about the suspects Thursday. All three went to Zephyrhills High School at one time or another; McMichael was a backup defensive end on the football team. A classmate of Brathwaite's called him cool and laid-back. And Black's father insisted his son was innocent.

"It'll be proven," Bobby Black, a sanitation foreman for the city of Zephyrhills, said Thursday afternoon at his home. "He's actually good. He hasn't done nothing wrong."

Black's parents went to look for him when they saw his picture on television Thursday morning. They found him at the house of a female friend and drove him to the Sheriff's Office. As he rode away in a patrol car, his mother waved.

His hands were cuffed, so he couldn't wave back. He simply nodded his head.

In downtown Zephyrhills, sales have been up at Stan's Lock & Key Services since the first rape.

Even with the suspects in jail, the owner says, customers are frightened.

They are buying dead bolts.

Times staff writers Jamal Thalji, Molly Moorhead and Camille C. Spencer and Times researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 30, 2007, 00:30:42]


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