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A chase, an outcry, then shots in the dark

A beloved cop is killed in what looks like an act of misguided revenge. Four years later, what secrets still hide in Lacoochee?

By THOMAS LAKE and MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published April 15, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Julia Kumari Drapkin]
Alfredie Steele Jr.'s trial begins Monday.

LACOOCHEE -- Michael Reed bounced a car off a barrel-thick palm tree on May 10, 2003, and this town still feels the vibrations.

On a clear afternoon at a routine traffic stop, Reed gunned the motor and fled north. He had no valid driver's license. He was black, the deputy white. The chase went 1.2 miles, siren howling, suspension rattling, dust whirling in silver clouds.

It ended when Reed's car left the road and smacked the tree, launching him through the glass.

Pasco County sheriff's Deputy John Ardolino found him unconscious. Following standard procedure, he handcuffed Reed's left wrist, started chest compressions and called the paramedics. Nearly 100 people gathered, many black, many furious.

You've killed another one, they yelled, and some threatened Ardolino's life.

Racial slurs flared like napalm. A supervisor banished Ardolino from the scene for his safety. Reed was 23 years old. He was pronounced dead at 7:29 p.m.

This story is about what happened next. It involves race and revenge and shots in the dark. It has hints of a secret, whispers of conspiracy, footprints of an ex-Dallas Cowboy.

It may end this week.

It is set in Lacoochee, west-central Florida's poorest community, where everybody knows everybody and all crime seems to intersect.

A deputy would die before summer. But given the circumstances, he seemed the least likely target.

May 10-30: tremors

As night came on and the mob thickened, a white deputy named John Dragneff felt conflicted. He knew Ardolino had the right to stop Reed for speeding. But when Reed drove away, Ardolino didn't have to chase. Another officer might have let him go and obtained a warrant.

Dragneff loved his job. He was Lacoochee's Officer Friendly, assigned to teach children that cops are their friends. Now he waded through the mob toward a tall black man with broad shoulders. Darren Hambrick had recently finished his fifth season as an NFL linebacker - including one where he led the Dallas Cowboys with 154 tackles - and he was the closest thing this place had to a mayor.

Dragneff looked at Hambrick. This is your time, he said. These people look up to you. Maybe you could ask them to stop yelling, join hands and pray.

Hambrick replied: Friendly, it's not my job.

But then he spoke up, and the people stood down, and no one else got hurt that night.

Around May 23, however, a tipster told a deputy that drug dealers were collecting money to have Ardolino killed. Even after he was transferred to another part of the county, Lacoochee buzzed with talk of revenge on the Sheriff's Office. People told Dragneff it was a simple ratio:

One of us for one of them.

May 31-June 1: ambush

The picture showed Reed lying in the brush, torso disfigured, somewhere near death.

It ran in the St. Petersburg Times on Saturday, May 31, with a story on the crash investigation. It was seen that day by Alfredie Steele Jr., 19, one of Reed's closest friends.

Steele was overcome with grief. He had lost three friends in eight months to violent death.

In September 2002, Daron Black, a friend of Steele's family, was killed in a shootout with deputies. The following February, a Pasco High football teammate, Garion "Red" Pope, died when his car overturned and pinned him.

Now this.

- - -

Steele's nicknames were Freaky, Honcho and Knight. He was lean and handsome, coveted by women. When he wanted to emphasize a point, he said "Straight up."

He was black, well-versed in both Trick Daddy and Three Doors Down. He would soon discover the cowboy novels of Louis L'Amour. In a letter to a friend that year, he wrote out the 23rd Psalm.

He had graduated from high school and never been arrested. But he loved marijuana. He said it kept him mellow. He reminisced to a friend about the time they caught a dog and got it high.

"That bitch dident bark at us no more," he wrote.

And he didn't just use drugs - he sold them, according to sheriff's investigative records. Months earlier, the records say, he and his friends had traded two grams of powder cocaine for an SKS assault rifle.

- - -

On the night of the day he saw Reed's picture, Steele packed up the gun and drove an old Mercury east into the Withlacoochee State Forest. There was no moon.

This account of Steele's night comes primarily from statements he later gave to detectives.

Reaching a clearing, he stopped in front of a weathered stone chimney and raised the SKS. He pulled the bolt and fired. The recoil barely shoved his shoulder, but each shot boomed like thunder.

Then he put away the rifle and drove 3.6 miles to a throbbing nightclub called Rumors. He binged on beer and cognac and a blue liquor called Hpnotiq. The DJ played "R.I.P." for Michael Reed. It was an homage to the rapper's dead friends.

As he drove away near closing time, reeling drunk, Steele glimpsed a Ford Crown Victoria in the green and white of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

- - -

Rumors was a hip-hop emporium with a reputation for mayhem. On this midnight shift, Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was assigned to keep order. He parked his patrol car at the Farm Basket Market across U.S. 301 and trained his eyes on the club.

Around 2:15 a.m., Cpl. Larry Raulerson pulled up and noticed something strange. Harrison's head was tilted back and he made a sound like snoring. Raulerson thought he was sleeping.

Then, from Rumors, gunshots.

Cars screeched out of the parking lot as Raulerson dashed to investigate. He couldn't find the gunfire's source. He returned to the Farm Basket to check on his lieutenant. Now Harrison wasn't breathing.

He didn't respond when shaken. He had no pulse. More deputies arrived. They pulled Harrison from the car and, thinking he'd had a heart attack, started CPR.

It wasn't until paramedics rolled him over that they found the bullet holes in his back.

What Raulerson heard was not a man snoring, an agency spokesman said later. It was a man dying.

Reed's death had pushed Lacoochee toward a war over race and policing. Now someone had shot the man who might have made peace.

Harrison commanded almost universal respect in eastern Pasco County. Even the criminals liked him. He was 57, a former Army paratrooper, a deputy for 31 years. He was considered the second-greatest football player in county history - just behind Hambrick.

Harrison died two weeks from retirement. The highest-ranking black deputy in county history was cut down by bullets that may have been meant for a white man.

June 1-3: confession

Nearly 80 years had passed since the last Pasco deputy was killed in the line of duty, and an army of Harrison's comrades fanned out to find the shooter.

But no one with a badge did more for the case than a tall civilian with a stake in the outcome.

He had known the suspect since birth, played football on a team coached by the victim.

His name: Darren Hambrick.

- - -

Hambrick's glory days with the Pasco High Pirates were long behind him. He could high-jump seven feet, long jump 23. At the state track and field championship in 1993, he outscored 47 teams.

He was power forward, linebacker, running back. He was all-everything in three sports. In 1992, he was a member of the Pirates' state champion football team with his kid brother, Troy, and eight years later they played together for the Dallas Cowboys.

If only life were a gridiron. He had paternity suits and contract disputes. He fled from the cops in an SUV that smelled like marijuana. He gashed a teammate's cheek. He reported a paycheck as lost and then was accused of cashing it. He had three felony arrests in Florida - though none resulted in a felony conviction - including a charge of resisting an officer. The NFL got tired of his shenanigans. The 2002 season was his last.

- - -

After the shooting, after Steele's cousin Nathaniel Vanzant said Steele had lurched home drunk and confessed, it was Hambrick who told Vanzant to tell the police.

When Steele's older brother, Samuel Ceazer, was spotted driving the old Mercury Steele borrowed on the night of the crime, it was Hambrick who waited beside him until deputies impounded the vehicle.

And when Steele fled to Daytona Beach and his mother pledged to bring him back within 24 hours, it was Hambrick who drove her to pick him up.

They crossed Florida on Monday night, June 2, and when they found him by the Atlantic, he showed them his new tattoos.

They were memorials to his dead friends:

GRP, for Garion "Red" Pope.

Soldier, a possible reference to Daron Black.

And MAR, for Michael Anthony Reed.

- - -

Hambrick delivered Steele to the Sheriff's Office in Dade City near dawn on Tuesday, June 3. Within hours, Steele gave three recorded confessions.

"I got drunk to try get this stuff off my mind," Steele said, "but it ain't, you know, it ain't help."

He said his mind went blank when he saw the patrol car.

"I ain't, I ain't even -- I just shot. I ain't, I didn't mean to kill that man," he said. Then he cried.

For Steele's whole life, Harrison had been his friend and protector. He had shielded Steele's family from neighborhood bigots and comforted Steele's mother when her husband drowned.

"I didn't mean to kill Mr. Bo-Bo," he said. "Sorry, Mr. Bo-Bo."

He was arrested, charged with first-degree murder, held in the Sumter County jail. Harrison was so beloved that authorities worried Steele might be hurt in the Pasco jail - either by deputies or fellow inmates.

- - -

Despite Steele's confessions, many in Lacoochee refuse to believe he is guilty. They say he is too nice to commit murder. They offer several conspiracy theories.

One centers on the man who brought Steele in. It appears based on rumor, unexplained and unsupported by any evidence, but it comes up more than once in the Harrison case file.

In January 2004, for example, Samuel Ceazer, Steele's older brother, told a detective that Hambrick had paid Vanzant $10,000 to kill a deputy.

The detective's report also said Ceazer appeared mentally unstable. He didn't return the next day, as agreed, to put his statement on tape.

The Times could find neither Ceazer nor Vanzant for interviews.

Hambrick appeared late last month at the courthouse in Dade City, where his close friend Eric "E-Love" Wilson was on trial for Ronnie Barber's 2001 murder, also at Rumors. When a reporter asked Hambrick about the allegation, he did not show anger. He did not make a forceful denial. Instead he gently laid a hand on the reporter's shoulder. "Why am I not charged?" he said.

Then he asked his attorney, Aldo Ojeda, to speak for him.

"There's a legend in this county," Ojeda said with an air of good cheer, "that when something bad happens, it's Darren Hambrick's fault."

In the same courthouse on Monday, Steele will go on trial for Harrison's murder. He faces the death penalty.

June 6: secrets

Sunlight spilled through the stained glass of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Dade City as Harrison lay in a casket, surrounded by flowers. Nearly 1,000 people attended his wake, including officers from as far away as the Florida Keys.

Twenty miles north on the same afternoon, at the jail in Bushnell, Steele placed a collect call to his mother, Regina Clemmons.

Tape rolled as she told him to be strong, keep fighting, trust in God. Mixed into her pep talk was a cryptic command.

"You know," she said, "um, me and you talked about somethin' that, uh, take it to your grave."

"Uh-huh," he said.

The call was transcribed and filed away by the state. When the Times obtained a copy, showed it to Clemmons and asked her to explain, she said this:

"I wanted him to talk about what he knew, not about what he didn't know."

Later in the phone call, Clemmons urged her son to confide in his lawyer.

"Anythin' you say, he cannot repeat it," she said. "Jeffrey Dahmer had a lawyer that was tryin' to get him off - and knew he been eatin' people. You know what I'm sayin?' "

"Uh-huh."

"Once they take that oath to serve and protect you, they can't tell that to nobody."

"Uh-huh."

"But certain things - you followin' me?"

"Uh-huh."

"Death," the mother said. "Take it to your grave."

Times staffers Jamal Thalji, Julia Kumari Drapkin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6521. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.

[Last modified April 14, 2007, 22:27:09]


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