Jury finds deputy's killer guilty

Alfredie Steele Jr. is convicted of first-degree murder in the June 2003 shooting death.

Published April 27, 2007

DADE CITY -- Alfredie Steele Jr. -- 19 years old, staggering drunk and distraught -- fired several shots from an SKS assault rifle at a sheriff's cruiser early on June 1, 2003.

Two bullets tore into the back of Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, a man who had been a friend and protector to Steele his whole life.

On Thursday evening, after deliberating almost five hours, a jury decided it didn't matter that Steele didn't mean to kill Harrison. The panel of 10 women and two men found Steele guilty of first-degree murder, accepting that he meant to kill someone.

They now must decide if the 23-year-old should die for his crime. Sentencing is scheduled for today.

Several jurors cried entering the courtroom. Steele stood calm and expressionless as the verdict was read.

Charles Harrison Jr., the deputy's son, wept and thanked the detectives who investigated his father's murder.

"I'm so happy my daddy can finally rest," he said.

Sandy Harrison, the deputy's daughter, said the verdict was a long time coming.

"He can be at peace now," she said. "I know he would be satisfied."

Steele's public defenders argued that he acted without the intent to kill and should be found guilty, if anything, of second-degree murder.

In recorded confessions, Steele admitted shooting the rifle but sobbed as he said, "I didn't mean to kill that man."

In a steely closing argument Thursday, Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis zeroed in on the words "that man."

"He likely didn't intend to kill Bo Harrison," Lewis acknowledged. "But he intended to kill whoever the deputy sheriff was that was sitting in the car.

"He just didn't know it was Bo."

Harrison was 57, a veteran deputy who had countless friends on both sides of the law. He was a father of three, a church choir member and the highest-ranking African-American in the Sheriff's Office.

The Harrison family had known Steele's family for years. Steele's stepfather drowned in Lake Jessamine in 1999. Harrison stood by Steele's mother, Regina Clemmons, for six hours while she waited for her husband's body to be pulled out of the water.

Harrison was set to retire two weeks after he died.

The summer of 2003 had been filled with strife and tension between the Sheriff's Office and residents of the poor, rural community of Lacoochee in northeast Pasco County. Shortly before Harrison's slaying, a 23-year-old man had died after crashing his car while fleeing a traffic stop. Some in the area, Steele among them, blamed law enforcement.

Authorities say that fury followed Steele into the woods late on May 31, 2003, where he fired off some rounds from the SKS into an old barbecue shed. Then he went to Rumors nightclub, where he binged on beer and a potent mix of two cognacs. As he drove away about 2 a.m., he noticed a marked sheriff's cruiser parked across U.S. 301 on stakeout.

He parked, walked into thebushes, raised the rifle and pulled the trigger. Investigators found 13 shell casings at the scene.

Steele's mother and his sisters left immediately after court adjourned. Clemmons told the Times earlier in the day that she was grateful to her son's attorneys because they treated him like a person.

Sheriff Bob White remembered Harrison's big smile and how much he loved his community.

"We lost a great man," White said of Harrison. And with Steele's conviction, "You turn around and lose another potentially productive life. There are no winners here."

Jason Bavol, one of Steele's public defenders, said they were saddened by the verdict but respected the jury's decision. Now Steele's lawyers must fight for their client again, this time to save him from the death penalty.

At that hearing today, the dead deputy's son plans to address his father's killer.

"My dad put in 31 years with the force," Charles Harrison said. "He never one time had to pull his gun out for nothing, and then someone shoots him and kills him.

"It wasn't right. It wasn't right."

Times staff writers Gina Pace and Julia Kumari Drapkin contributed to this report.