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    Inquiry evolves, evoking concerns

    One man's statement to police warms a cold trail in a 1996 murder case, but not without controversy.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- The two men are connected by a statement that set one of them free and may put the other on Florida's death row.

    How Antron Peterson assured his freedom, and how Wakeene Blanche ended up charged with first-degree murder, may be a lesson in the choice prosecutors and police are sometimes forced to make in the investigation of long-unsolved killings.

    And the shooting death of Andre Miller during St. Petersburg's racial disturbance in October 1996, police say, was as cold as most investigations get.

    Blanche's lawyer has said it's a lesson in selective prosecution, noting that Peterson is the stepson of St. Petersburg police Sgt. Al White, one of police Chief Goliath Davis' closest friends.

    "You give a little to get a lot," said Gary Gibson, a detective who said Peterson got immunity from prosecution to help police build a case against Blanche and the man who is accused of shooting Miller.

    "These cases boil down to witnesses and confessions and physical evidence. We don't have a crystal ball. I wish we did. I'm not going to say the process is perfect," Gibson said.

    Peterson cooperated with police, and Blanche refused, Gibson said. Immunity may also have been Blanche's for the taking, he said.

    "I know the chief and Sgt. White are friends," said Gibson. "That didn't cross my mind. The good thing about this place is that we're allowed to do our job without interference."

    White and Davis did not return calls for comment.

    Miller, 26, surprised Peterson, 21, Blanche, 24, and a third man, Jermaine Green, 27, as the trio burglarized cars in the parking lot of Miller's apartment building just after midnight on Oct. 25, 1996, police say. Peterson ran away.

    As he did, he heard shots behind him. Miller was shot and killed instantly.

    Under Florida law, prosecutors say, all three can be charged with murder even though only one pulled the trigger.

    In an odd twist, Green also was once the stepson of another St. Petersburg officer, Derrick Pollock. But Pollock said he never lived with Green and divorced his mother long before the shooting.

    Two days after Miller's death, a police detective noticed a white Pontiac with a temporary tag that fit the description of a car that fled the murder scene.

    Eventually, St, Petersburg police arrested the car's owner, Blanche, on an outstanding warrant for an unrelated charge.

    Back at the station, Detective Ron Noodwang asked him if he knew anything about Miller's shooting. Blanche, who was never offered immunity before talking, denied knowing anything about the killing.

    Several weeks later, police responded to a fight between Green and his girlfriend. As they entered their apartment, Green fled, leaving behind a handgun that police said was the murder weapon.

    But prosecutors and police say they still didn't have enough evidence to charge anyone.

    Nearly three years passed before police got their big break. A tip led police to Peterson. Police, frustrated at the unsolved killing, decided to deal.

    Police say they viewed Peterson as the person least responsible for the killing. He ran before the shooting.

    Blanche was just a lookout while Green and Peterson broke into a car, but police said Blanche was present during the killing.

    Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said he remembers Gibson approaching him before detectives talked to Peterson to get permission to give him immunity, which Gibson confirms.

    Noodwang, however, told attorneys in pretrial testimony that detectives did not approach the state before making the immunity offer.

    Peterson cooperated, promising to testify at Green and Blanche's trial early next year.

    In July 1999, Green and Blanche were indicted on first-degree murder charges. By this time, Blanche had refused to talk to detectives several more times. Police made one more pass at him.

    "We got Antron now to come to our side," Noodwang said. "Now we're gonna work to Wakeene to come to our side. I mean, I tried my darndest."

    This time, Blanche talked.

    Blanche acknowledged being at the scene of the killing. But he denied burglarizing any cars. He told police he simply drove Green and Peterson to the scene because they wanted to meet friends there.

    But prosecutors say his story was rife with inconsistencies.

    Blanche's attorney, Anne Borghetti, who has described the case against her client as "selective prosecution," declined to comment. Green's attorney did not return a call.

    Records show that police unsuccessfully tried to match Peterson's fingerprints to the scene of the crime the day before they offered immunity.

    With additional evidence, Peterson never would have walked free, Gibson said. "The easy thing would have been for us to just throw up our arms and say, "Okay, that's it. We tried. Close the investigation,' " Gibson said. "But Andre Miller deserved better."

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