MANATEE -- With a community around the 13th AV Dream Center living in fear for years, local law enforcement say they have known a crime ring was behind the majority of the violent crime. For more than two years, federal investigators been working hand in hand with local officials to make the connections.
On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney's office announced an indictment charging six people with a wide-ranging racketeering conspiracy of crimes that include homicides, drug trafficking, kidnapping and robberies in Bradenton, Manatee and Sarasota.
The 28-count indictment charges Nathaniel "Popo" Harris, Napoleon "Pole" Harris, Charlie "Mr. 30N32" Green,
Jerry "Jerk" Green, Corey "James" Harris and Deonte "Tang" Martin. If convicted, they each face life in prison -- or the death penalty under the conspiracy-to-racketeer charges.
In many of the cases, the suspect was known all along, but the evidence was not strong enough to prosecute the individuals who threatened witnesses, often resorting to violence.
This actually is not the first indictment in the case, known as Operation Maximum Response. The original indictment was filed on May 17, 2012 in the midst of one of Manatee County's deadliest years. Just two days prior, the ninth homicide of 2012 had been committed, putting the county on its way to a record 27 deaths to be ruled homicides.
Crimes in the latest indictment date back to 2007 -- another violent year in Manatee County, with 22 homicides.
"For years I have been saying that there are three or four families in Manatee County that if you crossed them or tried to take over their business, that was how they dealt with it," Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube told the Bradenton Herald on Friday.
Local investigators say they needed to put an end to the violence, but also needed to take those responsible off the street for as long as possible. So the sheriff's office and other agencies joined forces with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"Because there was so much gunplay involved, it was best to have ATF," Steube said.
This decision was made because investigators had proof that convicted felons possessed firearms, he said. With ATF alongside, the chance for conviction and longer sentences is always much higher.
"As it kept going forward, we were able to make more connections," Steube said.
The indictment unsealed Thursday was the second superseding indictment in the case.
On May 27, Angel Villanueva of Bradenton pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute or possess cocaine, crack, heroine and Oxycodone and the possession of a firearm. In the plea agreement made with the U.S. Attorney's Office, he must cooperate and provide information against others involved.
Villanueva is being held by U.S. Marshals as he awaits his sentencing. He faces a minimum of 25 years in prison.
The first superseding indictment, filed in February 2013, linked Villanueva to Nathaniel Harris in a conspiracy to work together to distribute drugs in and out Manatee County.
In the original 2012 indictment, Villanueva was also charged with three additional counts of possession of drugs with the intent to distribute, drug trafficking, and possession of firearms and ammunition.
In the 2013 indictment, investigators increased the charges, charging Villanueva and Nathaniel Harris with a total of seven charges.
Both men were charged in that indictment with conspiracy, possession of drugs with the intent to distribute, drug trafficking and possession of firearms and ammunition. Nathaniel Harris was charged with using a firearm to shoot Christopher McDaniels. The two final counts charged each with possession of firearms and ammunition.
In exchange for his plea, Villanueva was guaranteed not to be prosecuted for any other known crimes at the time by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Local investigators and officials could not comment on additional details of the investigation since it is now in the hands of federal investigators.
Manatee County Sheriff's Detective Jeff Bliss did say he received several calls Friday.
"There is a whole lot of nervous criminals in the community," Bliss said. "As they should be, because we know who they are."
Community craves closure
On Friday afternoon, Juan Garcia sat outside the 13th AV Dream Center, cell phone in hand. The 18-year-old student at Southeast High School had read about the indictments in the Herald.
"I just think it's crazy," he said. "At least they're away now and the streets are safe."
Dorothy Houston, who lives across the street from the Dream Center, hadn't yet processed the latest news surrounding the six suspects.
"I'm a Christian, and I pray a lot about all this stuff that's going on," the retiree said. "I didn't like to think that there were so many murders going on in the neighborhood, I mean anywhere ... but especially where I live."
Houston expressed relief that suspects were caught, but she said she isn't afraid.
"I'm not going until God gets ready for me. I don't care who's out here," she said. "When God gets ready for me, that's going to be my time."
Down the street from the Dream Center, Clive Sailes stood outside his home, cutting Aloe vera into chunks for juicing.
"I don't like crime because crime creates fear, and some people get a revenge spirit and want to go out and do something to other people because they feel like nothing ain't being done," the 76-year-old minister said.
Sailes said he's been wanting this to happen for a long time.
"I just thought that out of everything that's happened, somebody had to know something," he said. "Without law you don't have order -- and order is keeping everything in perspective."
Sailes, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009, said he hopes closure is brought to the victims' families.
"When you lose a loved one, that is something that cannot be replaced," he said. "No matter how much money or how much love, it doesn't bring a person back. That's one thing I always said when I was a child growing up. ... I would never want to take anyone's life."
No one who works at the Dream Center was available to speak Friday.
Nearby on Ninth Avenue, 19-year-old Travon McNear said he doesn't feel any safer even with six suspects in custody.
"They're not the only people out here doing stuff," he said. "There's plenty of people with the same guns ... the same issues."
For the families of two of the victims, Ceola Lazier and Brenton Coleman Sr., news of the indictments is still unsettling, Monica Brown said.
Brown was related to both victims and issued a statement Friday on behalf of both families.
"The Lazier and Coleman families have remained hopeful throughout both investigations and are grateful indictments have been made. Special thanks to Det. James Curulla of the Bradenton Police Department and the many other agencies for their diligence and efforts towards seeking arrests. We pray for the other families affected by these senseless acts and hope we all may finally find peace upon convictions."
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.