Manatee It was a case more than six years in the making, but justice was finally served for Manatee County earlier this month.
Nathaniel “Popo” Harris, Deonte “Tang” Martin, Napoleon “Pole” Harris, Jerry “Jerk” Green, Charlie “Mr. 30N32” Green and Corey “James” Harris received various sentences after a lengthy trial but with a common bottom line — they will spend the rest of their lives in federal prison.
For years, detectives knew their gang had been responsible for a rash of violent crimes, including at least six murders in Manatee County.
Anonymous tipsters would keep repeating the soon familiar names, or simply that “Big Red’s kids” were responsible. But that wasn’t enough to prove anything in court.
Never miss a local story.
Fear had been instilled deep in the community, making people afraid to talk on the record.
YouTube is still filled with rap videos depicting several of them, including Jerry Green calling himself a “two murder winner” because he had gotten off of murder charges twice before. The videos were their way not only to promote their drug trade but also to warn the community not to snitch.
We told them we knew what they were up to, we were on to them and we were going to get them. They laughed and laughed. ... They’re not laughing anymore.
Homicide Detective Jeffrey Bliss, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office
Homicide Detective Jeffrey Bliss, with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, still recalls the day he stood in the yard of Napoleon “Big Red” Harris Sr. — father to at least three of the six convicted — with now-retired Detective John Kenney, and warned several of them.
“We told them we knew what they were up to, we were on to them and we were going to get them,” Bliss said. “They laughed and laughed. ... They’re not laughing anymore.”
The six defendants were charged in a 28-count federal indictment, handed up in June 2014, with crimes that included murder, conspiracy, firearms violations, robberies and kidnapping, as well as trafficking of heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, oxycodone and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ultimately delivered the message from the community to each of the six men this month as she told them their fate: “Manatee County doesn’t want you back, and I agree with them.”
“By sentencing each defendant to life for each murder they committed, the judge is giving justice to the families and to the victims,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Murray said. “It left a scar on the entire community.”
Sheriff Rick Wells was pleased with the outcome of the case.
“It’s a great day for Manatee County, that we were able to get justice handed to these killers,” Wells said. “It was years of preparing for this moment and we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.”
RICO case born
Bliss said he can still remember Sept. 4, 2010, the day Joseph Evans was murdered, like it was yesterday.
It was sunset as he and the other homicide detectives were standing at the scene, speaking with Lt. Tony Williams. Despite there having been numerous people outside, they weren’t getting much cooperation from the community, he said.
“It was then that we realized we were going to have to investigate this in a different way, as a group instead of individual murders,” Bliss said.
Bliss, other homicide detectives including Kenney, as well detectives Joe Petta and Scott Williamson from the Special Investigation Division, then began building the case.
Evans had been a complete innocent in the case, Bliss said, which is what had really struck a chord with him and other detectives. Evans had been mistaken for Demetrius Cunningham, who had been ordered killed.
“I had watched Joseph Evans grow up,” Bliss said, referring to his time as a patrol deputy assigned to the neighborhood where Evans lived.
It was difficult for them to come forward because of fear. You're talking about people that saw their own family members killed and were afraid to even talk to law enforcement about that.
Special Agent Yannick DesLauriers, Bureau Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Homicide Detective Darryl Davis brought something different to the investigation, having known some of the defendants, such as Nathaniel Harris and witness Angel Villanueva from his days as a school resource officer. Many of them had grown up committing crimes together, Davis said.
As the case developed, Davis’ ability to gain information from the community became helpful and much of what he would hear was that it was “Big Red’s” kids responsible for all the violence.
“But people were very afraid of coming forward,” Davis said. “That’s how great the fear in the community was.”
The group began to get more brazen with their criminal acts and they believed they were untouchable, he said.
A slaying outside the 13 AV Dream Center in East Bradenton was the last straw.
When Brenton Coleman Sr. was shot to death on Aug. 1, 2013, in front of more than 300 children and parents following one of the first football practices of the season for a Pee-Wee team, it finally outraged the community to say enough is enough.
“That changed Manatee County forever,” Davis said.
About two months after Cunningham was murdered on Oct. 26, 2010, Special Agent Yannick DesLauriers, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, showed up at the sheriff’s office.
DesLauriers was new to ATF and asked what detectives were working on. Then he offered his help.
It was then that the decision was made to use the federal racketeering law, or RICO, rather than its state counterpart to take down the ring.
The two agencies began to work closely together building the case. Soon other agencies became involved, including the Bradenton, Palmetto, Sarasota and St. Petersburg police departments, putting together what they knew about this violent group and the crimes they had committed.
They all worked to understand how the criminal enterprise worked.
What would prove the most challenging for the case was earning the community’s trust.
“It was difficult for them to come forward because of fear,” DesLauriers said. “You’re talking about people that saw their own family members killed and were afraid to even talk to law enforcement about that.”
But earning the trust of the community would be essential to the case’s success.
“Everybody knows everybody in Bradenton,” he said. “It’s a small community. People are very tightly woven.”
The community was so close knit that there were many family connections, including between the victims and even between victims and the defendants.
Detectives, as well as support staff, at the sheriff’s office continued with their dedication to see the case through.
“Jeff (Bliss) was very big in making sure that happened,” Wells said. “Back during the time when this group of six were committing all this destruction, Jeff had to investigate a lot of those murders.”
Bliss and the other homicide detectives just wouldn’t quit, he added. They along with the federal agents “breathed the case.”
“You are talking about months and months where these agents and investigators were not taking time off as they built their case,” Wells said. “There was very little down time for all of these investigators building this case.”
And that, Wells said, is what made the outcome all the more gratifying.
“It was years of preparing for this moment and we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” Wells added.
Connecting the pieces
It was Angel Villanueva who would describe the double murder of Barnes and Cunningham to detectives and federal agents.
“He described how they used Nathaniel Harris’s Lexus to kidnap Calvin Barnes, locate Demetrius Cunningham and shoot him,” Murray said. “That was verified by the surveillance footage of the Mira Lagos apartment complex, that shows a Lexus driving through the parking lot the night of the double homicide that was consistent with testimony.”
They began to collect pieces of evidence that would verify Villanueva’s accounts of what had occurred, such as confirming that Nathaniel Harris drove a Lexus when he was stopped by law enforcement.
“Little pieces like that show that, yes, ATF is on the right track, the story is right and it’s a matter of can we corroborate with evidence and can we get other witnesses,” Murray said.
Another example of evidence shown to the jury at trial was an image of Nathaniel Harris, taken from his cell phone, that shows him holding a firearm and cash. This was important, the federal prosecutor said, because they knew he didn’t have any legitimate employment and witnesses said that he made money from drugs.
“Also, we know Calvin Barnes was murdered with a revolver and here is Nathaniel Harris holding a revolver,” Murray said.
Images from social media were also used to strengthen the case. A screen shot from Charlie Green’s Instagram account showed him partying at a nightclub holding large amounts of money, hours after murdering Coleman — a job for which he was paid.
By sentencing each defendant to life for each murder they committed, the judge is giving justice to the families and to the victims. It left a scar on the entire community.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Murray
Another image shown to the jury was one of the pictures taken when detectives armed with a warrant searched a “trap house,” also known as a drug house, in the 3300 block of Fifth Street East in Bradenton and seized firearms, drugs and drug ledgers.
“It’s not one piece but that fits into the entire puzzle that ATF and the sheriff’s office built to show that our witnesses were telling the truth,” Murray said.
The fate of the six defendants was far from sealed when the trial got underway in the U.S. District Court in Tampa.
More than 150 witnesses testified during the three-month long trial. But the list of who was to testify was not public record, and because of the history of intimidation with witnesses in the case, they only learned when they would testify the day before.
“Security was our No. 1 priority,” Murray said.
Law enforcement at each level worked to ensure the safety of witnesses, both inside and outside the courtroom.
Just before the trial, agents and prosecutors learned that the sister of some of the defendants, Delexsia Harris, was using threats and intimidation to influence or prevent the testimony of at least two witnesses.
On May 25, she was indicted and arrested on federal charges of tampering and obstruction. In September, a federal jury convicted her of the charges after a four-day long trial. She was later sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
That was an example of how committed investigators are to maintaining the trust they now have from the community, according to DesLauriers.
“If there is an issue, they know from our follow through of that case. We are down there, continuing to monitor their safety and handle it however we need to,” DesLauriers said. “And I think that is going to be important here on. ... Facebook is still exploding down there and we’re aware of it.”
DesLauriers was also joined on the case by ATF Special Agent Melinda Sears.
“We made a promise to them, that we were there, we were not leaving, they could trust and we fulfilled that promise,” Sears said. “And they know that we’ll be back.”
Sheriff Wells agreed about the commitment to eliminate any violent offenders that remain in the community, connected to the ring or not.
“This will become the norm. Our relationship with ATF has only strengthened,” Wells said. “They can see for themselves what’s going to happen to them if that’s the lifestyle they choose.”
Murray also hopes the verdicts will send the message of what the agencies “can achieve when we work together, when we focus on those most-violent offenders and commit ourselves to dismantle violent criminal organizations.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Natalie Adams said it had been a privilege to work with the families of the victims, who shared their stories, she said after the sentencing hearings. Her compassion came through in some of her closing arguments.
In response to a plea for leniency presented by Charlie Green’s defense that he had cared for his terminally ill mother as a teenager, Adams spoke of the destruction he had caused including when he killed Evans in front of his 1-year-old child. He shot another victim, Ceola Lazier, at least 37 times, causing him to lose so much blood that when Lazier’s mother touched his arm at his funeral, she realized it had been stuffed with paper.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Adams said, her voice intense and filled with fury. “That he understands the love between a parent and a child makes those crimes worse, not better.”
Murders the crime ring was convicted of:
- Sept. 4, 2010: Joseph X. Evans, 18
- Oct. 26, 2010: Calvin “Forty” Barnes, 16; Demetrius “Meat” Cunningham, 23
- July 3, 2012: Ceola D. “Bo” Lazier, 31
- April 1, 2013: Carlos Alberto “Giggles” Jurado, 26
- Aug. 1, 2013: Brenton Coleman Sr., 39