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Home invasion suspects under scrutiny

BRADENTON — After a woman was found shot dead in a botched home invasion robbery, Bradenton police are investigating whether the pair charged in the case may be connected to other recent robberies.

Bradenton Police, who have arrested two Palmetto teens as murder suspects in the death of 55-year-old Maria Lerma, are investigating a trend of similar robberies on the eastside.

Since November, Sunday’s home invasion marked the sixth robbery with similar suspect descriptions as Ta Heem L. Blake and Marquis Sanders on the eastside of Bradenton, police said.

“We have had recent robberies reported that involved groups of black males robbing Hispanic victims,” said Bradenton Capt. Joseph Vorva, eastside district commander.

Most of the recent robberies have been committed by teens wearing bandanas or hooded sweatshirts covering their faces in the same area of town and holding up victims at gunpoint.

When Lerma’s home was invaded, allegedly Blake wore a mask and Sanders a hood pulled over half his face, police said.

“We are looking at recent street robberies as well as home invasion robberies. We are looking to see if there is any connection there,” said Bradenton Police Detective Lt. John Affolter.

Some of the robberies police are looking at had as many as five youth involved, matching similar descriptions in some cases to Blake and Sanders.

On Jan. 16, two men wearing red bandanas ordered another family to the ground at gunpoint until someone gave them $500 in cash in the 1900 block of Seventh Avenue East in Bradenton, according to a Bradenton Police report.

On Jan. 22, three teens with handguns robbed a man outside his residence when he was talking on his cell phone in the 600 block of 21st Street East, according to reports. Several shots were fired and the man was struck.

On Jan. 23, four males attempted to rob a man in the 800 block of 19th Street Court East in Bradenton. The man told police the robbers were wearing hooded sweatshirts.

“We’re just looking into the cases to see if there is any connection,” Affolter said.

In a Palmetto home invasion case, Blake was interviewed by Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives Jan. 2 after a family was ordered to the ground at gunpoint by two teens wearing hooded sweatshirts in the 1100 block of 21st Street East. He was never charged.

However, it was Sunday morning’s foiled robbery that left 17-year-old Blake paralyzed with a severed spinal cord. Sanders, 18, a football player at Palmetto, was pulled out of class at Palmetto High for police interviews this week.

Both teens are charged with Lerma’s murder.

According to the arrest report, at about 5:45 a.m. Sunday, allegedly Blake and Sanders stormed the home in the 900 block of 25th Street East by breaking a sliding glass door. A 23-year-old man in the living room immediately confronted them, but Sanders pointed a gun and forced the victim to the front of the house, according to police reports. There Sanders unlocked the front door and waited as a lookout, reports said. Blake then ran into a bedroom, finding Lerma and her 27-year-old boyfriend. The man lunged with a machete at Blake, who opened fire on the victim, shooting him in the forearm. Police reports say Blake then turned his SKS rifle on Lerma and killed her.

In a 911 call released Thursday, Lerma’s 31-year-old son called trying to get medical attention for his bleeding mother.

“My mom. My mom. I need an ambulance now. She’s dying,” Lerma’s son said, his voice rising to a panicked shout at the operator.

According to police reports, Lerma was shot once and lying in the arms of her 27-year-old boyfriend as she bled from a four-inch-long laceration near her right knee.

The dispatcher asked Lerma’s son who shot her.

“I don’t know — some guy who came into the house,” he said.

The family’s home has remained empty since the shooting.

“It’s just sad. All the lives are affected here,” Affolter said. referring to both the suspects and family of victims at the residence. “Both suspects have children. A lot of people will be affected by this for a long time.” Criminal Defense Attorney Charlie Britt, who is representing Sanders, said he is doubtful the teens are responsible for other robberies.

“I think based upon the lack of planning and experience in this case, you can obviously tell these guys have never done this before,” he said.

Britt blamed the crime on the stupidity of youth on the part of the teens. He maintains his client had limited involvement.

“I think it’s kids who made some major, monumental mistakes,” he said. “It’d be willing to bet these kids never fired a gun in their life. They had no idea what an SKS would do.”

Britt said there are many details in the case that have not come out yet, and he believes there could be Miranda issues when the case goes to trail. He said he couldn’t divulge those details without hurting the case in court.

“I know the police say one thing, but from what (Sanders) told me he told them, there’s a lot more to this story,” he said.

Anyone with any information about the case can contact Bradenton Police Department Detective Kevin Bunch at 932-9380 or remain anonymous by calling Crimestoppers at (866) 634-TIPS (8477).

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