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Evidence may link suspect to gang

BRADENTON — A cell phone found in a sock on paralyzed Ta Heem Blake held evidence that the suspect in a fatal home invasion shooting may have had ties to a street gang, police say.

Detectives hope data stored in the phone may lead to more evidence in their murder cases against Blake, 17, and Marquis Sanders, 18, in the shooting death of 55-year-old Maria Lerma. Both teens attended Palmetto High School and were on the football team in the past.

When paramedics arrived at the crime scene, they found a cell phone in Blake’s sock and left it for police. During the investigation, the phone rang and when an officer flipped it open, a banner saying “MUTT CREW 4 LIFE” popped up on the screen, according to a Bradenton Police search warrant.

The report went on to describe the Mutt Crew as a “criminal street gang,” and detectives obtained warrants to further mine Blake’s phone for more evidence. Bradenton Police officials Monday would not comment on the gang connection.

Blake and Sanders are accused of storming Lerma’s home in a robbery attempt on Feb. 1. Police reports say Blake shot Lerma with a rifle during the robbery before her son opened fire on Blake as he tried to run from the house.

A bullet tore through Blake’s spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Police reports say Sanders ran from the home after hearing Blake open fire in a bedroom.

Sanders is accused of holding a gun on a man in the home and then acting as a lookout until Blake opened fire, according to police reports.

Police are searching for more information on Blake’s possible ties to Mutt Crew, voice or text messages concerning the home invasion, and contacts for Blake’s acquaintances stored in the phone.

Detectives also obtained a search warrant to conduct the same type of search on Sanders’ cell phone, which police seized during his arrest Feb. 2 at Palmetto High School.

Blake remains hospitalized and Sanders has pleaded not guilty to murder and asked for a trial, according to court documents filed last week by his Clearwater attorney, Masable Baker.

Lerma’s shooting has fueled rumors of a revenge shooting among students at Palmetto High School, which led to more than 400 students not showing up for school Friday and an increased law enforcement presence at the school.

Marked and unmarked police cars patrolled the perimeter of the school for the entire school day, and after-school activities were canceled.

Palmetto Police Chief Garry Lowe said the rumors have been investigated and ruled unfounded.

He said Friday was uneventful.

But police are planning to be vigilant at the school today, he said.

“We are going to be keeping on eye on things,” Lowe said.