Forbidden Fruit

Physical evidence collected by investigators on the scene was scant. The strongest items were the spent shotgun shell casings from Keith Mitchell's truck, and pellets that had left ricochet marks and bullet holes on the left rear quarter panel, the left rear wheel well, and the rear cab window of Lemus's truck. Unlike rifles or handguns, however, shotgun pellets can be traced only rarely to the gun that fired them; in this case that material was essentially useless.

J.R. Brooks's safety director, Ronnie Barnes, had monitored the chase over his company radio at home, and had called 911 to alert police, remaining on the phone until officers arrived at the shooting scene. Detective Grossman impounded the 911 tape and had it enhanced in the lab to see if any conversation over the Brooks radio in the background might provide additional evidence. It didn't.

Detective Grossman also asked Metro firearms expert Ray Freeman to examine Lemus's truck. Freeman studied the spray pattern of the buckshot and the angle from which the pellets hit, and determined that the shooter sat in the driver's side of a truck roughly twenty yards behind Lemus's. But that evidence did nothing to single out one person as the gunman.

As for other witnesses, investigators had no more luck: Keith and Greg Mitchell refused to give statements, as did Jeff Crawford. Charles Dorsey says his truck was hung up on a rock and he missed the climax of the chase. A half-dozen other Brooks employees and Rutzke, the other grower, said they arrived on the scene after the shooting. According to the law, if the State Attorney's Office were to subpoena any of the men to testify, anything they said that related to the crime could not be used against them. Dannelly puts it bluntly: "Keith Mitchell could come in here and say, `Yeah, I shot him,' and there's nothing I could do about it."

On July 10, Dannelly wrote a memo to State Attorney Janet Reno, recommending that no charges be filed. The problems, as the prosecutor described them, were manifold. To begin with, a defense attorney would almost certainly call into question Mike Lemus's credibility, based on his criminal record. Therefore, his story would have to be unimpeachable. But Lemus's version of the events had changed drastically from statement to statement. He pointed out Murray Bass as the man who had leveled a shotgun at him, then changed his mind, and in subsequent statements never identified Bass again. In all three statements he gave to the police, Lemus asserted that he could identify the shooter, but his description of the man, which Dannelly says could fit either Bass or Keith Mitchell, always varied. Lemus first said he didn't actually see the man shoot, then said that not only had he seen the man squeeze the trigger, but he actually saw powder coming out of the end of the shotgun.

Dannelly says Murray Bass's statement - that Keith Mitchell told him he'd shot Donovan - would not stand up in court. "At first I thought Murray Bass would be a real ace for us," Dannelly explains. "But Lemus fingers him as a guy who could have done the shooting. So Bass, then, has an obvious reason for pointing to Mitchell." Investigators had no way of knowing whether Bass had been aware he'd been implicated before he told detectives about Mitchell's alleged confession. "A defense attorney would eat that up and just say Bass was saving his own skin by blaming the other guy," Dannelly says. "So there he goes as an independent witness."

Dannelly believes the Metro investigative team did all it could in the case. "Sure, there was suspicion that either Murray Bass or Keith Mitchell was the shooter here, but there just wasn't enough for a criminal case," says the prosecutor. "I certainly don't like the fact that someone was shot and is in a coma and there doesn't seem to be any way to proceed. But that doesn't mean we can go on a witch hunt and just charge anyone because someone was shot."

For his part, Lemus acknowledges that he contradicted himself, but swears the man he picked out of the line-up - Keith Mitchell - is the man who shot his friend. "Right after the shooting, I was nervous and scared. You can't expect someone to be absolutely right at that moment," says Lemus. "I'm only human. The bottom line is I saw him chasing us. I can't say I saw him pull the trigger. I was wrong if I said that, 'cause no one driving that fast in that situation can say they saw the trigger being pulled. But I saw the smoke come out and I know it was the guy I picked out of the photo line-up."

Danny Donovan survived the first critical days after the shooting, when the threat of secondary infection from the pellet was greatest. In late summer he was moved from Jackson Memorial Hospital to a coma-stimulus program at New Medico Neurologic Program in Auburndale, later to another New Medico facility in West Palm Beach. He is in stable condition, but shows no signs of emerging from the coma.

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