Forbidden Fruit: Part 3

A comatose Danny Donovan hits the jackpot, but there's still the question of who shot him

Today Danny Donovan is a wealthy man. To begin with, the 30-year-old handyman is about to receive $2.2 million in cash. After that he'll receive $20,000 per month for the rest of his life, plus an extra $50,000 every five years. All of it is tax-free. But he'll probably never know how rich he is, nor will he be able to enjoy his sudden fortune.

For the past eight months, Donovan, a man with a history of small-time crimes, has been in a coma, after a shotgun pellet pierced his eye and lodged in his brain. On Memorial Day last year, Donovan and his friend Mike Lemus drove down to South Dade to pick some fruit. Lemus says he and Donovan collected lychees and jackfruit from area fields, then picked some mangoes from a grove near SW 280th Street and the L-31 drainage canal. As word of the theft-in-progress rapidly spread, more than a half-dozen farmers chased Donovan and Lemus east on SW 168th Street toward Krome Avenue, where rounds from a shotgun ripped into the steel and glass of Lemus's pickup truck. Donovan was looking back through the cab window when a pellet went through his right eye.

Intensive care units and special coma-stimulus programs have had little effect. Now living at HealthSouth Regional Rehabilitation Center on Old Cutler Road, Donovan is off life-support, but he has shown few signs of coming out of the coma. Medical bills, meanwhile, have tallied $460,000. This past Friday the Donovan family's worries about mounting medical costs were assuaged, when Dade Circuit Judge Ursula Ungaro approved a settlement of a civil lawsuit brought by the family against J.R. Brooks and Son, the owner of the grove from which the fruit was taken. Brooks, the country's largest mango producer, employed most of the men involved in the chase.

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Although no one was charged in the shooting - prosecutors and police say there isn't enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who pulled the trigger - Brooks's insurance carriers agreed to a settlement package. Even after attorney's fees and other costs are paid, the money should guarantee Donovan sufficient medical care for as long as he lives. "Sure, we might have gotten more from a jury, but we might have gotten less," says Michael Buckley, the attorney for the Donovan family. "I have no doubt we made the right decision with this settlement." Family members say it relieves the stress of wondering where the money for the medical bills will come from. "It's just one less thing to worry about," says Joe Donovan, Danny's brother. "We just wanted to do what we could to see that my brother got the best medical care possible. Beyond that, we just want to see that justice is done."

The question of who shot Danny Donovan, however, remains. Lemus, who drove the getaway truck, identified two possible suspects. But he contradicted himself enough times when recounting the chase that prosecutors decided his testimony was useless. Five Brooks employees were in direct pursuit of Lemus's truck, but nobody could point out the gunman. One Brooks grove foreman, Murray Bass, told police that moments after the shooting another field manager, Keith Mitchell, admitted pulling the trigger. But Bass himself had been picked out by Lemus as a possible suspect, which gave him a reason to blame Mitchell. (Lemus now says he was distraught and confused, and could have made a mistake. He later singled out Mitchell in a photo line-up.)

When Buckley took depositions from the Brooks employees involved in the chase, most invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when questioned about what Keith Mitchell told them after the shooting. Also, Mitchell and his brother Gregg declined to speak to police about the incident, as was their right. However, Brooks field supervisor Jeff Crawford testified in a November 20 sworn deposition that Mitchell told him immediately after the incident, and in the days following, that he had accidentally shot Donovan while aiming for the tires of the getaway truck. When asked why he hadn't told this to police after the shooting, Crawford said the cops never questioned him. "I slipped through the woodwork," he said. (Metro-Dade Police Det. Margie Grossman insists she spoke to Crawford the night of the shooting, and says he declined to give a statement. "He made it very clear he did not want to discuss the incident," Grossman says.)

Regardless, Crawford's testimony may be the evidence prosecutors need to take the case to court. Grossman says she has not yet received a copy of Crawford's deposition, but will forward it to the Dade State Attorney's Office as soon as she does. "Any new information that comes out, of course we will look at," says the Metro detective.

Crawford's statements also might have pushed Brooks's insurance carriers to settle the case with the Donovan family and their attorney. "I think what physical evidence there was supported my case," says Buckley, "but I think Crawford's deposition definitely was a significant factor in their decision to offer up a whole lot of money when we got around to mediating the case." (Brooks's insurance companies orginally indicated they would fight the lawsuit when it went to trial in March, but offered $3.5 million at a December 18 mediation hearing, Buckley says. Gordon Evans, the attorney hired by the insurance companies to represent J.R. Brooks, did not return phone calls.)

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