The fight began just after dusk and within minutes the scabbed asphalt in front of Bootsy's Grocery was standing room only, the aimless human electricity of a Saturday night in Opa-locka conducted from the housing project across 22nd Avenue into a schoolyard knot around the spectacle. Monica Dawe, a 25-year-old mother of three, admits she started the row, hoping to pummel a woman she caught with her live-in boyfriend, Earl Parker. But as the rivals tussled, it was Dawe who retreated, cut near her right eye and bleeding profusely.

Dawe, hysterical with rage, stumbled across the street to retrieve a pistol from her cousin's car. Unable to calm her, friends sent two kids to fetch Earl Parker, who lay asleep in their apartment nearby. Parker says he played the peacemaker, arriving just in time to strip the gun from Dawe, who had been on the street divider, threatening to fire at her adversary and into a crowd. Rubberneckers surged into the street, shouting, blocking traffic. To the police called in on January 9, 1991, the scene looked like a budding riot.

"Never seen anything like it," recalls Opa-locka patrolman Troy Fields, a four-year veteran who was one of the first officers to pull up. "There were 250, maybe 300 people. A real potential for violence. All our units were there, and a bunch from Metro-Dade and Highway Patrol. That night we needed all the back-up we could get."

Amid the tumult, fellow officer Gary Jones heard several people scream, "That man got a gun!" and point to Earl Parker, who was heading away from the crowd, across 22nd Avenue. Jones zeroed in, drawing his gun and ordering Parker to lie down with his palms on the ground. As Parker did, a pistol clattered to the pavement. While Jones cuffed Parker, Fields arrested Monica Dawe, her foe, and a third woman. At the police station, a routine computer check detailed Parker's criminal record, which included a burglary, two robberies (one with a deadly weapon), two firearms violations, and twenty months in a federal penitentiary -all since 1982. For his part in the brawl, police charged him with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was locked in Dade County Jail and left to wait for his day in state court.

For Parker, the violent aftermath of infidelity had become a recurring theme. In 1985 the heavily muscled construction worker nearly beat a man to death for being unfaithful to one of his sisters and slugging another. The man retaliated by shooting Parker at close range with a .357 magnum, shattering his femur and paralyzing his left foot. In April of last year, while he was out on bail, Parker was again booked and later charged with misdemeanor battery for striking Dawe, in another squabble provoked by his own philandering.

Parker was not all that worried, however, about the gun charges filed against him. Neither was his lawyer. Public defender Eric Hendon recalls interviewing half a dozen eyewitnesses about the January fray. "They all told the same story: that Parker had taken the gun away from his girlfriend. I was ready to take it to trial because it was the perfect case. A jury would have given the guy a medal." A jury never got the chance. In May the Dade State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the case. The prosecutor, Hendon figured, had finally talked with the witnesses.

Not quite. Days after the case was dropped in state court, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged Earl Parker in federal court, as part of a highly touted new program called Operation Triggerlock. Parker was to be tried on a lone count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Minimum punishment: fifteen years in prison, no parole.

Eric Hendon was shocked, and so was Kathleen Cooper, Parker's federal public defender. After interviewing witnesses, Cooper says she assessed the case as "an open-and-shut acquittal." On the morning of trial, September 25, with defense witnesses and supporters packed into the waiting room, the prosecution apparently conceded the point, dismissing the charges.

"All I told the assistant U.S. attorney was, `Talk to the cops.' Maybe he realized he didn't have a case," Cooper says now. "What I can't understand is why somebody didn't figure that out sooner. My client sits in jail for four months, loses his job. He's facing more hard time than most murderers do in state court. The government pays loads of money for an indictment. And no one investigates the case."

Shoddy investigation, in fact, may have been Earl Parker's saving grace. While the government's case rested on the testimony of officers Jones and Fields, two other eyewitnesses now say they would have testified for the prosecution, if they had been contacted. Angela Cason, the woman with whom Dawe was fighting, and her cousin Charmane Cason, insist Parker actually leveled the gun at them and would have fired if police hadn't arrived. Had government investigators sought to contact the Casons, the task wouldn't have been tough: both women were taken into custody with Parker and listed their addresses and phone numbers on arrest forms.

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