Forbidden Fruit

Maybe you know somebody like Danny Donovan. A nice guy, an overgrown kid, really, with an ingratiating personality and an unfortunate tendency to run with the wrong crowd. Somebody who always seems to get into trouble, somebody who has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Somebody unlucky.

For the most part, 30-year-old Danny Donovan's worst luck consisted of busts for thefts and drug possessions. But all that changed this past May, on, of all days, Memorial Day, when bad luck and bad judgment nearly got him killed. Along with his buddy Mike Lemus, Donovan was hauling ass away from the scene of another small-time crime when he happened to turn around in the passenger's seat of Lemus's pickup, just in time for a pellet from a twelve-gauge shotgun to pass through his right eye, miss bone, and lodge deep in his brain, sending him into a coma that persists to this day.

By the time Lemus finally pulled his truck over to the side of Krome Avenue near SW 160th Street, more than half a dozen pickups had joined the chase along the flat straight-aways of southwest Dade. Five months after the shooting, investigators from the Metro-Dade Police Department and the Dade State Attorney's Office haven't been able to sort out the events of that afternoon enough to file charges. Not many people are willing to talk about who put a hole in Danny Donovan's head. Donovan himself is in no condition to say anything. The statement Lemus made to police on the scene was vastly different from the one he provided days later, after he'd consulted an attorney. Three of the pursuers - one of whom may well have pulled the trigger - refused to talk at all.

"I said, `Danny, I think they're shooting at us. What should we do?'" Lemus says, recalling the chase. Then he noticed the blood. "I say, `Danny, Danny, what's wrong with you?' and he grabs his eye and says, `Oh, I got shot.' He was looking back through the window and he got shot through the eye. I couldn't believe it. There's blood everywhere and he's still talking to me, and he says to keep going. I said I wasn't going to keep going, 'cause these guys was shooting at us, and I told him I was going to pull over."

When he stopped alongside an unplanted field, Lemus found himself staring into the barrel of a shotgun. "Why'd you have to shoot for a few crates of mangoes?" a terrified Lemus blurted as his friend lay bleeding. "You got millions of them."

Past the sprawl of Miami and Kendall, where Krome Avenue crawls into old Florida, is the farm country of the Redlands, a wide and dusty plain of fields and groves crisscrossed by hedgerows of Brazilian pepper and punctuated by utilitarian buildings. Here, despite the encroachment of the occasional residential subdivision, with upscale homes incongruously set down along dirt roads, agriculture is still king. There is the drone of tractors belching plumes of diesel smoke and of crop-dusting planes flying low overhead, the hiss of high-powered sprinklers. The wet-earth smell of soil and fertilizer. At harvest time, busloads of workers come to pick limes and avocados, winter vegetables and mangoes.

Of course South Dade's 80,000-plus acres of farmland aren't immune to the influences of the metropolis to the east. They provide ideal cover for the stripping of stolen cars, the dumping of everything from cocaine payloads to unwanted municipal waste to murdered corpses. Likewise, the rich land attracts thieves who steal fruits and vegetables and unload the heisted goods in roadside stands and small markets from Homestead to Little Havana, where merchants snap up bargain-basement boxes of goods, no questions asked.

In 1987 and earlier this year, several store owners and roadside-stand vendors were charged with trafficking in stolen property, following reverse sting operations by Metro-Dade cops. Undercover officers approached the owners and offered to sell them bushels of avocados and papayas, claiming they were stolen. "Not only did these people snap them up, they often haggled over the price," recalls Sgt. Mickey Brelsford, head of Metro's agricultural patrol unit. "They even put in orders for more fruit before we arrested them."

In no way are they the area's biggest agricultural asset, but mangoes, native to Southeast Asia and first successfully cultivated on the east coast of Florida in the 1860s, mean money in South Dade. The county's 2700 acres of mango groves now account for more than 90 percent of the nation's domestic supply of the fruit.

More than half of Dade's mango acreage was planted since 1978, and increased availability has made the fruit a favorite among produce poachers. "It's gotten to where fruit theft is a real business in this county," says Colleen Griffin, president of the 200-member Mango Forum and an independent mango grower whose ten-acre grove was hit hard by thieves this year. "It can be just devastating to a grower. You stay up at night during the freezes, you spray, fertilize, you mow weeds, put a lot of money into getting the harvest ready, and then they climb your fence, or cut your fence, and take everything they want. You can't be everywhere at once, so it happens to almost everyone. That's our income and this is a way of life for us, so it really hurts when this happens."

Mangoes are particularly popular, says Griffin, because they are so easy for thieves to spot - they turn crimson, orange, or gold when ripe - and grow densely during the short and concentrated June-to-August harvest season. "You can pick a lot of mangoes from a small area in no time at all," Griffin notes. "So as a grower, the more you have, the more you stand to lose."

Nobody stands to lose more than J.R. Brooks and Son. As producer of $8 to $9 million worth of the county's $15 million annual crop, the Brooks company grows more mangoes than anyone in the United States. In a county where most farms take up less than 50 acres, Brooks owns or manages about 4000 acres planted with limes, mangoes, avocados, and other tropical fruits and vegetables. "When you're trying to watch over that much land, thieves can cause you one hell of a headache," says Michael Hunt, head of Brooks's field operations. Last year alone, the grower lost more than $100,000 in thefts of equipment and fruit. Most of the damage, says Hunt, was to the mango crop.

This year, with a mild winter and steady rains that came at just the right time, the rust-and-gold blossoms were supplanted by quickly ripening mangoes in May, a month earlier than usual. Brooks field managers immediately began to notice thefts, despite the fact that many of the groves are bordered by barbed-wire fences. As usual Metro's agricultural patrol unit pitched in to help, but with six officers and a sergeant doing the patrolling, SW 152nd Street south to the county line - 944 square miles - is a lot of territory to cover. For the growing season, Brooks paid Homestead's Southwest Security $35,000 for extra personnel to patrol mango groves, and the company also spent $10,000 for a pilot to fly over groves, searching out unauthorized vehicles.

Despite the extra security measures, thieves were managing to make off with a fortune in fruit all over South Dade. By June growers had reported an estimated $41,000 in losses, as compared to a little more than $105,000 all of last year. Police say those numbers represent about 30 percent of actual losses. "The frustration level gets very high when this sort of thing is going on," says Colleen Griffin of the Mango Forum.

How to keep a closer watch over the crop was a constant topic of conversation among Brooks field managers. As always, all the growers vowed to watch out for each other's property. "If another grower sees one of my groves being pilfered," says Michael Hunt, "he's not going to say, `Ha, ha, ha, they're going to go out of business,' because they'll be in his grove next. So he's going to do something about it."

When suspected thieves are sighted in a Brooks grove, Hunt says, foremen head out for a look, keeping in close radio contact with each other and the central office. They use roadblocks to corral suspects, then hold them at shotgun-point and call the police. It is not company policy, Hunt emphatically states, to try to stop a fleeing poacher by firing at him. "The only justification for shooting someone or causing bodily harm is if you are in desperate fear for your own personal well-being," says Hunt. "It's justifiable in that case, when it's a him-or-me situation."

On Memorial Day afternoon, four managers at J.R. Brooks and Son were discussing the lime crop at the company's headquarters in the Redlands when Michael Hunt answered a call from Fred Rutzke, a grower who contracts with Brooks to manage several of his groves.

Hunt put the call on the speaker phone. From the mobile phone in his pickup truck, Rutzke reported that two white men were stealing mangoes from the Brooks "JRB" mango grove just north of SW 280th Street and east of the L-31 drainage canal, near Homestead General Aviation Airport. Along with lime production foremen Murray Bass, Steve Hoveland, and Charles Dorsey, Hunt and mango production managers Keith and Greg Mitchell scrambled to their pickup trucks. Hunt drove west to the graffiti-splattered steel bridge that spans the canal at SW 288th Street, about a half-mile south of the grove. There he and Rutzke set up a roadblock. The other men drove north, intending to set up another roadblock at SW 168th Street and the canal.

Murray Bass reached SW 168th Street just east of the canal and met up with Jeff Crawford, a supervisor in Brooks's avocado division. Bass, the only man involved in the pursuit who didn't carry a gun in his truck, left his truck and joined up with Crawford, who carried a twelve-gauge Mossberg pump-action shotgun in a door holder next to his left leg.

Part Two
According to Brooks employees who gave statements to police after the shooting, Bass and Crawford cruised slowly east on SW 168th Street. Further west on the same road, lime foreman Charles Dorsey pulled up next to a white GMC pickup with two men inside. In the back of the truck were seven blue-plastic milk crates filled with mangoes, some jackfruit, and a barrel full of lychee nuts. "Where'd you get those mangoes?" Dorsey asked the men. In response, the driver floored it and sped away. "They're coming your way," crackled the radio in Crawford's truck. Moments later the white pickup swerved around Crawford and Bass, heading east at about 60 miles per hour. Three more Brooks trucks - Dorsey's, and the Mitchell brothers' - followed closely behind.

The radio was buzzing, voices yelling through the static. "He won't stop, he won't stop!" someone shouted. "He's trying to run me off the road!" Keith Mitchell managed to pull alongside the white GMC but couldn't get them to stop. Then Dorsey was off the road, the front of his truck hung up on a rock on the shoulder. The Mitchells kept following. As the chase approached busy Krome Avenue, it appeared the growers might have the pickup pinned in. Several cars were waiting at the three-way intersection. But at the last instant, the getaway truck wheeled to the left, spun out momentarily in the dirt at the northwest corner of the intersection, then shot out across the southbound lane of Krome and headed north. A "blat, blat" rang out, followed by the sound of pellets hitting the pickup's steel skin.

A holiday spent picking mangoes. That's what the two men, pals for about three years, had in mind when they flouted Danny Donovan's house arrest and Mike Lemus's probation and took a spin down to South Dade in Lemus's white GMC. A few hours of picking, a few hundred dollars worth of fruit for their efforts.

Donovan, who lived with his mother and grandmother in Spring Garden, had always been close to his brothers Billy and Joe, and the three grew even more so after their father was killed in an accident at his ironworking shop. At first the Donovan brothers tried to make the business work without their father, but they were unsuccessful.

"Danny was 30 but he had the mind of a fifteen-year-old, like a child," observes Manny Sanchez, who owns Manny's Marine Service. "That's the way he was. He would make me chicken soup at home and bring it to me." Sanchez says Donovan was always more than willing to give away what little he had, rather than keep it for himself. Whenever he went fishing, family and friends ate what he brought home. When his friends needed help moving, or working on their boats, Donovan helped without asking for anything in return. "If I had work around here that needed to be done, he always wanted to help," says Sanchez. "A good kid. Very noble, really."

Donovan's was a familiar face along the Miami River. One of his favorite hangouts was the Alibi Lounge in the Holiday Inn on NW 12th Avenue, where he went for the free nightly happy-hour spread. "He wasn't much of a drinker," Sanchez says. "Maybe a beer or two, but we went for the food." Donovan also frequented Tobacco Road on South Miami Avenue. At the same time, he tended to get into trouble with the law, problems his friends blame on "hanging out with the wrong crowd."

Four months before Memorial Day, Donovan had begun working as a handyman at Long's Motorcycle Sales, a small shop across the Miami River from his mother's house. He needed a job as part of terms of his house arrest for three grand-theft convictions, and wasn't allowed to drive because his license had been suspended. "Danny was a real sweetheart, but he was someone with no direction in life, no road to follow," says Theodora Long, whose husband John owns the shop. "But he was really trying. He would plead with John, `You have to keep me out of trouble.' So John would call him if he didn't come to work in the morning and say, `Danny, are you coming to work?' and Danny would show up."

The day after Memorial Day, when Danny Donovan didn't show up for work, John Long dialed the number of his mother's house. Lorraine Donovan cried the news into the phone.

"It was just terrible," Mike Lemus recalls. "The [J.R. Brooks employees] gave me some paper towels and I squeezed them in to try to stop the bleeding. Danny was saying, `Get some water, Mikey. Put some water on my head, my head's real hot.' Then he tells me, `Take me to the hospital, Mikey.' I said, `I can't, Danny, these guys won't let me.'"

When police arrived on the scene, just north of the Benjamina Nursery, they found eight Brooks trucks, plus the one owned by Fred Rutzke. Some of the pickups had been involved in the chase, some had arrived later. The grower's employees were milling around, talking to one another. Emergency medical personnel airlifted Danny Donovan to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors rushed him into surgery in an attempt to remove a hunk of lead lodged four inches behind what had been his right eye.

Metro Police Det. Margie Grossman, who at the time was assigned to the agricultural patrol unit, read the 31-year-old Lemus his rights and took his statement in the back seat of a patrol car. Lemus told Grossman that he and Donovan had been picking mangoes that were hanging over a fence, when they were confronted by a grower. They took off. During the chase that ensued, two different Brooks employees in two different trucks pointed shotguns at the fleeing pair. Lemus told the detective it was impossible for him to identify the shooter because he was too busy driving. But he pointed out Murray Bass, who at the time was sitting in the back seat of another police car, as one of the men who leveled a shotgun at them.

Detective Grossman then drove Keith Mitchell to the Metro-Dade police station on U.S. 1 in Cutler Ridge. On the way, Mitchell pointed out the three-way intersection of Krome and SW 168th Street as the scene of the shooting. Other Metro officers drove Lemus, Fred Rutzke, and seven Brooks employees to the Metro police station, after instructing their passengers not to discuss the case among themselves. Of course, Grossman admits, everyone present already had plenty of time to talk about what had happened.

At the crime scene, detectives searched all of the vehicles involved. They found a spent shotgun shell casing in the bed of Keith Mitchell's truck, another in the grass next to the driver's-side door, as if it had rolled out when the door was opened. In all, police impounded five shotguns from the trucks. Laboratory tests later determined both the shells that were found had been fired from the twelve-gauge Winchester pump-action shotgun in Keith Mitchell's truck.

When Grossman interviewed Murray Bass at the police station, he reconstructed the chase for the detective. When the trucks reached the intersection at Krome Avenue, Bass recalled, he heard a gunshot and saw Keith Mitchell pointing a shotgun out the driver's-side window of his pickup. The getaway truck continued north, with the Mitchell brothers following for eight blocks, until Lemus pulled over. When Bass arrived, the Mitchells, both of whom were holding shotguns, were standing over Mike Lemus. Bass told Grossman that he asked the men who had shot Donovan. Keith Mitchell replied

that he had done it. Mitchell refused to give a statement to police, but Grossman listed him on her report as the suspect in the shooting.

Lemus gave police a second, more extensive statement at the station. Donovan had telephoned him to suggest they drive down to a friend's farm somewhere "way out in the boonies" to pick fruit. There the two men had picked some lychees, squash, papayas, and most of the mangoes, then headed for home. They stopped somewhere else along the way when they saw some large mangoes hanging over a fence. They pulled over and picked ten or fifteen of the fruit, then turned around and headed back the way they had come, Lemus explained, because there was only one way in or out. A few minutes later, they were confronted on SW 168th Street - it was Charles Dorsey - and the chase commenced in earnest. Lemus, who is of Cuban descent, said Donovan had urged him to speed away because "these rednecks hate Cubans." Lemus described the man who did the shooting as a white man in his thirties, with a heavily pockmarked face, driving a white or brown pickup truck.

When Det. Tom Kelly confronted him with his felony past and the fact that he was on probation for cocaine-possession and grand-theft convictions, Lemus confessed that all the mangoes in the truck had actually been taken from the Brooks grove and that the jackfruit found in the truck also was stolen. Lemus told Kelly that he and Donovan had hoped to sell the fruit to Calle Ocho markets, which might pay eight dollars for a bushel of mangoes, less than half the going rate of $22 per bushel. Both he and Donovan were addicted to crack, Lemus told Kelly. Because they were afraid that getting caught would result in jail time for violation of probation, they had fled.

Accompanied by attorney Michael Cohen, Lemus made a third statement to police on June 4. Again he described the chase. Again he described the shooting, but this time his memory of the events seemed to have improved significantly, and he was able to discuss the gunman in far greater detail. The man was white, Lemus said, with brown hair combed to the side, a long nose, a heavy mustache. He wore sunglasses and a white shirt. While steering with his right hand, the man had aimed the shotgun out the driver's-side window of his truck. At one point he drew even with Donovan and Lemus, pointed the shotgun at them through his passenger's-side window, and ordered Lemus to pull over. Lemus said he told the man he'd stop, but only if he agreed to put down the shotgun. When the man refused, Lemus sped away. The man continued to point the shotgun out the window all the way up to Krome Avenue.

Part Three
As he whipped the pickup onto Krome, Lemus heard the shots and saw Donovan had been hit. "I couldn't actually see his finger moving but I know he shot the shotgun," Lemus told police. Then he corrected himself. He saw the man pull the trigger, Lemus said, saw powder coming out of the shotgun twice. Not only that; he could identify the shooter. It was the only person he'd seen wielding a weapon. A month later, Lemus picked Keith Mitchell out of a photo line-up and identified him as the man who shot Danny Donovan.

Because the case was so unusual, it came under the review of the Dade State Attorney's Office from the onset. But even with the help of Susan Dannelly, a veteran prosecutor in the Dade state attorney's major-crimes section, the cloudy circumstances surrounding the shooting never became much clearer. "Mike Lemus did more to hurt this case than any other single source," Dannelly asserts. "If he just could have gotten things straight here, we'd probably be looking at an entirely different situation. But Danny Donovan's friend basically eliminated this office's ability to prosecute."

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.

Both Mike Lemus and Danny Donovan's family have filed civil suits against J.R. Brooks in Dade Circuit Court, Lemus for emotional distress and Donovan for the injuries he suffered. A large settlement in the civil suit probably wouldn't do Donovan much good, but it would defray the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed by his family in medical costs. On the advice of their attorney, Michael Buckley, Donovan's family declined to be interviewed for this article. The attorney for J.R. Brooks and Son, Gordon Evans, who has directed his clients not to comment about the case, has filed a counter suit asserting that Lemus is to blame for his friend's injuries.

If any new evidence emerges in the criminal case, it will probably come from the civil suits. Susan Dannelly says she remains pessimistic about the prospect of prosecution, although she does question why Buckley has not contacted her to discuss any additional evidence he might have.

When Buckley, who is representing both Donovan and Lemus in their suits, questioned Murray Bass and Michael Hunt under oath, they both took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions about the identity of the gunman. Bass would not even repeat what he told police after the incident - that Keith Mitchell had admitted to shooting Donovan. Buckley filed motions requesting that a judge order the men to tell what they know, on the grounds that any information they divulge would most likely not provide the necessary evidence for a conviction. The motion was granted, but Brooks's attorney is appealing the ruling.

In the end, says prosecutor Dannelly, investigators had enough evidence to charge Mike Lemus for the theft of six bushels of mangoes and for transporting fruit without a sale certificate. Both are misdemeanor offenses. Lemus also faces one grand-theft felony count; police say an agricultural pump was found in the bed of his truck. The charges against Lemus are still pending. Danny Donovan was never charged with anything.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >