Forbidden Fruit: Part 2

It appeared that the person who shot Danny Donovan for stealing some mangoes had gotten away with near murder. More than a half-dozen men had chased Donovan, a 30-year-old handyman with a record of small-time crimes, and his pal Mike Lemus for miles on rural South Dade roads minutes before the shooting. But when it came time to tell the cops what had happened, none of the chasers saw a thing. Or if they did, they wouldn't talk about it -- at least no one who qualified as an independent witness.

Lemus, who drove the getaway truck in which Donovan was a passenger, picked out two possible shooters, but mixed up his story enough times that investigators discounted his testimony. One of the men involved in the chase, Murray Bass, did give police the name of a potential gunman. But Bass himself was identified by Lemus as a suspect, so Assistant State Attorney Susan Dannelly reasoned that he had a motive to blame someone else. Lacking an independent witness or any compelling physical evidence, the state didn't bring charges against anyone. But now another witness has corroborated Bass's story, and named the same man as the potential gunman.

The new witness's testimony was elicited during a sworn deposition taken November 20 as part of a civil lawsuit filed by Donovan's family against J.R. Brooks and Son, the owner of the grove from which the mangoes were taken. Brooks and Son is also the employer of most of the men involved in the high-speed chase. In the deposition filed with the court last week, Brooks field supervisor Jeffrey Crawford said Keith Mitchell, another field manager, told him that he, Mitchell, had pulled the trigger.

Police reports indicate Crawford refused to give a statement during the investigation that followed the shooting. But in the deposition Crawford testified that he was never interviewed by Metro-Dade detectives, even though he was taken to the police station in Cutler Ridge along with everyone else involved. "I slipped through the woodwork," he said. "I sat there three hours. I think [lead detective Margie Grossman] thought [detective] Tom Kelly was going to talk to me, and nobody talked to me. I never made a statement or anything."

Although attorneys for both sides in the case decline to comment, Crawford's statements would seem to be a major blow to J.R. Brooks's defense in the civil lawsuit. And they may serve to reopen the criminal case. "This obviously is information that is new to us and has come to our office for the first time," says prosecutor Dannelly, who supervised the investigation, "and we intend to pursue it insofar as determining what effect it will have in the investigation."

The tragic event began this past Memorial Day when, according to Donovan's buddy Mike Lemus, Donovan called him and suggested driving to South Dade to pick some fruit. Lemus agreed and met Donovan at his Spring Garden home, where he lived with his mother and grandmother. They drove "way out in the boonies" and picked lychees and jackfruit. On the way back they stopped at a mango grove near SW 280th Street and the L-31 drainage canal, owned by J.R. Brooks and Son, the nation's largest producer of mangoes. While they were filling seven milk crates with mangoes by the side of the canal, a call came in to J.R. Brooks's Redlands headquarters from another grower, who warned of the suspected thievery. The Brooks employees, well aware that the company already had been hard hit by mango thieves this year, dashed out in their pickup trucks, shotguns ready, in search of the suspects.

Five employees in four trucks caught up to Donovan and Lemus on 168th Street and chased them eastward. At the intersection with Krome Avenue two shotgun blasts tore into the young men's truck. Lemus pulled over eight blocks north on Krome, realizing his friend had been hit. Donovan had been looking back through the cab window when shotgun pellets pierced the glass. One pellet went through his right eye and lodged in his brain.

Only Murray Bass, a Brooks grove foreman, told police anything specific about the gunman. He arrived in the same truck with Jeffrey Crawford moments after the shooting. Keith Mitchell and his brother Gregg were already there, having driven the two trucks directly behind Lemus and Donovan as they turned onto Krome Avenue. Bass told the cops he asked who had pulled the trigger, and said Keith Mitchell admitted he had. But when detective Margie Grossman interviewed Mike Lemus on the scene, Lemus identified Bass as one of two men who had pointed shotguns at his truck during the chase, and prosecutor Dannelly ruled that this initial identification made the Brooks employee useless as an independent witness. Lemus now says he was distraught and confused at the time and could have made a mistake. He later picked out Keith Mitchell in a photo line-up.

Crawford, however, may be the witness Dannelly needs for a prosecution. During the pursuit, he had followed behind the Mitchells and seen much of the chase, although in the deposition he said he did not see the gunshots being fired. And in response to questions from the Donovan family's attorney, Michael Buckley, he said he talked to Keith Mitchell as soon as he pulled up to where the chase ended:

Q: When you got there, did you talk to Keith?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: What did Keith say to you?
A: I asked who had shot him. He said he did.
Q: Keith said he did?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did you ask Keith why he took the shots?

A: No, sir. I asked. He gave me his answer. And I went back to help with the boy that had been shot.

Buckley also queried Crawford about subsequent conversations with Keith Mitchell related to the incident:

Q: Had you discussed this with Keith after that day at any point up until today?

A: As little as possible, but yes, there has been discussion about it.
Q: What has Keith told you?
A: He told me that he had shot him. He was trying to shoot at the back tire.
Q: To stop him?
A: To stop him.

Q: So Keith told you he didn't intend to hit the kid and he wanted to stop the truck --

A: Yes, sir.
Q: -- by shooting the tires out?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Who else did you speak with about it?

A: Probably everybody that was involved. We have had some casual conversation about it.

Q: Did anyone else tell you they knew that Keith shot the kid, from whatever source?

A: I believe Murray did, Murray Bass.
When Buckley deposed him, Bass invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination on questions relating to what Keith Mitchell told him in the moments and days after the shooting. So did Mike Hunt, director of field operations at J.R. Brooks; Gregg Mitchell; and Keith Mitchell himself. In addition, the Mitchell brothers refused to give statements to police during the investigation.

But for some reason Gordon Evans, the attorney representing J.R. Brooks, allowed Crawford to respond in deposition to the same questions his fellow employees had earlier declined to answer. (Evans could not be reached for comment, and Crawford did not respond to telephone messages.) Prosecutor Dannelly says she will now talk to Det. Margie Grossman about whether Crawford actually refused to give a statement, or as he says, was overlooked.

Donovan, who has remained in a coma since the shooting, is receiving advanced care in the New Medico Neurologic Program at Morrow Memorial Hospital in Auburndale, east of Tampa. He is being weaned from a respirator -- he has breathed an entire day on his own -- and occasionally moans, cries, and squeezes a family member's hand. For its part, J.R. Brooks already has changed its policies as a result of the incident. The company now prohibits its employees from carrying guns on the job. And as Crawford put it in his deposition, the new rule for thieves is this: "If they get out of the grove, they can have the fruit.

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