A minipark marks the center of an East Allapattah neighborhood, just off NW Twelfth Avenue. Gray wooden stumps, a few oak trees, and a small sandy playground dot the grassy square. On languid summer afternoons, local kids swing and slide on a blue and yellow jungle gym. Cars are parked haphazardly on sidewalks and swales. Bicycles zigzag under riders whose hands dangle at their sides.
Last year in the scorching middle of July, Leon Valentine a petite man whose wispy black mustache masked a perennial baby-face entered the pleasant scene. At 5:00 p.m., the South Miami real estate broker had just finished checking out a residence on NW 44th Street when his cell phone rang. Another broker had questions about the house.
Valentine pulled his BMW 328i over to talk. Rifling through his briefcase for the sales contract, he barely noticed a white Nissan Sentra pass slowly in the opposite direction.
The car caught his eye a second time when it reversed and pulled up next to him. A tall man with scars on his face signaled from the driver's seat, as if looking for directions.
Valentine rolled down his window. "I'm really not sure," he told the stranger. "I don't really live around here."
"What are you doing over here?" the man asked, producing a pistol. "This is a dangerous neighborhood."
Valentine took him for a joker. But before the broker could laugh, another gunman hopped out of the passenger side in a flash gold pants, bright red shirt and stuck a second pistol in his face.
"Don't move," said the driver, now standing in Valentine's window. "Give up your stuff and get out of the car."
As Valentine made a careful exit, the driver proffered some advice. "Just stand. Don't run. Don't scream. Or I'll blow your head off."
Gold Pants set to work scouring the front seat and glove compartment. He moved quickly, avoiding Valentine's eyes. The driver stayed close, keeping his gun trained on the real estate broker, who stood petrified in the grass.
A third thug swung the white Sentra behind the BMW and waited out of sight.
The broker's mind began to race. This guy, this driver, looked familiar. Like a comedian. From where? Friday. The movie Friday. Valentine was a fan; he'd seen it at least ten times. Sure, he thought, this guy might kill me for my phone, wallet, watch, tennis rackets, and briefcase. But he also kinda looks like the skinny wimp who's always getting beaten up by the neighborhood bully.
The notion calmed Valentine enough to make eye contact with the driver, who towered over him. "Him I was able to like," the victim later recalled in court documents.
The affable thug slid into the BMW, searching for the trunk release. He snatched a Panama hat from the back seat and placed it smartly on his head. "How do I look with it?" he asked.
"You look great," Valentine replied. "You look better than me."
"Thanks," he said, flashing a gold grin. "I'll take it."
While Gold Pants silently looted the trunk, Valentine began blathering: Can I keep a dollar? Can I have a drink? Would you please not steal my tennis rackets?
The hoodlums wondered aloud if they should take the Beemer or just the keys. Valentine suggested they settle for the latter. Gold Pants warned him he talked too much.
A trio of local women appeared just in time to see Valentine's Panama hat meet its new owner. "What are you looking at?" the bold robber asked the ladies as he snatched Valentine's briefcase. "Mind your own business."
But it was too late. One of the women, Leshon Davis, recognized him as "Orange Man." She knew him, all too well, as her godsister's ex, a high school hooligan, and a neighborhood thug just out of jail.
As Valentine and the girls looked on, the robbers piled into the Sentra and took off. Local kids followed them on bicycles. Valentine paced in disbelief. Concerned mothers wandered over from the park Had he just been robbed? Marcia Manker, the daughter of a funeral home director, offered him the use of her phone.
By the time Valentine called police, a chattering din had erupted on Manker's lawn. The 911 tape plays like a wacky skit:
"911 emergency," the operator begins. "How can I help you?"
Valentine's jittery voice strains to compete with the hennish background chorus. "They took all my stuff," he cries, exasperated. He attempts a vehicle description a white Nissan.
"Without no tag," a voice adds from behind him. "That's a fresh car."
"Orange Man got in the back seat!" another shouts.
"They call him Orange Man?" Valentine asks one of the onlookers, turning away from the receiver.
The emergency operator sighs.
"That's all I know," someone replies. "They call him Orange Man." The voices rise and fall, giggle and swear.
All at once, they suggest that Orange Man and friends will probably return for the car. "Oh man, I gotta get it towed," Valentine responds.
Then Manker pipes up. "They got your address," she crows. "They got your shit ... your keys, your house keys...."
"Oh God, man," Leon replies. "Don't scare me."
One year and two weeks later, Valentine was cut down by three bullets on the front steps of his South Miami home. His grizzly end, a murder in broad daylight, smacks of criminal calculation; the town's mayor calls it "an assassination." Many knew Valentine as a well-liked and respected member of the black community. His killing has left friends and family with painful questions. What became of the men who robbed him that day? Was he in trouble? "That's not who Leon was," said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who knew him well. "That's just not the way he lived."
At noon on an October Sunday, the Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights booms with the juice of a jumpy electric keyboard. Rev. Alphonso Jackson Sr. stands at the center of the action, shaking his head to the tune. Large and smooth, he presides over the dulcet mass in a smart suit lips pursed, arm cocked, and forehead crinkled in approval.
A Parliament-like bass line kicks hard against a huge chorus: "I gotta keep go-in', go-in', go-in'." One woman in a glittery lavender suit and hat faints in the pews. Another worshipper, giant in a pearl sequined dress, marches the aisles in a shoeless daze, bellowing a fire-engine moan. It is 90 minutes into the midday service; things are just getting going.
Valentine was here most Sundays. He sat calmly and quietly amid the women who stood to testify, shaking lace-gloved hands like silent maracas. The octagonal church sits at the heart of the neighborhood where he grew up.
Valentine came into the world small. He was born in the tiny town of Madison, Florida, near the Georgia border, and grew up in deep Southwest Dade. When Valentine's five-foot four-inch frame prevented him from joining the high school football team, he became a trainer and took up tennis on the side.
At the University of Miami, he participated in student government and the black students' organization. He pledged Alpha Phi Alpha and married his sweetheart, Sandra. After he graduated, he found work as a housing rehabilitation loan officer for the City of Miami and went on to direct both the Allapattah Merchants Association and the Overtown Economic Development Corp. In 1980 he had a son, Todd. A daughter, Karis, followed a year later.
For most of the Nineties, Valentine directed site planning for Dade County Public Schools, buying and selling real estate. In his spare time, he could be spotted at volunteer meetings in South Miami youth advocacy, community development, historical preservation. Sometimes he brought along his son.
Valentine became a kind of communal brain. When friends proposed opening a chapter of the youth-mentoring organization 100 Black Men, Valentine gathered the people to make it happen.
When a stray bullet killed nine-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins in Liberty City this past July, Valentine was outraged. He circulated an e-mail among members of 100 Black Men, encouraging them to join Congressman Meek in canvassing, door-to-door, for information. "I have learned the importance of witness participation," he wrote in the e-mail, two weeks before he was shot. "As a community, we must not let this violent criminal element feel comfortable in our neighborhoods."
After the calisthenic sermon, Reverend Jackson adjourns to his office, a plush space where candy jars accompany brown leather couches. He quietly sits down to discuss the painful void left in Valentine's absence. "Leon was more than a parishioner to me," Jackson says. "He was a friend."
The pair squared off weekly on the tennis courts, where Valentine proved a worthy adversary. "He came by the Sunday before he was shot," Jackson recalls. "He thanked me for hiring his brother Mark to direct the church's Community Development Committee."
Valentine's sense of civic obligation wasn't limited to town meetings. Two weeks after the robbery, police went to him with a photo lineup. He didn't hesitate to give a positive ID. "Leon had no doubt in his mind that he was going to testify," Jackson says. "Not a doubt in his mind."
Before approaching Valentine, police checked in with Leshon Davis at her home, just a few blocks from the scene of the robbery. A Miami-Dade sergeant showed her a color mug shot of a suspect known in a police database as "Orange Man." The photograph depicted a tall, lanky man with a shaved head crisscrossed by scars. A pencil-thin goatee framed his pale, wide lips. Two pockmarked eyebrows arched over a pair of dull brown eyes.
Davis knew the face. Henry Marshall (a.k.a. Bernard Mitchell, a.k.a. Orange Man) grew up just three blocks from her. They had both attended Allapattah Junior High and Miami Jackson in the Eighties. In a sworn deposition, Marshall's public defender, Lucian Ferester, asked Davis what she thought of him.
"He's always been a thug," she replied.
"Always been a thug?
"I knew I shouldn't have asked that question."
Davis went on to recount how she'd seen him, "back in the day [at the school house], snatch chains off kids' necks." On one fantastic occasion, he slithered down NW 36th Street, she remembers. "He was on his belly crawling while traffic was crowded, and opened [a] lady['s] car door and took the purse out the car." (Marshall's belly is tattooed with the image of a man with a gun. A caption reads "Creepin' on a Come Up.")
His criminal career offers a wealth of oafish misadventure.
In 1986 police stopped him and an accomplice driving a brown '79 Chevy. The car matched a description given by Linda Thompson, a Coral Gables woman who had been robbed on her way to work at the First Nationwide Bank on Le Jeune Road. "[Thompson] held on to her purse," testified Miami-Dade Sgt. Alan Underwood. "He threw her down on to the ground and started dragging her along the pavement."
When Underwood questioned him, Marshall (who said his name was Bernard) denied any knowledge of the incident. He also claimed to know nothing about the purse in the back seat or the bottle of pills prescribed to Linda Thompson in his shirt pocket. Eventually he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to three years of probation.
In 1988 Marshall was tried again for purse snatching. This time, a New York couple driving a cream-color Rolls Royce had stopped at an Amoco station on Le Jeune to ask for directions. Marshall stole a bicycle from outside a nearby convenience store and got into position. When 60-year-old Betty Tomar stepped out of the station store, Marshall swooped in, swiped her purse, and sped off. Police brought in a K-9 unit and tracked the robber's "fear scent" to an overgrown lot six blocks away. Just after sunset, the dogs found him, balled up in the passenger seat of an abandoned vehicle.
When officers dragged him before Tomar and the store clerk, Marshall protested loudly. "He asked me to tell [the police] that he wasn't the one," the clerk recalled. "I told them that he was the one."
Eleven months later, on January 25, 1989, Marshall was convicted and sentenced to four and a half years. Once they had him in jail, the state prosecuted him for several crimes: three counts of robbery and one each of grand theft and resisting arrest. After some courtroom maneuvering, he was out by December of the same year.
Marshall never stayed free for long. He entered and left prison three times; overall the state had charged him with 23 crimes ranging from trespassing to aggravated battery. A few months after each release, police would find him with a purse or cocaine or a revolver. He fled (flailing elbows, hopping fences) and proclaimed his innocence at every turn. But he never got far.
In prison he shined. Marshall's disciplinary record over the years includes five counts of disorderly conduct, two of inciting riots, and one of possessing a weapon ("probably a toothbrush filed into a shiv," guessed one Florida corrections official). Marshall also received disciplinary action for one "obscene profane act" and a "sex act."
Still, things didn't get really serious until January 15, 1996, when Marshall made the mistake of trying to stick up a hard-boiled Broward Sheriff's deputy named Ben Williams. The officer and a lady friend had pulled up next to a well-lit baseball diamond at Charles Hadley Park in Allapattah, wishing not to be disturbed. Around midnight, they spotted in their rear-view mirror a pair of strangers approaching.
Marshall wandered up to the driver's window of Williams's silver Ford Tempo. "Susie," he cried into the window. "Is that you?"
"No, man," Williams answered. "It's not her."
"Oh, sorry," he replied. "I thought it was my sister."
Marshall asked the question again and shot a hand into his waistband for a revolver. Before he could draw, Williams pulled a 9mm Smith & Wesson from under his thigh and blasted him in the face. (The deputy later testified that the only place he went without his gun was church.)
Marshall made a messy retreat across a dark meadow. "Susie" opened her door and tumbled to the concrete, screaming hysterically. Williams leaned out of the driver's window and continued plugging away, spraying shell casings across the windshield. The robber allegedly fired back as he ran, bleeding, into the night.
Police found him at the Jackson Memorial trauma ward two days later, a bloody, tattooed disaster. His jaw was wired shut the bullet having passed through his left cheek and along his jaw line. His ass was another story. One of Williams's nine bullets would remain trapped permanently in his lower pelvis.
Marshall claimed to have been the victim of a drive-by shooting. The cops told the hospital staff to keep an eye on him. They'd be back with a warrant.
When they returned, he was nowhere to be found. They tracked him to a sparse residential neighborhood just north of the airport. The address they had was his mother's house, on NW 39th Court, where he has lived for much of his life. They arrived at the sprawling teal-painted home and discovered blood all over the driver's seat of a black Pontiac out front.
Police chided Marshall's mother for taking him in and disposing of his bloody clothing. Then they hauled him away. After an absurd three-year legal battle (he requested two polygraphs, handwrote multiple motions from jail, and fired his public defender after leaving threatening messages on his voicemail), Marshall copped to charges of attempted murder and violent career criminal possession of a firearm.
Three weeks before his plea, Marshall punched a female corrections officer in the head. "Fuck an officer," he hollered as she fell to the fifth-floor catwalk, dropping a load of lunch trays. "Especially a bitch." (His left pec reads "Ain't No Love Bitch.")
In August 1999, federal Judge Roberto Pineiro sentenced him to seven years in the state pen. Thanks to jail overcrowding, a few legal tricks, and "good behavior," Marshall was back on the street by January 2003.
He tried to go straight. Following his release, he moved to Atlanta and began work bagging groceries at Publix. After a few months, he lost the job and moved back in with his mother.
In August 2005, City of Miami detectives arrived at Leon Valentine's door with a computer-generated photo lineup. Marshall's mug leapt off the page. "Oh yeah," Valentine told detectives. "I recognize him. He's just like the guy from the movie Friday." Valentine circled, initialed, and dated it. "I am absolutely positive that this is the man who drove the white car and held me at gunpoint while robbing me," he wrote in his affidavit. "I will never forget his face."
Once again, city police tracked Marshall back to his mother's home. His extensive criminal past had taught him little about dodging detectives.
A female officer tried to entice Marshall out of the house by placing several phone calls under the name "Tasha." She said they should meet up at the flea market down the street. Marshall declined. He was laid up, recovering from knee surgery following a basketball injury.
She contacted her superiors for an arrest warrant. Then Marshall began calling her. He knew three Tashas, and which one was this? "We played phone tag," she testified in a deposition. "He was trying to narrow it down."
"Tasha" called Marshall back and revealed she had a warrant. Marshall cursed her out thoroughly, hung up, and phoned the local police station. Cops there confirmed he was a wanted man. Marshall called Tasha again, to curse her out some more.
The next day, police knocked on his mother's door and carried the infirm crook off to jail.
In the early evening of July 31, Valentine's neighborhood was tranquil and warm.
At the end of the business day, he pulled his BMW into the carport of his white, one-story home on SW 63rd Avenue. Royal palms cast scant shadows on the lawn. Two red sculptures twisted like desert rocks out of his lush front yard. Small lizards skittered from leaf to leaf in the planter under his front window.
The hot Monday afternoon was coming to a close the beginning of another long week.
He had been doling out advice all day, joking with friends about business and his kids Todd was just out of college and interning for Congressman Meek; Karis was grown with a daughter of her own. Tomorrow he might squeeze in a couple hours of tennis. Sunday he'd be in church.
He searched the house for his daughter. Had she stepped out?
Valentine made for his bedroom and tossed his briefcase and keys onto the tan comforter folded neatly over his bed.
In the distance, he could hear his name being called. "Leon." Valentine padded to the front door and opened it. As his pupils went to work muting the afternoon glare, a bullet tore through his chest, flew out his back, and settled high in the white ceiling behind him.
Valentine slumped to the floor, bleeding onto the pale, glossy wood. His assassin ran forward and shot him twice more in the head.
A neighbor across the street, who refused to give her name, says she heard screeching tires. Another told police he saw someone walk calmly back to a gold Nissan Sentra.
Julius Vecenty heard the pops from his house around the corner. He thought they were fireworks. Not until Karis returned home shortly after the shooting did Vecenty hear screams. He rushed toward the Valentine house just as sirens ripped into the suburban quiet.
When Vecenty arrived, he found crime scene tape across the front door. Valentine's wife Sandra stood weeping on the lawn. Congressman Meek drove up with Todd. Vecenty turned around to find Karis in tears. "She ran up to me," he recalls with moist, downcast eyes. "She ran up to me and said, öJulius, someone shot my dad, and he's dead.'"
"He was a good guy," Vecenty says. "He was a great guy. Helped my daughter get through school. I never knew him to do anything against anybody."
Today Valentine's house is empty. Plaster and paint buckets clutter the bright living room; all traces of bullets and blood have been erased. A rope swing hangs frozen from a tree branch. An orchid house sits empty out back. The red rock sculptures the only real witnesses to the crime languish in the front yard.
Two days after the murder, Valentine's son Todd suggested to WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) that his father's willingness to testify in the robbery case might have gotten him killed. "We have reason to believe that the two were connected," he said into the camera, following a reenactment of the incident. "We're gonna follow up and see if we can draw conclusive evidence."
Sandra, Karis, and Valentine's infant granddaughter left the state just days after his four-hour funeral at Second Baptist. ("Standing room only," recalled Reverend Jackson.)
"They left to go start life with family [Sandra] had in Tennessee," says Congressman Meek. "They needed to get as far away from that house as they could to heal."
The identity of Valentine's killers remains a mystery. Police are investigating leads tied to disgruntled business associates, but no arrests have been made. There's no indication in public records in court, with the Realtor Association of Miami-Dade County or at the Better Business Bureau of complaints against Leon Valentine.
And the town has closed ranks around him. "Valentine seemed to be a great guy," says Det. Stefano Brajdic, the lead investigator on the case. "No one's said anything bad about him."
Valentine's mother and brothers (Michael, Mark, and Marvin) all declined to comment for this story. Mark, whom Leon was extremely close to, was disbarred this past April, following allegations that he embezzled money from clients. He and Leon shared a Coconut Grove office that's now for sale.
And there are indications of financial problems. In August, American Express sued the brothers, seeking to recover nearly $65,000 in overdue credit card bills. Mark owed the bulk of it. Leon allegedly owed $5000.
"Mark is just absolutely devastated," says Bill Diggs, president of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the local chapter of 100 Black Men. "I've never seen brothers that close."
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All the Valentines can do now is wait. Officials at the State Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department refused to comment about whether Marshall is under investigation for the killing. But the accused bandit's lawyer, Lucian Ferester, denies his client had anything to do with either the murder or the robbery. Ferester contends that Marshall couldn't have hired the gunmen. "Marshall's jail commissary account has never had any money in it. He's broke. Unless he has money in a Swiss bank, then he ain't paying for that murder." Ferester added that the State Attorney's Office has stopped asking them questions.
The two other suspects in the crime (Gold Pants and the unseen getaway driver) remain at large. Police and prosecutors would not comment about them, either.
Marshall's robbery case is set for trial January 22. He has been in jail since his arrest in August; Valentine made sure of that. Because of the past felony convictions, Marshall now faces a possible life sentence. The dead man's testimony, if the judge admits it, will be the thing that puts him away.
"The defendant is a danger to society," Valentine wrote in his October 2005 affidavit. "The only way the community can be protected is for him to remain incarcerated pending trial in this matter. I am in fear for my personal safety as well as the safety of my family."