Free Lionel Tate

For the past two years, two months, and ten days, out on the western fringes of Miami-Dade County, Lionel Tate has been sitting inside a prison cell at the Everglades Correctional Institute for a crime he almost certainly didn't commit.

In fact two South Florida private investigators allege DNA evidence — as well as two new victim statements — prove Tate likely didn't rob, at gunpoint, Domino's Pizza delivery man Walter Gallardo inside a Pembroke Park apartment May 23, 2005.

"The Broward State Attorney's Office knows they got the wrong guy, but they are not going to do anything about it," hisses 51-year-old Miami private eye Joe Carrillo. "And it stinks."

Carrillo is a tall, boisterous man whose sleuthing skills helped Miami Police Department nab the Shenandoah Rapist, Reynaldo Rapalo, in 2004. He and former FBI agent Bob Whiting have been working without pay on Tate's case for almost two years.

You might remember Tate. He was 12 years old back in 1999 when he was accused of battering to death six-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick. Two years later, Tate was tried and convicted of Eunick's first-degree murder. His trial lawyers unsuccessfully argued that Tate had been imitating wrestling moves and that the girl's death was an accident.

Two years after Eunick's death, Tate became the youngest person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence without parole. But an appeals court reversed the conviction in 2003, and he was freed a year later. He avoided a retrial by pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for one year's house arrest followed by ten years' probation.

Then in September 2004 police found him a few blocks from his house at 2:00 a.m. carrying an eight-inch knife. Broward Circuit Court Judge Joel Lazarus tacked another five years onto Tate's probation.

Nine months later, Tate was busted for the pizza stickup. And because of his past problems, this one really could put him away for life.

Here's what happened, according to Tate's arrest report. Gallardo was delivering the pies about 4:20 p.m. to unit 208 at 3871 SW 52nd Ave. in Pembroke Park (just north of the Miami-Dade County line in Broward). Initially there was no answer at the second-floor apartment, so Gallardo turned around to leave.

Then the delivery man heard someone yell "Hey!" while he was descending the stairs. He walked back up, saw unit 208's door slightly ajar, and walked in. Behind the door, Gallardo told BSO detectives, was a black man with a black bandanna covering his mouth and pointing an "old handgun" at him. Later that evening, Gallardo identified Tate.

Since then Tate has been incarcerated without bond and has cycled through three defense lawyers, including the late Ellis Rubin.

At first it seemed the evidence against Tate — who's now 20 years old — was strong. He admitted calling Domino's to order the pizzas. And when police searched the apartment of a onetime neighborhood chum, Willie Corouthers, they found a pair of maroon shorts Gallardo claimed the assailant wore; they contained traces of Tate's DNA. He even accepted a plea deal but then changed his mind.

Indeed the two private eyes have uncovered evidence that should lead cops to further probe the role of Corouthers, who was 16 years old at the time of the pizza caper and lived on the first floor of the building where the crime took place. Despite several calls to a cell phone listed in public records and three visits to his last known address in Miramar, New Times could not reach Corouthers for comment.

An aspiring rapper who goes by the handle "Little Will," Corouthers met Tate through mutual friends sometime in late 2004, according to a sworn statement Corouthers gave prosecutors in September 2005. "Some days I would see him walking to school," Corouthers said. "But I never said anything to him until he started coming around where I live."

On the day of the robbery, Tate sent Corouthers a text message: "U still want to bust that lick after school?" In the statement, Corouthers explained that "bust that lick" is slang for robbery and that Tate was referring to stealing from an unidentified Hollywood teenager who carried around a lot of money. But it never happened. "That was all talk," Corouthers added.

Corouthers claimed he was on the sidewalk outside the apartment building when Gallardo drove up. "Lionel was at the top of the staircase," Corouthers told the attorneys. "He said, 'I ordered the pizza, sir.' Lionel goes into the house, and the pizza man is like right behind him." A couple of seconds later, Corouthers said, he heard Gallardo scream and saw Lionel waving a gun at the man. "The man falls, boom, and then either he fell down the stairs or he ran," Corouthers said. "He's screaming help, help, help."

That doesn't jibe with Gallardo's account. The pizza man said he didn't see anyone before knocking on unit 208. And Corouthers, whose fingerprints were found on one of the pizza boxes, didn't mention the black bandanna, which should have been obvious.

Enter Tuquincy Thompkins, who was 12 years old and lived in the apartment where the robbery took place. Initially Thompkins told BSO detectives he saw Tate rob Gallardo. Two months after the robbery, though, Thompkins recanted his story to private eye Carrillo.

During an October 11, 2005 sworn deposition, Thompkins claimed Tate wasn't there. When the pizza man entered the apartment, Corouthers was standing by the front door with a gun tucked under his waistband. "I saw him take it out," Thompkins stated. "And that's when I ran in [my mom's] room, and that's when I heard a scream." Asked by Tate's defense attorney why he didn't identify Corouthers from the beginning, Thompkins replied, "Because I was scared, and he said he was going to kill me."

Then there's the story told by Zawalski Edwards, a convicted felon who called Tate's defense team from jail. The two private eyes say Edwards was in Corouthers's apartment the night of the robbery; he claimed he saw Corouthers wearing the maroon shorts and then putting them "on top of the cabinet ... where the cops found it," Carrillo says.

Edwards has nothing to gain by implicating Corouthers, Whiting adds. "We are not law enforcement, so it's not like we can offer him anything," he says. "There was absolutely no benefit for him."

And this past February 9, a forensic case report by Virginia-based Bode Technology Group turned up significant traces of Corouthers's DNA on the black bandanna police say was used in the armed robbery.

Based on the new DNA evidence, Judge Lazarus agreed to delay the trial, which had been set for April. The next hearing will be held in September.

It's time for prosecutors to drop the case against Tate, the private eyes say. They have told Assistant Broward State Attorney Charles Morton about the exculpatory evidence, but "he doesn't want to hear anything that would exonerate Lionel."

Morton didn't return calls seeking comment. But Broward Sheriff's spokesman Elliot Cohen dismisses the private eyes' charges. "I'd expect nothing less from two people who are working for the person they are trying to exonerate," Cohen says. "The court record is extensive and pretty clear."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.