TAMPA FL Dec 2 2015— The night before Thanksgiving three years ago, Michael Valentin was working as a security guard at an East Tampa apartment complex, checking cars going in and out of the front gate just like he always did.
As he traded texts with his niece in Wisconsin about taking part in a baptism, a 9 mm bullet entered the back of his head, ending his life.
Monday, the trial of the teenager charged with murdering Valentin began with the revelation that the youth had stolen the gun used in the homicide from his mother earlier that night. Prosecutors said the then-16-year-old boy saw Valentin had something he coveted: the guard’s 9 mm duty weapon.
Valentin, said Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon, “was being watched by a killer, a killer who saw something he wanted, and he killed to get it.”
Harmon told the jury of six men and six women that Larry “Joker” Brown, now 19 and facing a possible sentence of life in prison, was on a bicycle in the Grand Oak Apartment complex on East Hanna Avenue when he saw the security guard with a holstered handgun. Brown was armed with a Taurus handgun he had just stolen from his mother, Harmon said.
Shortly before the shooting, Brown had a text exchange with his mother, who gave him 10 minutes to get home with the gun.
“OK,” was the response from the teen.
But a few minutes later, Harmon said, the paths of Valentin, the 38-year-old father of two sons, crossed with Brown, a teenager with a record of 38 criminal charges over the previous six years of his life.
Brown “took the weapon out, took aim, leveled at the victim’s head and he pulled the trigger,” Harmon said. “(Valentin) didn’t have time to defend himself or utilize his training. It is clear this man never saw it coming.”
The state’s methodical approach to the case seeks to prove Brown was the person on the bicycle, seen by a handful of apartment residents and visitors prior to the shooting. The bicycle was left near the body of the security guard.
DNA samples taken from the handle grips matched Brown’s DNA, Harmon said. And the bullet that killed Valentin was fired from Brown’s mother’s gun, which was recovered a few days later.
The motive for the slaying, Harmon said, was that Brown wanted the security guard’s gun, “a hunk of metal and plastic worth about $500, maybe.”
The prosecutor said after Valentin was shot to death, Brown tried to pull the gun from the mortally wounded guard’s holster, “dragging his body across the concrete,’ but because of security measures, was unable to free the weapon.
The shooter fled empty handed, leaving the bicycle, his DNA and a shell casing behind.
“The defendant was unable to take the prize that he had murdered for,” Harmon told the jury.
Twice over the next six days, Harmon said, Brown used his mother’s gun to rob two men withdrawing money from an automatic teller machine at a bank on Fowler Avenue.
During that time, Tampa police detectives had connected some of the evidence, linking Brown to the robberies, to being in the apartment complex the night of the homicide and to the theft of the gun from his mother.
A week later, detectives found the clothes worn by Brown during the robberies and the Taurus semi-automatic handgun in an apartment rented by a couple of his friends.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Welker said the evidence against her client isn’t as clear cut as the state says.
There are discrepancies in descriptions of the shooter from a couple of witnesses who say they saw the man on the bike moments before the homicide occurred. It was dark and the biker stayed in darkened areas.
“This is a tragic event,” Welker said, “but the evidence in this case will fall short of what the state has to prove. Mr. Brown is not guilty in this case.”
She said some of the witnesses may have motivations to protect the real shooter, and they may have lied to investigators in implicating Brown.
She said there is a lot of traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, in the Grande Oak Apartment complex, and surveillance video shows a man riding a bicycle but does not show the shooting.
“There is no evidence or testimony that places Mr. Brown around Michael Valentin at the time of the shooting,” she said.
As for the DNA sample taken from the bicycle handles, Welker said, several DNA samples belonging to different people were taken from the bicycle, not just her client’s.
She said others questioned that night were uncooperative. One tried to get away from police and another was found hiding in a closet.
Donald Williams was among the first witnesses to take the stand for the prosecution. He testified that he pulled into Grand Oak Apartments to pick up his stepson. He chatted briefly with Valentin at the front gate and headed north when he spotted a person on a bicycle. The bicyclist was under a tree, shielded from the street lights when he passed him, but he was pedaling slowly and drew Williams’ attention.
Williams, a former Albany, Georgia police officer, said he heard what thought was a gunshot and, with his stepson, headed back toward the complex’s entrance.
He saw the security guard lying on the ground and got out to see if he needed help.
“I observed he had a gunshot to the rear of his head,” Williams said. He checked for a pulse. There was none. He checked to see if Valentin was breathing. He wasn’t.
The other security guard came up, followed by two Tampa police officers who were there to serve an arrest warrant in an unrelated case.
Before coming to Florida where he took a job with Critical Intervention Services, Valentin was a police officer in New York City for nine years.
He began his new job with CIS a month before he was killed.
Brown, charged with first-degree murder and multiple robbery- and firearm-related charges, is not a candidate for the death penalty because of his age at the time of the homicide.
Between the ages of 10 and 16, Brown drew juvenile detention sentences for various crimes including petty theft, grand theft, burglary, grand theft of an auto and strong-armed robbery.
In 2012, he was sentenced to 18 months for theft and armed robbery and served 14 months of the sentence. He was released in July 2012, four months before Valentin’s death.