How Vero solved horrific murder
STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of December 1, 2011)
Photo: Police Chief David Currey briefing neighborhood residents.
Darius Robinson, 16 and a 10th grader at Vero Beach High School, broke down and began crying a week ago Tuesday as he was returned in the rear of a police cruiser to the Central Beach neighborhood he allegedly scouted for a burglary five days earlier on a stolen bicycle.
Just the day before, Robinson and his older friend, Henry “T.J.” Jones Jr., 23, were arrested on loitering charges when they returned to the neighborhood – scene of the island’s most horrific murder in decades – triggering a wave of calls from residents to 9-1-1 reporting two black men acting suspiciously.
While Jones, out on probation with a long arrest record, remained in custody, Robinson was allowed to return to his home at 2350 10th Road in the southwest part of the county after his loitering arrest. But at 4 a.m. Tuesday, police and sheriff’s deputies now armed with a search warrant descended on the house and rousted him.
At daybreak, after police had taken a DNA swab of his mouth and an imprint of his bare foot, Robinson agreed to go down to the Police Department for further questioning. By mid-morning, he had broken down and begun talking about his friend Jones disposing of a gun in the neighborhood where the murder took place.
By the time Robinson was brought back to the neighborhood – where they believed he was to have been the lookout man for a burglary gone wrong – he was crying uncontrollably.
From Nov. 17 through Nov. 22, many things went wrong for Robinson and Jones, whom police say was to have been the inside man in the burglary.
They also went tragically wrong for islanders Brian Simpson, 41, his wife Kristen, children Sammy and Scotty, and for a beachside community that until now had seemed immune from this kind of random violence.
As Simpson pulled into his driveway on Fiddlewood Road in the early evening of Nov. 17, Robinson had abandoned his lookout perch and made his way into the Simpson home, where he was helping Jones fill a shopping bag with jewelry taken from the master bedroom dresser, say police.
Upon entering his home, Simpson apparently spotted the two burglars and charged them with a large stick, believed to be a wooden flag pole. Robinson and Jones retreated to the bathroom off the master bedroom, police say, and Jones began firing through the closed door.
One bullet plowed into a wall. Two ripped through the door and tore into Simpson’s upper body. He dropped to the floor, his wounds fatal.
A neighbor on Eugenia Road having dinner on her porch behind the Simpson house called police at 6:42 p.m. to report hearing loud popping and banging noises she believed were coming from a home behind her.
Police broadcast a radio call that there may be a burglary in progress on the island again, another of roughly two dozen burglaries since July in a five-mile radius of Simpson's home.
FLEEING THE SCENE
In the meantime, police say Robinson bailed out the bathroom window, dropping a watch and jewelry box as he rushed to escape the shooting scene. They say Jones fled through the house and possibly through a door that was still open when they arrived.
Both men raced off on bicycles stolen earlier just four houses away from Simpson's home, police say, and made their way through the park near Bob Summer‘s Field – a place where Simpson’s son, a ball player just a few years younger than Robinson, expected to meet up with his father.
They then switched to a motorcycle, which they had left under the Merrill Barber bridge, carrying about 20 pieces of Kristen Simpson’s jewelry – most of it costume – and 10 empty jewelry boxes stuffed in a plastic grocery bag, police say.
When police arrived at the one-story Fiddlewood Road home, they found Simpson face down in a pool of blood. A red and white bandana, believed to have been worn by Jones was next to his body.
At 7:32 p.m. police changed the radio call to a Signal 7. Simpson was dead and the hunt for his killers was on.
As Robinson cried uncontrollably in the Central Beach area five days later, he was put back in the cruiser and sent to juvenile lockup with a murder charge hanging over his head.
His partner Jones – with more than 10 arrests in Indian River County – remainded in the Sheriff’s Department lockup, also facing a charge of murder.
“FOLKS, THEY ARE STUPID”
Mike Brownstein turned from his seat and clapped when Vero Beach Interim Police Chief Dave Currey walked down the aisle toward the front of the Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church for a previously scheduled neighborhood crime meeting. The meeting was held just hours after the announcement of Robinson and Jones' arrests.
Almost as one, roughly 150 people, mostly beachside residents, rose to their feet and cheered the news that the suspected killers had been caught on the island in the same neighborhood where they are accused of killing Simpson.
“I know many, many of you, “said Officer John Morrison, who had been a public information officer and a community liaison for islanders growing weary of neighborhood crime over a two-year period.
“I am proud of this community…You are terrific people," he told those in the crowded church.
“We have a lot of healing to do,” Morrison said.
Currey then took center stage for more than an hour, taking residents through the steps in the police investigation and the missteps of the accused. His words mesmerized many in the church.
Appointed interim head of the department just two weeks earlier, Currey's approach was direct and candid. Save for any comments on forgiveness, he could have passed for a Sunday preacher, moving through the church carefully and confidently and talking to residents like they were congregants.
“Folks, they are stupid,” Currey said of the accused killers' decision to return to neighborhood on that same motorcycle at least once after Simpson died.
Robinson and Jones were spotted in the Central Beach area on Monday, Nov. 21, four days after Simpson's death and roughly four hours before police released composite sketches of the suspects.
Police now believe Robinson and Jones came back to the Central Beach area that Monday to retrieve a gun that they had stashed.
The unseasonably warm temperatures had pushed past 80 degrees that Monday yet Robinson was bundled from head to waist in a hooded Florida Gators sweatshirt.
A witness saw Robinson and Jones come across the Merrill Barber Bridge on a Japanese-style motorcycle and then split up. The same witness later saw them pass each other on the street in the neighborhood and act as if they were not together.
Another witness saw them on opposite sides of the street as he passed in his vehicle. The witness told police neither suspect made eye contact as he passed.
A third witness told police she saw the hooded Robinson wander around in a yard near the front bushes, and told police he appeared to be looking inside a vacant Mockingbird Drive home that is under foreclosure.
By noon, Jones, who was currently on probation after being released from the Indian River County Jail less than two months earlier, was arrested on loitering and habitual driving offenses. Under questioning, he told police he had been in Fort Lauderdale when Simpson was shot and only had recently returned.
On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 22, Robinson confessed that the crimes he and Jones committed were much more serious.
"If the residents didn’t notice something, they (Jones and Robinson) would basically still be out there,” said South Beach resident Jose Lambiet. “The residents did this.”
In hindsight, said Lambiet, he too should have called authorities early Monday morning when he found a Florida Identification card that belonged to Jones at the foot of his driveway in Treasure Cove.
On Monday, Jones’ name meant nothing to Lambiet, nor to a health-care worker taking care of a neighbor, nor to a local garbage collection company he called to see if one of the men on the crew went by the name Henry Jones Jr.
Two days later, Lambiet learned who Jones was. “This guy was here. This guy was on my street,” he said.
Lambiet called the sheriff’s office Wednesday morning and said he was told that Jones, who had a Fort Pierce address on his identification card but had recently been living in the southern part of the Indian River county, was likely casing yet another island neighborhood or possibly had come back to retrieve something he may have stashed.
“They (Jones and Robinson) should have been in Brazil by now, but instead they go back to casing places,” Lambiet said.
When Robinson was brought back the neighborhood, he told police Jones had hidden the gun he was carrying the day before in the rear of an abandoned property on Conn Way when it was apparent the police were on their tail. The following day, a Florida Game and Fresh Water Commission police dog trained to sniff out weapons pointed them to a .25 caliber handgun as well a window punch.
Police do not think either were used in the Simpson house break-in and killing but they think that Jones and Robinson may have stashed them somewhere else on the island after the Thursday killing, and then returned Monday to get them only to leave them behind again, this time on Conn Way, as police moved in.
The search was still on this week for the .22 caliber gun that killed Simpson, police said.
ISLANDERS RESPOND WITH TIPS, MONEY
Simpson's killing rattled the normally quiet Central Beach neighborhood, a neatly partitioned area bordered by busy A1A, the Indian River, Bethel Creek and Beachland Boulevard, its mostly single-story homes tucked in under the leafy greenery of live oaks.
His death sent more than 500 people to a Sunday evening vigil along the boardwalk at Jaycee Park and drew another 500 to 600 people to a memorial service that reveled in the life and humor of the victim a day later.
Simpson's friends and business leaders put up a $50,000 reward to find his killers.
“I know that (figure) was climbing,” said Currey. “That’s a testament for this community … We can be proud in that regard.”
Currey also tried to assuage residents' fears when he met them at the church. “I can promise you, it is a safe community,” he said.
He then asked the crowd to be proud of the police department. His words were met with applause.
A day after the killing, police cruisers and SUVs blocked Fiddlewood Drive and the nearby Mockingbird Drive. Yellow crime-scene tape designated the boundary of the crime. Neighbors shook their heads in disbelief over the first homicide on the barrier island in 13 years and the first apparent homicide by a stranger in possibly decades.
Many people – but far from all – checked the locks on their doors and windows.
As word got out, people started calling police about what they had seen the night before.
Jones and Robinson had frightened one woman who sat in her car near the Little League Field as they passed by just after 6 p.m. and faded into the Central Beach darkness. The woman told police the men were dressed in black. One sported dreadlocks. The other wore a bandana.
A man, who spotted them along Date Palm Road, sent a text message to his mother at 6:15 p.m., less than 30 minutes before Simpson was gunned down.
“Lock the door and set the alarm – two less than reputable looking black fellows were walking down the street as we pulled out and make sure your car is locked with all the break-ins lately, you cannot be too careful.”
Five minutes later, a couple house hunting on the island from Canada, spotted the men walking up Fiddlewood.
“The key is making that phone call,” Currey told the crowd.
Police reports indicate traces of blood were found on Jones’ shoes. His tennis shoes matched imprints left in soil beneath the Simpsons' kitchen window, at the window sill in the kitchen as well as in the master bathroom.
As for Robinson’s sandals, police indicate that an impression left on the edge of the bathtub in the master bathroom appeared consistent with the logo marking, angle of lines and wave-like lines on the sandals he wore the day he was arrested.
“We definitely have the nail in the coffin,” Currey said.