Bail sought in fatal Craigslist robbery
The state argues that he should stay in jail for public safety.
Dontae Johnson’s defense wants bail set for the 19-year-old defendant. The state argues that he should remain in the county jail, held without bail, to protect the community.
TAMPA — To those who know Dontae Johnson, he is a quiet and caring teenager who has an intellectual disability. He switched schools to get away from bullies. He likes football, but was too nice to get aggressive on the field.
To Stuart Beck, Johnson is the man who murdered his father.
In a courtroom Friday, the 17-year-old son took the witness stand and recounted how he saw Johnson fatally shoot his father, James Beck, after they drove to an east Tampa neighborhood to sell a dirt bike. The teen was asked about a photo array police had shown him after the murder, and the notes he wrote then:
“Pulled a gun on my dad,” the teen wrote beside Johnson’s image. “And when my dad attempted to flee in his truck, he shot my dad.”
But the question before a judge wasn’t whether Johnson is guilty in the Jan. 31, 2017, death of James Beck. It was whether Johnson, now 19, could safely be released on bail while awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder and robbery.
Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Michelle Doherty argued that there are no reason-
able bail conditions to protect the community.
Johnson’s defense said he is entitled to a reasonable bail, that there is no evidence that he wouldn’t abide by the conditions, or that he has a disregard for public safety. Assistant Public Defender Mike Peacock noted that Johnson lacks a criminal history and that he turned himself in after the warrant for his arrest was issued. A pair of psychologists testified that Johnson has little risk of committing a violent act.
“I’m not here to say he gets to go home,” Peacock said. “I’m here to say there is no basis for pretrial detention.”
On the witness stand, Stuart Beck said he listed the Kawasaki dirt bike on Craigslist for $900. He got a text message from a potential buyer who offered $1,200 if he could deliver it to Tampa.
He and his father loaded the bike into the back of their pickup truck at their home in Holiday. It was an hour drive to Tampa, along unfamiliar roads. They arrived at the agreed-upon spot just before dark. They didn’t see anybody.
Stuart Beck called the buyer, who then directed them to east Tampa, to the area of 18th Street and 24th Avenue. They encountered two men. One tall, one shorter. One asked to test ride the bike. Father and son said they needed the money first. The 17-year-old told this story from the stand:
The tall man pulled out a stack of cash, mostly $1 bills. James Beck started to count it. He said it didn’t look like $1,200. The shorter man got into the truck bed and started to touch the bike. The tall man asked for the money back, then pulled a gun from his jacket.
“I remember my dad said, ‘run to the truck,’ ” Stuart Beck testified.
“My dad was getting in the driver’s seat and he got shot,” the son told the court. “I think it was four or five times.”
As Stuart Beck ran to his wounded father, he said the short man rode off on the bike. The taller man also fled. James Beck, 44, was a father of three.
Police first arrested the shorter man, identified as 18-year-old Ramontrae Williams, who is accused of being the person who stole the bike. They arrested Johnson, the tall man, days later.
The defense witnesses included two Plant High School football staffers who let the teen live in their home after they learned his mother had difficulty providing for him.
He started attending Plant High about a year before his arrest, said Elizabeth Winter, the football team’s director of operations. She testified that he transferred to the South Tampa high school because he was being bullied at Blake High School.
They fed and clothed him and came to think of him as a “surrogate son,” she testified. He took special needs classes, she said, and played football but had to be told to get more aggressive on the field.
When Johnson became ensnared in the murder investigation, the family’ contacted a lawyer. They also arranged for him to turn himself in to police.
Knowing Johnson the way she does, Winter said she doubts he’s guilty. “I don’t think all the facts are out there,” she said. Winter said she would let him live in her home if he’s granted bail.
The judge was expected to rule next week on whether to set bail for the defendant.
Dontae Johnson, 19, is accused of fatally shooting JamesBeck, 44, last year.