Criminal courts

Prosecutors lay out murder case as Miami cop-killer trial begins

 

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

Clutching an AK-47 and running after a man he’d just shot in a case of mistaken identity, Andrew James Rolle spotted a white Ford Taurus and made a second, fatal mistake, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Believing the car belonged to his getaway driver, Rolle ran over and tried to open the passenger-side door, prosecutors say. And when the window rolled down and he was greeted not by a friend, but by a pistol, he unleashed another spray of bullets, striking off-duty Miami Detective James Walker in the face.

As Rolle’s murder trial began Tuesday, prosecutors laid out their case: That a surprised Rolle, fleeing from a bungled hit on a rival, murdered the soft-spoken domestic-crimes detective after trying to get into his car.

“James Walker had left his regular-duty job and was on his way to visit his estranged wife. He drove into a nightmare,” prosecutor Abbe Rifkin told jurors.

Walker was shot dead just after midnight Jan. 8, 2008, near a gang-infested complex of North Miami Beach apartment buildings in the area of South Glades Drive and Northeast 17th Avenue. Police, already responding to reports of an initial shooting, found him slumped over in the front seat of his still-running Taurus, foot on the brake and service Glock in his right hand, with one round fired.

His car was riddled with bullets and an assault rifle was found discarded beneath a nearby truck. A swarm of cops, state and federal agents descended on the massive crime scene, beginning a manhunt for a cop killer and a murder investigation that would apparently involve several cases of mistaken identity.

Police quickly took custody of a homeless gang member, Ricardo Ajuste. A woman from the neighborhood identified Ajuste as the man who opened fire that morning on her and friend Wesner Senobe while they sat in a parked black Impala. But police eventually turned their attention to Rolle as the killer, and prosecutors now say Ajuste was asleep in a car at the time Walker was shot.

According to Rifkin, Rolle’s friends said he was in the North Miami Beach neighborhood that night to hunt down none other than Ajuste, who’d stolen a Tech-9 handgun from him the previous night. They said an angry Rolle, whom they called “Birdman,” had groused at a local hangout house about losing his gun. So he found a ride — a white Ford Taurus almost identical to Walker’s —and recruited a friend with two assault rifles.

Rifkin said the Taurus, followed by a second car filled with Rolle’s friends, was recorded entering the area by apartment surveillance cameras.

But when they got there, prosecutors say Rolle didn’t find Ajuste. Instead, after his getaway driver dropped him off in an alley with a ski mask, gloves and AK-47 in hand, he began shooting at the wrong man — Senobe.

“He pulled out his big gun and just started shooting,” Senobe testified Tuesday, though he said he couldn’t make out who was firing at him.

As Rolle’s getaway driver sped off, Senobe and a woman also in the car ran from the shooter. And after giving chase down an alleyway, Rolle spotted a white Ford Taurus and ran to get into what he thought was his getaway car.

But it was the wrong car, and inside was Walker, who rolled down his window and pointed his pistol at the gunman. That’s when Rolle allegedly pulled the trigger, sending a hail of bullets into the car and one into Walker’s upper lip, through his jaw and out the back of his head.

Rifkin said Rolle probably didn’t know Walker was a cop, but that didn’t matter. “When you bring a gun and you start the shooting you’re responsible for everything that happens afterward.... He is legally responsible. He is morally responsible.”

As Rifkin made her case, Walker’s mother, father and his former Miami police partner watched quietly from the audience. Rolle, now 26, sat stone-faced in a charcoal suit jacket and yellow tie. He is charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.

At one point following his arrest, Rolle argued self-defense, saying he had no clue Walker was a cop and began shooting because he feared for his life when a gun was pointed in his face. He filed for immunity under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which eliminates a citizen's duty to retreat before using deadly force to counter a lethal threat and gives judges greater leeway to throw out a murder charge before it goes to a jury.

But Rolle withdrew the immunity request. And on Tuesday, his attorney, David Peckins, said nothing about self-defense. Instead, he said the prosecution’s case was without a shred of evidence, or even an eye-witness placing Rolle at the scene.

Peckins said prosecutors were trying a high-pressure case based on a theory pushed by unsavory figures, many of them receiving deals to reduce prison sentences. He said Rifkin’s opening statements sounded “more like a script than a timeline.”

One of the prosecution’s main witnesses, getaway driver Jonathan Blanchard, gave four statements under immunity before he told what prosecutors deemed to be the truth, Peckins told the jury. He said some witnesses received reduced prison sentences for their cooperation. Another, nicknamed “Ace,” called police from a hospital bed where he’d landed the day before Walker’s murder after his SUV was T-boned while he fled from the cops.

“The pressure to solve this case was great. They needed an arrest. So when these gentlemen came forward and told them the little story that they told them they jumped on it,” said Peckins. “They had an identification. They had the shooter.”

Rolle’s trial is expected to run into next week.

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