Trial starts for man in Liberty City daylight double murder

Benito Santiago’s distinct crucifixes helped witnesses recognize him in double slaying, according to Miami-Dade prosecutors.

08/21/2012 5:00 AM

08/21/2012 6:18 PM

Adriana Johnson clearly remembers the January afternoon six years ago when she watched her father scuffle with a young man on a Liberty City street.

She remembers the teen skirt down a side street, return with an AK-47 rifle and unleash a flurry of bullets.

The memories, on Tuesday, were crisp:

Her mother bleeding from the leg, screaming that she had been shot.

The homicide detectives investigating the murders of her parents presenting her with a photo lineup.

The instant recognition. The killer sported two distinctive tattoos inked on each cheek.

“Crosses. On each side of his face,” Adriana, now 16, told jurors Tuesday, on the opening day of the murder trial for Benito “Bo” Santiago.

The suspect’s conspicuous crucifix tattoos lay at the heart of the prosecution’s case against Santiago, 23, charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, prosecutors said that Adriana and another witness identified Santiago, whom they knew from around the neighborhood, as the man who killed Grace Armstrong, 27, and Adrian Johnson, 28.

The second witness, prosecutor Kathleen Cortes told jurors, knew Santiago well — she had allowed him to sleep at her home from time to time.

But defense attorney Alan Greenstein said prosecutors have no physical evidence linking Santiago to the crime and eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The second witness, Patricia Wilcher, never housed Santiago in the months preceding the shooting because the teen was living in New York at the time, Greenstein said.

“She’s got the wrong man,” Greenstein told jurors.

Santiago, 17 at the time of his arrest, faces life in prison. He is not eligible for the death penalty because he was a minor at the time of the shooting.

His case drew national attention because it was chronicled on A&E’s The First 48, a reality show that follows homicide detectives in different cities.

Armstrong and Johnson had been together 12 years. They were high-school sweethearts. Both worked at Jack Rogers Shoes – she was a secretary and he worked in the stockroom. In addition to Adriana, the couple also had two sons.

After the killing, amid community outrage, Miami police took the unusual step of having Adriana talk to reporters — without showing her face — to help drum up tips to find the killer.

On Tuesday, Adriana repeated her story, this time to jurors. Soft-spoken but composed, Adriana remembered that she and her family had been at an aunt’s house that day.

Afterward, they stopped by a friend’s house on Northwest 70th Street near 15th Avenue. From the porch, Adriana watched her father’s red car pull up and the couple walked up the street.

Prosecutors did not say what sparked the fight, which apparently started outside a nearby convenience store. The fight continued down 70th Street and involved a least one other young man.

Adriana saw her father slam a bicycle on the ground. The teen believed to be Santiago — wearing a white T-shirt and jeans – walked down 15th Court and returned moments later.

“I saw him holding something but I didn’t know what it was,” Adriana said. “He stopped in the middle of the road. He lifted up his hands and that’s when I heard the first shot.”

Another witness, Curtis Hinson, 78, recalled seeing the men “hand fighting,” and one appearing to “get the best” of the other.

“One of the guys ran back down the alleyway,” said Hinson, who mimicked how he saw the shooter wield the rifle from the hip. “He come back up the road and he had a rifle or something and bup bup bup.”

In the frenzy of scattering people, Adriana was pushed inside the home, but through the window saw the shooter take off after her father. Adrian Johnson, collapsed mortally wounded outside a nearby home. The girl darted outside onto the porch.

“I was looking for my mom but I couldn’t find them,” Adriana said, burying her teary face in her hand. “Until I saw her on the floor screaming and yelling, ‘He shot me!’ I walked to the edge of the porch, and she was right there on the floor bleeding. Bleeding from the leg.”

Paramedics rushed Armstrong to the hospital, where she died of her wounds.

The trial continues Wednesday in front of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer.

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