When Emanuel McGhee was gunned down outside a Brownsville grocery store in February, Miami homicide detectives got what they believed was a huge break: an eyewitness who came forward willing to testify.
The person he pinpointed was Walter Collier, 20, a neighborhood man with a minor rap sheet.
Based chiefly on the word of the witness, detectives and Miami-Dade prosecutors prepared an arrest warrant. A judge signed off. Collier was arrested, jailed and charged with second-degree murder.
But authorities had the wrong man. In fact, authorities now say, the gunman was 17-year-old Marquise Bess, who shocked detectives by confessing to the McGhee murder — even offering to apologize to the slain man’s family.
“We want to sincerely apologize to Mr. Collier. We made our arrest based on the word of the witness,” said Miami Cmdr. Eunice Cooper, head of the homicide unit. “The witness’ testimony fit with what we found on the scene. We seek the truth and in an effort to get there, we immediately called the State Attorney’s Office to have the charge dropped.”
Prosecutors dropped the charge against Collier, who walked free late last month after 37 days in jail. The arrest is a black eye for Miami Police and also underscores the perils of one witness-cases.
A Miami-Dade grand jury last week indicted Bess on first-degree murder charges.
Exactly why the witness, Reginald Jackson, blamed the murder on Collier is unknown. Miami detectives want to interview him. But he is nowhere to be found.
“Police really need to investigate the motives of witnesses, especially in a one-witness case, before any kind of an arrest is made based on that person’s word,” said Collier’s defense attorney, Christian Dunham. “I think the state did the right thing, in dropping the case so quickly.”
According to court documents, the story unfolded like this: A gunman, who witnesses said wore a hooded jacket, walked up at 6:20 p.m. on Feb. 2 and shot McGhee once in the head outside the Joysi Food Market, 4002 NW 17th Ave.
The witness, Jackson, soon reached out to police with his story. He claimed that a few days before the murder, Collier — whom he knew as “Walter Parker” — had accused him of stealing Collier’s car, a Chevrolet Caprice with custom rims.
Jackson “further advised that he had known [Collier] for many years and had seen him numerous times,’ according to an arrest warrant. Collier’s mother’s maiden name is Parker, and the family lives in the neighborhood.
On the night of the murder, Jackson claimed he was standing with McGhee outside the store when he saw Collier — wearing the hooded jacket — walk up. He immediately recognized Collier “by his face, voice and walk,” Miami Detective Kevin Ruggiero wrote in his arrest warrant.
Jackson claimed Collier grabbed McGhee, demanding that bystanders leave — mirroring the account of at least one other eyewitness, who did not identify the shooter.
Jackson claimed he saw Collier reach into his waistband for a gun. Jackson said as he ran across the street, he heard the gunshot that killed McGhee, who have a long rap sheet, that included 18 arrests since 2000, mostly for drug dealing and repeated traffic violations.
Detectives showed Jackson a single photo of Collier. He quickly identified him as the gunman.
Six days after McGhee’s murder, a warrant was issued for Collier’s arrest. When investigators caught up with him on Feb. 14, he refused to speak to homicide detectives.
Collier, who had two minor drug arrests on his record, remained in jail. Prosecutors filed formal murder charges against him on March 7.
Then, on March 20, investigators questioned Bess and another man, Khambrel Ivy, in two cases – an an armed robbery from February and a March armed carjacking.
Ivy gave up Bess, telling robbery detectives that his pal had confessed to the McGhee slaying outside the grocery store. Homicide detectives were called in.
Ruggiero interviewed both men. Bess confessed. Before the murder, he claimed, a drug dealer named Curt had sent earlier McGhee and another man to beat him up for “burglarizing one of Curt’s dope holes.”
That February evening, Bess and another man were driving near the grocery store when they saw McGhee. The unnamed cohort challenged Bess to retaliate for the beating.
Bess agreed. They left the area, got a .38-caliber revolver from an unknown source, then returned and parked near the store. Bess told police he walked up to McGhee, grabbed him and “shot him in the back of the head with the revolver,” according to police.
“Bess also stated that if he could speak to McGhee’s family he would tell them he was sorry,” according to a final report by prosecutor Alejandra Lopez.
Before his arrest for armed robbery and the murder, Bess had been arrested three times on minor charges.