Robert Nelson, college graduate, former flight attendant and hard-working security guard, would have celebrated his 54th birthday Wednesday.
But Nelson is dead, shot to death ambush-style while patrolling a South Miami-Dade apartment complex in his company car. He appeared in court Wednesday only via a large photo, shown to jurors.
There in person, on trial, was Nathaniel Payne-Collins, 22, one of four young men accused of ambushing Nelson inside the parking lot of the Hidden Grove apartments on Aug. 17, 2013. Nelson’s car spiraled out of control, plowing into an adjacent daycare.
“They shot him nine times while in his car, once in the head, once in the back, once in the side, once in the leg,” prosecutor Christine Hernandez-Baldwin told jurors during opening statements.
That wasn’t all. The attackers pulled Nelson out of the car and began rifling through his pockets, stealing his IDs, credit cards — and his handgun.
Wednesday marked the opening day of trial for Payne-Collins, the first of the group to go to trial for the senseless killing. One of them, Gregory Lewis, pleaded guilty and is serving 10 years in prison. He will serve as a key witnesses against his former friend.
Payne Collins’ defense attorney immediately went after Lewis, saying he only implicated Payne-Collins after he agreed to the lenient deal.
“Mr. Lewis, the star witness in this case, is not credible,” lawyer A. Antonio Tomas told jurors. “His testimony is not worthy of your belief.”
Nelson’s family, seated in the second row of the courtroom gallery, winced as they listened to the details surrounding his life and violent death.
He graduated from Norland High and Bethune-Cookman University, and had worked 15 years as a flight attendant with U.S. Airways. He worked as a supervisor with 50 State Security since February 2012.
Nelson was well liked at the Hidden Grove apartments on the 13800 block of Southwest 271st Terrace. The night of the shooting, neighbor Michael Brown even recalled Nelson helped his wife in the dark apartment complex.
“He shined the light on my doorway so my wife could come up the steps,” Brown said.
But that night, prosecutors said, his killers were on the prowl.
Payne-Collins, Lewis, 31, Quentin Vicks, 21, and Malik Mills, 23, had all gone to a party in Homestead, but it fizzled out. Driving around in Vicks’ red Ford Taurus, they hit up a liquor store and wound up at Hidden Grove, where Vicks had lived, prosecutors said.
When Nelson passed by them in his white security car, Vicks and Lewis unexpectedly pulled out handguns and opened fire. When the car crashed, the four men pulled his body from the vehicle and rifled through his pockets.
“I saw three or four men pulling the victim out of the vehicle,” another neighbor testified. “I saw them hovering over him.”
Brown testified he heard one attackers say: “I can’t believe you shot this n---a.”
Miami-Dade police caught a break. A patrol officer testified he rushed to the complex and caught Vicks trying to get into the Taurus. In the teen’s pockets were Nelson’s IDs and a credit card.
Payne-Collins was not arrested right away. But he was implicated after he described what happened to a friend. “What does he do the next day, he brags about it,” Hernandez-Baldwin said.
His defense lawyer suggested that Payne-Collins was merely repeating neighborhood gossip.
“It’s not bragging and certainly not a confession by Mr. Collins,” Tomas said.
Trial continues Thursday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez.