When Sophia Alexis arrived for a seven-year-old’s birthday party featuring a Spider Man theme in North Miami-Dade, she spotted a friend lying wounded on the ground outside a suburban home.
Barely audible, Shantara Maynard asked Alexis to check on her two children near the porch. “They were bleeding,” Alexis testified Tuesday.
Alexis frantically ran to the backyard to search for another friend, Carla Queely. She found her inside the house next to her son, Chaquone, the birthday boy. “She was lying on the floor,” she recalled. “Her arm was shaking. I said, ‘Carla, get up.’”
Alexis was the first witness to take the stand in the death-penalty trial of Sean Condell, 34, who is charged with murdering Queely and her son, execution-style, more than 11 years ago. Miami-Dade police say Condell told detectives that he shot them at close range so they could not identify him. He and four others targeted the North Miami-Dade house in a robbery ambush because they mistakenly believed there was a safe full of cash inside, police say.
Queely and her son, Chaquone, were not the only victims of the mass shooting at the boy’s birthday party on Oct. 14, 2006, according to the state attorney's office. Sisters Shantara and Ann Maynard — along with Shantara’s two children — were shot point-blank in the head but survived the horrific ambush that spurred a massive police manhut for the killers.
Condell’s partner, Jose Estache, 37, who is accused of shooting the two sisters and two children, will be tried separately.
Three other defendants charged in the bloody robbery attempt — Rayon Samuels, Bjon Lee and Damian Lewis — pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, received 20-year prison sentences and are expected to testify against Condell as well as Estache. Samuels was the driver who took Condell and Estache over to the home in the 20500 block of Northeast Ninth Place, prosecutor say.
Condell’s first-degree murder case took more than a decade to reach trial before Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer because of the difficult cooperation deals and voluminous witness depositions.
At Tuesday’s trial, prosecutors said the two robbers broke into the North Miami-Dade home armed with three guns, flex cuffs and gloves, and demanded to know if a man named “Haitian Pete” was keeping a cash-filled safe in the residence. They thought Haitian Pete was the boyfriend of Ann Maynard, who owned the home.
Prosecutors portrayed Condell as a cold killer who confessed to shooting Queely and her son at close range as they cried, after Estache shot the Maynard sisters and the two other children as they tried to escape during the home invasion.
“The joy of that day ended when Sean Condell pointed his gun at the mother and her son,” Assistant State Attorney David Gilbert told the Miami-Dade jury during opening statements. “Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.... All six shots hit. Not one shot missed.”
Gilbert called the shootings a “moment of hell” that led to initial confusion over the identities of the two gunmen who ambushed the house. An off-duty police officer who lived in the neighborhood heard the gunshots, assisted the victims and helped Miami-Dade detectives with their investigation, he said.
The off-duty cop saw Estache flee the house and run across the street, Gilbert said.
Eventually, Condell confessed that he was the other shooter. “I was in the house and it was me,” Gilbert said, paraphrasing Condell’s statement to detectives. “You will hear the defendant in his own words tell you what happened.”
Despite the confession, Condell’s defense attorney, Richard Houlihan, told the jurors that the state’s case is a “theory.”
“There is one problem with their theory,” said Houlihan, who is handling the defense with attorney Bruce Fleisher. “Sean was not in the house.”
Houlihan said “Samuels was the killer,” contradicting the prosecution’s claim that he was the driver who brought Condell and Estache to home of the birthday party. He asserted that Estache was the “brains” behind the robbery, Samuels entered the home with him, and Condell stayed outside in the car.
Houlihan said Condell’s confession was not truthful. “Lord knows why he said it, but it’s not the truth,” Houlihan said.
In an effort to plant possible doubt in jurors’ minds, the defense attorney ended by saying: “The issue is, who is the second person in the house?”