Florida Keys

A Florida Keys judge keeps ‘tree house murder’ suspect in jail for now

Franklin Tyrone Tucker, who is charged with the first-degree murder of Mathew Bonnett in 2017 along with two other men, listens to testimony Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Monroe County Courthouse.
Franklin Tyrone Tucker, who is charged with the first-degree murder of Mathew Bonnett in 2017 along with two other men, listens to testimony Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Monroe County Courthouse. FLKeysNews.com

A Florida Keys judge has denied a murder suspect’s plea for a bond after a 2 1/25-hour hearing in which prosecutors detailed their case against the defendant in a case known as the “tree house murder.”

Franklin Tyrone Tucker, 47, of Key West, will remain locked up at the Stock Island Detention Center, where he has been since his arrest in November 2017, despite his lawyers’ argument that without any physical evidence linking him to the murder of Mathew Bonnett, 59, the state’s case is too weak.

Tucker and another local man, Rory Hank Wilson, are charged with first-degree murder for the fatal stabbing of Bonnett, who was attacked as he approached the Stock Island shanty tree house of his neighbor, Paula Belmonte, on Nov. 17, 2017.

tree house 1.jpg
This is the tree house on Laurel Avenue on Stock Island where police say three people were living when the murder took place GWEN FILOSA gfilosa@flkeysnews.com

Police said Bonnett was checking on his neighbor, who lived in the tree house on the same property at 5650 Laurel Ave. that housed his trailer.

Belamonte was being robbed at knife point by Wilson who sliced her throat, prosecutors say. Police say the robbers were after crack cocaine and cash and two were armed with knives.

Around 8 p.m., as the men walked out of Belmonte’s home, they got into a fight with Bonnett, 59, stabbing him several times. He died later that day.

Prosecutors are relying on the testimony of Wilson and an inmate to link Tucker to the robbery that turned into a killing.

Wilson told police detectives he watched Tucker stab Bonnett, who died from five stab wounds.

When Wilson asked Tucker why he killed Bonnett, Tucker replied, “Had to,” according to detectives.

Also, detectives Monday testified that an inmate who has served time with Tucker said Tucker told him he killed Bonnett.

“It upset him the way Mr. Tucker talked about the murder, that he had zero remorse or guilt,” said Detective Matthew Pitcher of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, referring to the inmate, who defense attorneys called a “jailhouse snitch.”

Tucker told police he had been drinking heavily the day of the killing and did not remember much of the evening.

Judge Mark Jones said Monday prosecutors met their burden of proof after the “Arthur” hearing, which is held to determine whether a defendant can be released on bail before trial.

Defense attorney Robert Hantman, of New York, couldn’t persuade Jones to set a bond for Tucker, whose girlfriend Lauren Jenai — who bills herself as the co-founder of the fitness regimen CrossFit — had offered to put up a $1 million bond for Tucker.

A third man is also charged with the murder.

Detectives say John Travis Johnson, of Marathon, was the designated getaway driver and waited in his pickup truck outside during the incident. Johnson also places both Wilson and Tucker at the murder scene.

Belmonte identified Wilson as the robber who jumped her.

While Wilson’s DNA was found on a knife found in a flower bed about a quarter of a mile from the scene and on the inside of a Halloween mask that one of the robbers wore during the attack, no test results linked Tucker to the killing. No second knife was found.

State Attorney Dennis Ward’s office is not seeking the death penalty in the case. No trial date has been set.

Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne argued for the state Monday. Also at the defense table Monday were Key West attorneys Cara Higgins and Jerry Ballarotto.

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Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.