With little fanfare, the Miami Police Department has quietly made an arrest in one of its most disturbing and significant murder cases: the 1997 killing of an eyewitness to a gangland slaying.
Chazre Davis is charged with being the hit man, who for $10,000 used a pillow to snuff the life out of his girlfriend Cynthia Brown. Detectives and prosecutors are building a death-penalty case against the person who allegedly hired him.
That, they believe, is "John Does" gang leader Corey Smith, the person who benefited most from Brown's death. The John Does, most of whom are in prison, terrorized the streets of Liberty City, protecting their drug turf with murder and mayhem.
The question is whether Davis will help himself and police by ratting on whoever ordered the hit. "You cannot kill a government witness, " Miami Police homicide Lt. John Campbell said. "Somebody needs to get tried for killing that woman, who was innocently walking down the street, sees a murder and tells the truth to the police. It was a heinous murder that has been bothering me since I got this job."
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Brown, 32, was found dead July 24, 1997, at the Trade Winds Motel at 4525 SW Eighth St. A maid knocked on Room 24's door, but no one answered. Brown was inside dead, posed as if sleeping.
The witness, described by Assistant State Attorney David Waksman as "a nice, decent lady, " had been suffocated.
The following Monday, Smith, 27, was a free man. Without Brown, there was no case and charges were dropped.
Brown planned to testify and describe the day she watched from her Liberty City porch as two men approached 19-year-old Dominick Johnson from behind and shot him. She told police she saw Smith running from the crime scene.
DOUBLE SUSPICIONS Smith and Davis were suspects in Brown's death from the start. Police found it too coincidental that a star witness would suddenly die on the eve of a murder trial and found it suspicious that her boyfriend gave a shaky account of their last night together.
For more than two years, the investigation into her death stalled.
The break came last year, when authorities began rounding up the John Does gang and many of them started talking. On New Year's Day, Miami homicide detectives slapped cuffs on Davis, a convicted drug dealer believed to be loosely affiliated with the gang.
He has pleaded not guilty.
Since his first police interrogations in 1997, sources said, Davis gave inconsistent statements to detectives. He admitted signing into the hotel under a phony name but said his involvement ended when he had sex with Brown, doped her up and left. Someone else, he said, killed her.
He hinted that he would be willing to offer up more if given a sweetheart deal - like five years in prison. Prosecutors and police declined.
"Has there been any negotiation with my client? Let's put it like this - no, " said assistant public defender Howard Lubel, Davis' lawyer. "Chances are if he had given them what they wanted, he would not be in jail right now. "It's no secret in this community that law enforcement is really interested in Corey Smith and finishing off the John Does. It may be that Chaz Davis is a way for them to try to get there."
Lubel questioned what evidence prosecutors have besides hearsay from drug dealers and murderers.
"I wonder what they will do in the way of proof, " Lubel said. "I am waiting to see the witness list to see if there are any reputable individuals on it. I'd be surprised if there were - excluding the medical examiner, the detective and the FBI agents. I'm sure they'll have an array of people with rap sheets that fold out as long as I am tall."
Assistant State Attorney George Cholakis would not talk about the case.
CASE NOT CONCLUDED
"All I can say is that we have investigated this for some time now, and it has not concluded with Chazre Davis, " he said. "We remain hopeful."
A case against Smith would largely be symbolic. He is already serving a life sentence in federal prison for running a criminal drug enterprise. His lawyer says his client did not order Brown's murder.
"There was innuendo, a witness died, but you and I know that is not evidence of anything, " attorney Richard Moore said. "He has told me he had nothing to do with that. He hasn't been charged with that, and nobody at the [federal] trial said he did it. If any evidence comes from Davis - that's pretty shaky."
The lawyer who represented Smith on the first murder case says Smith had no motive to kill Brown. Attorney Larry Handfield says he came up with other witnesses who said Smith was not even there. Handfield was confident that Smith would be acquitted, even with Brown's testimony.
"I was shocked when she died, " Handfield said. "In my opinion, he didn't have a reason to want her dead, because she was no smoking gun. If he was involved, it was stupid, because there was no need. Everyone knew they had the wrong guy."