Civil criticism filed in Tree Home homicide case

A man accused in a Stock Island robbery and murder in 2017 has filed legal petition in civil court alleging he has been framed by members of the Monroe County State Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices.

Attorneys for defendant Franklin Tyrone Tucker — Cara Higgins and Jerry Ballarotto — have filed paperwork to preserve the testimony of Paula Belmonte, who is both a victim and a witness in the case.

Belmonte had her throat cut during a robbery at a structure known as the Tree House on Stock Island in 2017. Tucker, Rory “Detroit” Wilson and John Travis have been charged criminally in the robbery of Paula Belmonte and the murder of Matthew Bonnet, who was killed during the robbery.

Belmonte recently gave a sworn deposition that Tucker was not involved in the robbery or murder.

“I feel that I am doing the true thing and the right thing,” she said in a deposition with defense attorneys and prosecutors in September. “And I feel horrible for him having to sit in jail for two years. … I was the one that witnessed it, and as far as I’m concerned he had nothing to do with it.”

Tucker’s petition names the Monroe County Sheriff’s and State Attorney’s offices, State Attorney Dennis Ward, Sheriff Rick Ramsay, Detective Matthew Pitcher, Sheriff’s Office Danielle Malone, former Sheriff’s Capt. Penny Phelps and former prosecutor Colleen Dunne.

The complaint could result in a civil lawsuit, but defense attorneys would first have to prove he is not guilty in the criminal case.

Tucker spent nearly 2 years in jail before being released on $2 million bond more than a year ago.

“It has been determined that there is ample reason to believe that a conspiracy of misdeeds, illegal actions and false representations have been entered into by several members of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office in Monroe County,” Tucker’s attorneys wrote in the civil complaint.

The attorneys claim that Dunne made a “deliberate false representations” on several occasions that a paid informant named Naeem Jackson, was “only a concerned citizen,” when he was making statements to authorities about Tucker, the legal complaint stated.

“In fact, he was a paid informer of the state and specifically asked for substantial legal benefits for his testimony,” Tucker’s attorney stated. “This false and misleading representation was a significant factor in the court’s decision to deny Mr. Tucker bail for over 700 days.”

Dunne also conspired with Capt. Phelps and Detective Pitcher to “conduct clandestine meetings” with witnesses including suspects Wilson and Johnson to “pervert the discovery process and cause Naeem Jackson to be secretly placed in a cell” with Tucker and “fabricate a confession” from Tucker, the complaint stated.

Dunne was suspended from the Florida Bar in January 2020 for a year after she admitted to withholding evidence in a 2010 case against attempted murder suspect Thomas Skinner. Ramsay fired Phelps in December 2019 after an audio recording was made public in which she told a fellow officer to act in an aggressive way that a black suspect in the Tree House case, Rory Wilson, so he would think the officer is a “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi.”

The complaint alleges that Sheriff Ramsay “became fully aware of the allegations of misconduct” by Phelps, Pitcher and Malone for “lying and falsely representing the status of witnesses in the bail hearing to bolster their credibility to wrongfully and falsely influence the court to detain” Tucker, the complaint stated. The sheriff also knew “his subordinates fabricated records and ignored his directives,” Tucker’s attorneys wrote.

Tucker has various legal “causes for action,” including civil rights violations, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment, the complaint stated.

Tucker’s attorneys filed the civil complaint to obtain the testimony of Belmonte, as she health issues, and Tucker’s attorney’s wanted to have her testimony taken and recorded into the legal record before she dies, the complaint stated.

Tucker’s attorneys, Ward and Sheriff Ramsay could not comment on the civil complaint because Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones approved a gag order in the criminal case filed by prosecutors seeking to limit pre-trial publicity as the case has garnered national media coverage.

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