Authorities missed chances to arrest a life of crime

Published April 4, 2014 by Florida Today

When Faye Jones, a 78-year-old Cocoa woman, was beaten to death in her home on March 17, 2013, it first appeared police would wrap the case up quickly. They identified Marcus Royal, a 33-year-old former convict, as the possible killer, and he turned himself in.

But then Royal surprised investigators with an admission. He said he strangled 73-year-old Ann Mull in her Rockledge home two years earlier under circumstances that were strikingly similar to the slaying of Jones.

Rockledge police, Mull’s doctor and the medical examiner’s office had thought Mull died of a heart attack. They didn’t recognize a crime had been committed until Royal said he killed her. As a result of this oversight, they never looked for a killer, leaving Royal free to allegedly strike again.

But now, as officials prepare to prosecute Royal in both killings, they say there were plenty of indicators.

“We made the mistake, and it’s on us,” Rockledge Police Chief Joseph LaSata told FLORIDA TODAY. LaSata joined the force long after the incident and has changed some department procedures to guard against such mistakes in the future.

The fact that there had been two homicides didn’t become public until last December, after a grand jury indicted Royal in Mull’s death, almost three years after she died. Since then FLORIDA TODAY has pieced together how her slaying in 2011 and Jones’ death in 2013 were connected.

After reviewing police records, court videos and conducting numerous interviews we found that during the two years between the two murders, Royal was arrested and sent to jail three times. In one pivotal instance, Royal could have been sent back to prison after one of his arrests, but instead the judge released him from custody that very day.

Royal was also cited 10 times on traffic violations, and he was a suspect – but was not charged until later – in a non-fatal assault on another elderly woman in her home.

Finally, when Royal was sentenced to three months in jail for one of his crimes, he was let out early.

Police say he killed Jones the next day.

“An ordinary-looking kid”

Marcus Royal’s history of violence toward elderly women started when he was 14 years old in 1993.

He was accused of breaking into a 63-year-old woman’s house, rushing toward her as she sat in her living room, and putting a knife to her throat. He asked about money, and when they went to her bedroom for her purse, he sexually battered her. At the time, police said he admitted to the crime.

Meryl Allawas McCormick was the division chief of the sex crimes and child abuse unit. Though Royal was a juvenile, the seriousness of the crime brought it to her desk.

She remembers the first time she saw him.

“I think what I remember most about him was – he was an ordinary-looking kid that if you walked down the street you wouldn’t think twice about being afraid of him,” said McCormick, who is now preparing to try Royal again – this time for murder.

“Here he was — charged with an incredibly serious, violent, personal attack — and he just looked like any other 14-year-old kid.”

At the time the state couldn’t charge a juvenile as an adult without a grand jury indictment. They took it before the grand jury and got the indictment. As the trial began, Royal pleaded no contest. He could have faced a life sentence, but he was sentenced to 27 years.

He served 15 years and 24 days. Under Florida’s old gaintime law, which allowed inmates to cut substantial time off their sentence if they displayed good behavior, Royal was freed on probation in July 2010, at age 31.

Eva Barnett, his mother, said the transition was difficult.

“He didn’t have no practice taking care of himself – paying bills or buying food – he got locked up when he was a little child,” she said.

He was out only 10 months before, police records show, he broke into Ann Mull’s Rockledge home.

“How did you get in here?”

Mull was an active member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Merritt Island. She sang in the choir. Her friends recall her as a spunky redhead with a Boston accent who loved dogs. She also had a history of heart problems.

Royal told Rockledge police last year that he broke into Mull’s home by reaching through a dog door to unlock a side door from the inside, gaining access to her garage.

He woke Mull by hitting her on the head with a .38 revolver.

She started screaming, “How did you get in here?”

He told her to shut up.

He dragged her into the hallway, put his hands around her neck, took her to the floor and choked her until she stopped breathing. Then, Royal told police, he stomped on her head and neck.

He left with her wallet, went to Merritt Square mall and used her credit card at Cajun Café and Sbarro Pizza.

Later that day a friend of Mull’s became worried when she didn’t answer his calls. He called her neighbors to check on her.

When they arrived at her house about 8:40 p.m., they noticed an open chain link gate near a side door leading into the garage. Mull’s dog was running around the yard. They considered it “highly suspect” that the gate was open.

They went inside and found Mull’s body. She was on her back in a hallway next to a computer room. She was wearing only her underwear. Family members who spoke to police and her friend said she wouldn’t walk around her house like that; she would have worn a nightgown or robe.

The record shows one neighbor told police Mull’s arms “were raised over her head in what (the neighbor) could only describe as a defensive posture.”

The Rockledge police dispatched two patrol officers and paramedics to the scene. In prior years, the department would have sent a more seasoned investigator, too. But in 2009 then Chief John C. Shockey decided to end that requirement for weekend and late night calls if the deaths appeared to be from natural causes.

“This will allow our investigators more time to focus on the serious criminal matters, such as, the cold case homicides, sex crimes, child abuse, robberies and others,” Shockey wrote.

An officer called Mull’s doctor, telling him there were no apparent signs of trauma and the house was safe and secure.

Mull had a history of heart disease. Brevard County Medical Examiner Sajid Qaiser said Mull’s doctor, who never examined her body, agreed to sign her death certificate. He labeled it a natural death, from a heart attack.

It is common for physicians to complete and sign death certificates for their patients without an examination, if they passed away from apparent natural causes and there are no unusual circumstances, according to Dr. Scott Gettings, Health First Chief Medical Officer.

“An examination is not required,” he said in an email.

Would a killing as violent as the one Royal described — strangling, stomping her head — leave behind signs?

Typically, there would be signs of trauma, according to Qaiser. But in this case there apparently were no visible injuries, he said.

A Rockledge officer also called an investigator with the Medical Examiner’s office and had a similar conversation – no trauma, house is safe and secure. Craig Engelson, an investigator with the Medical Examiner’s office, released the case without examining Mull’s body.

Assistant State Attorney Michael Hunt said no photos were taken of Mull’s body. Chief LaSata said no evidence was collected.

Mull was going to be cremated, and the funeral home needed Qaiser to sign off on a cremation form. Without an examination and based on the death certificate from Mull’s doctor, Qaiser signed the form.

Within a month of Mull’s death, police did discover her credit card had been used. They found surveillance video of a person using the card. Hunt, the assistant state attorney, said they had a suspect, someone else who just happened to look a lot like Royal.

“They investigated that and tried to determine who was responsible,” Hunt said. “They got some evidence but they couldn’t identify the person.”

“They kind of went nowhere at that point,” he added.

There are other explanations for the card being used after her death, he said. For instance, she might have misplaced her purse.

Chief LaSata, who was hired from Connecticut last June, said there is no record that an officer ever returned to Mull’s house to investigate further, even after the credit card was used.

“I want him to go home”

While he wasn’t pursued in that case, Royal did have contact with police many times over the next two years, including several traffic citations.

The first of Royal’s cases that led to jail time was in July 2011. Palm Bay police arrested him on charges of grand theft of jewelry and a lawnmower. But in court, the state said they would have issues proving the more serious crimes because the victim had a criminal history and at one time said Royal had permission to take things. The state and defense struck a plea deal.

Judge David Dugan approved the deal, and found Royal guilty of two counts of petit theft and violating his probation. Dugan sentenced him to more probation, though he mentioned in court that Royal could have been exposed to a life sentence for violating probation from his 1993 charge. Violating probation exposes a person to the original, maximum possible penalty for the crime.

Royal’s second arrest came in April 2012, when Rockledge police charged him with stealing more than $700 from a machine at an Allied Veterans gambling parlor.

At a plea hearing, Royal choked up as he spoke about his struggles. He said he had a job, a new son and that he lived in a little RV.

“I held my head up high, and I came out and I made it,” he said. “I made a mistake. I admit I made a mistake, and I’m trying.”

Judge Dugan asked him what he was thinking when he committed the crime.

“Sir, I move too fast,” Royal said. “Honestly, I move too fast. When I got down the road I admit I made a mistake. I was scared. I tried to bring it back. I seen the police and I got scared. I-I move too fast.”

The defense had offered a plea deal that would have put Royal in jail for about three years. But the judge called the attorneys to the bench and suggested something else that appeared to take both the prosecutor and Royal’s attorney by surprise.

In a recording of the court proceeding, Dugan can be heard repeatedly telling them: “I want him to go home.”

“I want to figure out how to do that,” he told the attorneys. “It’s not a ruling, it’s just the way I’d like to see it go.”

No objections were raised. Royal went home later that day. Before he left court, he thanked the judge.

“You really need to thank the state,” Dugan said.

No link to previous crime

On Jan. 5, 2013, three months before police say Royal killed Jones, another woman was attacked in her Cocoa home. The 67-year-old’s attacker snuck through a window, tied her up and robbed her.

Cocoa Police Officer Barbara Matthews said Royal was a suspect early in the investigation after the victim’s credit card was used. She said police thought the person in a surveillance photo from an ATM was Royal, but the victim couldn’t identify him.

The victim never got a good look at Royal, Matthews said, and that probably saved her life.

There was an effort to match DNA from the scene to Royal, but nothing came back that would identify him. Royal’s home also was searched, but nothing was found that linked him to the crime, Matthews said.

In early 2013, Royal was placed in jail again after being arrested for driving on a suspended license. His attorney negotiated a sentence of 90 days in jail with credit for time served.

He was released March 16, 2013, the day before Faye Jones was killed in her Cocoa home.

“I heard a commotion”

Ethalaya “Faye” Jones loved to garden, her friend Judy Caples said. Jones grew sunflowers, sweet potatoes, strawberries, spices. She visited people at nursing homes, liked jigsaw puzzles and painting with oils. Two of Jones’ pieces hang in Caples’ house — a beach scene with a setting sun and sailboats, and an impressionist autumn mountainside.

For more than 20 years, Jones hosted a weekly Bible study at her home. She also provided ice cream and cake when friends had a birthday.

Caples, 69, said she and Jones were walking buddies. If it wasn’t too cold or too wet, they’d stroll around their neighborhood or at a nearby park most mornings. But they skipped their walks on Sundays. Jones didn’t like to rush to get ready for church.

She died on a Sunday morning.

Jones was supposed to come pick up Caples and her husband. When she was five minutes late, Caples called the man next door to check on her. She didn’t hear back, so she called him again.

“His (cell) phone rang and I heard a commotion and the phone went dead,” Caples said.

Police say the neighbor interrupted the attack on Jones and suffered a beating himself, though he survived.

At about 10:30 a.m., more church friends went by the house and found Jones and her neighbor. The neighbor was unconscious and later flown to a hospital.

Police say Jones was face down in a pool of blood in a bedroom. Her wrists and ankles were bound with duct tape. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

While Cocoa Police were in Jones’ home investigating her death, the phone rang. They could hear as the caller left a message. It was a representative from Wells Fargo Bank, saying there was suspicious activity on Jones’ credit card.

The police obtained surveillance photos from those transactions and then a woman whom the police have not identified went into the Cocoa police department and told them that Royal had called her.

He’d told her that he had killed people.

Cocoa police showed her surveillance photos from a store in Seminole County where Jones’ card had been used. The woman confirmed it was Royal.

Judge Charles Roberts signed an arrest warrant the same day. Royal had fled the state, but turned himself in to police in Richmond, Va., two days after Jones was killed.

Eight days after his arrest, Royal contacted Rockledge police. The police said he wanted to confess to killing Ann Mull two years earlier.

After Royal spoke to police, Medical Examiner Qaiser said officers and a prosecutor came to his office to discuss the case. Qaiser issued a new death certificate for Mull, saying her death was a homicide.

A formal arrest affidavit in Mull’s death was filed in October. The murder wasn’t announced publicly until the Brevard County Grand Jury indicted Royal on Dec. 12.

Defense Attorney Mark Lanning declined to comment on Royal. Royal has a court date set for April 30 for a judge to check in with Lanning about Royal’s cases. Royal faces additional charges from a confrontation he had while in jail recently — documents say he threw feces on a corrections deputy and punched one during a fight in July 2013.

“I didn’t fail him by myself”

Many people connected to the deaths of these two women express disappointment and regret at the missed opportunities to stop Royal.

Royal’s mother said that when she talks to her son now he still sounds like the little boy she raised in Cocoa. He had emotional issues — trouble with anger, trouble with authority.

“I accept my part,” she said. “I failed my son, but I didn’t fail him by myself.”

Barnett said her son was beaten in prison, and his probation rules restricted him from living with her when he was released because she said she lived too close to a day care.

He was unprepared to take care of himself or deal with his mental health issues, she said.

“They gave him no support system after they had him locked up for 17 years,” she said. “If you take a 14-year-old and lock him up and let him out at 30-something, what do you think you’re gonna get?”

Mull’s daughter regrets it took authorities two years to determine her mother was killed.

“The police on the scene didn’t see signs of a break-in to (her) house. So, they just gave up asking questions about the nature of her death,” Melis Mull, the victim’s daughter, who lives in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email to FLORIDA TODAY.

“Is this proper protocol for the dying elderly?” she asked.

Prosecutor Will Scheiner, who worked on some of Royal’s cases, said he might have handled Royal’s last violation of probation differently.

“In retrospect, hindsight’s 20/20. Would I like another shot at it? Sure, I would. But I act on what I know. I act on the information that’s in front of me and I give it my best shot. And this is one I can’t take back.”

Judge Dugan, who released Royal in 2012 rather than send him back to prison, cannot comment on the case, according to Michelle Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial Circuit. The Florida judicial code of conduct prevents judges from commenting on cases they handle.

In explaining the sentencing procedures, she noted that “(Judges) can only make decisions based on the information entered into the court record at the time of the hearing.”

Royal’s confession prompted the Rockledge police to re-examine their policy for investigating deaths.

LaSata has revised how police investigate deaths. Regardless of the time or day, an investigator always will be sent.

He also pledged to have his department review each death they responded to during the three years under the old policy. He estimated that was fewer than 100, but emphasized there was no evidence of any other missed crimes.

“I think this is an abnormality,” he said of Mull’s case. “We’ve taken steps to ensure there will be no others.”

The department also gave refresher training on death investigations to every officer.

LaSata said he has talked to the two officers who responded to Ann Mull’s house the day she was found. He said it is “extremely tough” for them.

“Obviously it’s something that weighs on them daily.”