Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Child-killer's fate in hands of jury again


When retired detective Dusty Rhodes closes his eyes, he can still see the Fort Lauderdale attic where he found the bodies of two little girls who had been strangled.

It's been more than a decade since Howard Steven Ault raped DeAnn Mu'min, 11, then strangled her and her 7-year-old sister, Alicia Jones, stuffing their bodies in a crawl space above his Fort Lauderdale duplex.

The murders of the two girls -- straight-A students who had been homeless, living with their mother at a campsite in Oakland Park -- made national headlines, gripping South Florida with fears about child safety and questions about how Ault, a convicted sexual predator, was able to continue assaulting young victims.

Ault was sentenced to die in 2000, but his sentence was overturned on appeal three years later. Possibly as soon as next week, a jury will once again be asked to decide whether Ault -- who turns 41 on Thursday -- should be put to death for the murders.

''That was one of the most horrific cases I had to work,'' said Rhodes, who retired from the Oakland Park Police Department in 1997 and now lives in Mississippi.

'The young girls' lives were cut drastically short,'' he said. ``They were going to school and they could have made something of themselves. Then this guy snuffed out their lives. It's unimaginable.''

Their mother, Donna Jones, was homeless and living with the girls in a travel trailer parked at an $18-a-night campsite at Easterlin Park when Ault befriended them.

Ault, who was already listed on the state's registry of sexual predators for a 1994 attack on a 6-year-old girl, helped Jones with odd chores, offering to fix her car and bringing snacks for the girls.

On Nov. 4, 1996, Ault lured the girls into his truck, offering them a ride home from school.

Instead, he took them to his apartment, promising them candy.

In his confession to police, he said he sexually assaulted DeAnn while Alicia watched helplessly, then strangled them both.

When the girls failed to come home, Jones appeared at his house in the 1500 block of Northeast Third Ave., to ask Ault if he had seen them.

He told her he didn't know anything.

He later confessed to police, telling them that after hiding the girls' bodies, he gathered up their school books and DeAnn's bright orange jacket and put them in a Dumpster in West Palm Beach.

Ault was already on community control, or house arrest, for the sexual assault of another girl, and had been suspected in yet another sexual assault of a young girl when he killed DeAnn and Alicia.

Ault likely would have been in jail at the time of the murders if officials in the Broward County Sheriff's Office's sex crimes unit had followed through on a complaint by an 11-year-old girl who reported 10 months before the murders that Ault had tried to assault her.

The case languished in BSO files for months. Internal affairs investigators later recommended that the two investigators who handled the case be dismissed.

Ault was convicted of the girls' murders in 1999. A few months later, the jury voted, 9-3, that Ault should die for the crime.

Broward Judge Marc Gold followed the jury's recommendation and sentenced him to two death sentences in 2000.

Donna Jones could not be reached on Monday. In an interview with The Miami Herald in 1997, she said, ``I never believed in killing people, but we've had to go through so much.''

The prosecutor, Tim Donnelly, declined to comment on the case.

''We're just tying up a few loose ends to bring this to trial,'' said Ault's attorney, Mitchell Polay.

In 2003, the death sentence was reversed because of a mistake during jury selection. Prosecutors asked Gold to dismiss a member of the jury pool who opposed the death penalty even though she said she would be able to sentence someone to death if the law required it.

''Prospective jurors may not be excused for cause simply because they voice general objections to the death penalty,'' the Florida Supreme Court said in vacating the death sentences.

Rhodes said he's been frustrated by how long it's taking for justice to be served. But he's ready to come back and testify.

''This case needs to get its final closure,'' Rhodes said.

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