Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Coralrose suspect 'a typical burglar'

Patrick Murphy

By John Davis

Published: Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.

It was Jan. 16, 2007, almost four months to the day that 6-year-old Coralrose Fullwood's body was found in a vacant lot near her North Port home. North Port Police detectives Carrie Olivo and Chris Morales sat across from Patrick Murphy in the Charlotte County jail.

Finding Coralrose's killer was a top priority for North Port police, but other cases had to be worked as well, even small-time burglaries like this one. A stolen ATV had been found in the yard of Murphy's North Port home. Olivo and Morales were building the case against him.

The pair had no way of knowing that they sat within arm's reach of the man who would later be charged with Coralrose's kidnapping, rape and murder.

Murphy, 27, passed through Southwest Florida's legal system for years without drawing much scrutiny. He was inconspicuous because hundreds of others in the system appeared to be just like him: blue-collar guys who had let drugs get the best of them.

Those who crossed Murphy's path in recent years say they never suspected that he could be capable of the crimes he is now accused of committing.

He did not seem especially evil or stick out in any way.

Even when Murphy came up as the case's prime suspect in law enforcement circles last month, Morales did not remember him.

"He was just a typical burglar," Morales said. "No different than any of the other burglars we've been interviewing up to this date. Nothing stuck out."

At the time of Coralrose's death, Murphy was on probation in Charlotte County for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor. Records show that he met with his probation officer on Sept. 5, 12 days before Coralrose was abducted and killed. Murphy met with his probation officer again on Oct. 5.

During that time, multiple agencies were working to find Coralrose's killer. Hundreds of voluntary DNA samples would be taken from residents during the investigation, but Murphy's house, about two miles away from the crime scene, was outside of the police canvass area. He continued his career in petty crime, unconnected to the escalating search for Coralrose's killer.

Records show that Murphy's probation was routine, his violations common: He skipped meetings with the probation officer and his court-ordered drug test came back positive for methamphetamine.

In Charlotte County, a meth addict arrested for stealing is common, not enough of a crime to raise eyebrows. So in June of last year, when Punta Gorda police interrogated Murphy about other burglaries, his situation was unremarkable.

The Coralrose case was nine months old when Punta Gorda detectives Thomas Lewis and Harvey Ayers met with Murphy at the Charlotte County jail.

Murphy admitted to stealing tools and generators to trade for drugs, but nothing more serious, nothing that would set off any alarms.

He asked for drug counseling.

"I'm very sorry," Murphy told the detectives. "That drug takes over your body and you really have no control over what you're doing. You do but you don't."

Even Lewis, now a captain in the department, did not remember questioning Murphy, though he sat with him for more than two hours. Lewis had to go back through police records to refresh his memory.

"I didn't get like a pedophile vibe from him," Lewis said.

Detectives in Punta Gorda and North Port did not know at the time that they were laying the groundwork for the felony conviction that would prompt the state to collect a DNA sample from Murphy. That sample matched the DNA of a sample taken from Coralrose's body, authorities said, and led to Murphy's arrest on Tuesday. He remains in the Sarasota County jail without bail.

For others who had contact with Murphy in recent years, Tuesday's arrest is an example of how impossible it is to predict what someone might be capable of.

"We were all feeling devastated for the loss," said Jon Embury, who was Murphy's probation officer for part of 2006 and is now a court administrator.

"And just the fact that we had contact with him has devastated us," Embury said.

If Murphy is guilty of raping and killing Coralrose, he held close to that secret even as he admitted to other crimes and let his drug use go unchecked. The secret was not revealed in interrogation rooms or by the law enforcement databases checked by Murphy's probation officer. And Murphy remains silent in jail, even as he faces murder charges and possibly the death penalty -- a far leap from the petty crimes for which he has already been convicted.

"You never know. You just never know what else this person's done," Morales said. "Some other crime he committed elsewhere, and you're just talking to him about a simple burglary. You just don't know. You only go with what you got."

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