On January 31st, Kyle Dease, a 26-year-old front desk clerk at the Microtel Inn & Suites in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was working the night shift when a young couple walked into the lobby claiming to have run out of gas. By the look of their bloodshot eyes and rumpled clothes, it appeared the pair had traveled all night. They used the restrooms, got cups of coffee and the man pulled a “burner” cell phone from his pocket to dial a taxi service. Dease asked where they were from – Joplin, Missouri, they said. Knowing a deadly tornado had struck there in 2011, Dease mentioned a tornado had come through the Tuscaloosa area that same year. “They talked about how it had affected their families,” Dease says. “We sort of connected on that level.”
Then the man approached the counter and told Dease he needed his keys and money from the register. Dease laughed, thinking it was a joke. “I’m not even fucking with you,” the man said, flashing a gun — a .45-caliber pistol. “Do you know what this could do to you?”
After handing over $396, Dease was led outside at gunpoint, and into the backseat of his own Jetta. The woman drove, while her boyfriend, sitting in the front passenger seat, tuned the radio to 95.7 Jamz, a hip-hop station. As they traveled north toward Birmingham, the couple told Dease about their troubles: Three days earlier, Blake Fitzgerald and Brittany Harper had left their homes in southwest Missouri and began what would be a 1,500-mile journey through the South, committing a series of increasingly violent crimes. In 10 days they stole cars, kidnapped people at gunpoint, robbed hotels and stores and ran into two different homes pointing pistols at mothers and fathers with children. But it was with Dease at the Microtel Inn in Tuscaloosa – the halfway point of their run – that they crossed the line that separates foolish crimes from armed violence.
The U.S. Marshals service, in announcing a $10,000 reward for information on Fitzgerald and Harper, referred to them as a “modern-day Bonnie and Clyde,” the notorious Depression-era couple that spent two years killing and robbing in Middle America. Fitzgerald and Harper never killed anyone, but the reference wiped a romantic gleam across their story. The fact that the culprits were lovers hurdling toward certain downfall pushed the story into the realm of theater. “Ride or Die” tributes appeared on social media. For a time, tracking their movements and weighing in on their crimes, while sharing details of new transgressions, became a Twitter pastime.
“I wouldn’t call them #BonnieAndClyde I’d call them #Dumb & #Dumber,” a man in Colorado tweeted.
“Kill them like #BonnieAndClyde,” a Missouri resident offered.
Dease told me that he sensed love between them. Although it was a brief affair – Harper had only made the relationship “official” on Facebook 10 days earlier – they said they were trying to get to Florida to marry. “But they also said they were just telling people that,” Dease says. Fitzgerald also swore to Dease that he would never return to prison. “He told me he would go out shooting,” the clerk says. “I knew he would get killed.”
Near Birmingham, Fitzgerald and Harper began looking for another vehicle to steal, one that could outrun the cops. Dease asked if they could hot-wire a car. “No,” Fitzgerald said, holding up the .45, “but I’ve got this.” He added that he did not like using it. “Every time I do,” he said, “I feel like I’m losing a piece of my soul.”
Joplin, Missouri is a windswept city of 50,000 in the southwestern corner of the state. For many years, Fitzgerald’s mother, Renee Beale, operated Connie’s Antiques, where Fitzgerald was general manager. During the summer of 2011, he made a commercial with his brother, Chris, in which he wears suspenders, a tie and fedora, and rides like a child inside a shopping cart that Chris pushes. Blake appears to have a charm that is both easy and intense, but the sensitivity about his eyes seems incongruent with the crimes he’d later commit. His brother Chris is now a surgeon in Southern California. After his brother’s crime spree came to a tragic end in Florida, he posted photographs of Blake on Facebook. In one, Blake is on a beach, looking into a sky full of flying birds. Beside the photograph, Chris wrote, “I love you for the man you were and I forgive you for the man you became.”
Fitzgerald’s parents were divorced. He had dropped out of high school, but someone who knew him as a child told me that he had “a good command of the King’s English” and “was a joy.” He had red roses, a yellow star and Mae West’s young face tattooed on his body. He had been to Paris and had three children with three different women, the most recent born last fall; he was a sporadic presence in their lives. His oldest child’s stepfather, John Chevere, who lives in Kansas and owns a cell phone company, tells me the last time he spoke with Fitzgerald was about three years ago at a funeral in Joplin for Fitzgerald’s aunt. As they stood around, Fitzgerald told Chevere he wanted to be a positive and frequent figure in his oldest child’s life. Chevere believed him. “He was 100 percent sincere,” he says. “He loved his children.”
Blake Fitzgerald’s criminal record included four driving under the influence arrests and one for assault, which stemmed from a 2013 bar fight – a man Fitzgerald punched collapsed unconscious so quickly his ankle broke. Three years ago, when Fitzgerald was 27, he broke into a home with his friend Branden Willis. A person familiar with the case said Fitzgerald kicked in the front door. It was about 2 a.m. Either Willis or Fitzgerald (both were wearing masks) used a knife to threaten the 63-year-old woman who lived there. They stole her purse, some jewelry, a TV and computers – and left in her Mercedes, which was found abandoned across town. No one was injured. “But the potential was certainly there,” Cpl. Chuck Niess of the Joplin Police Department says.
Fitzgerald was eventually convicted but his sentence – seven years in prison – was suspended, and he was put in a 120-day substance abuse treatment program. Willis is still serving out his five-year prison sentence. After I contacted him in February, he sent me a letter saying, “I could tell you a lot about Blake that people don’t know.” Willis, now 29, also claimed to know Harper. “She is no angel and is devious as they come, a devil in a angel’s disguise,” he wrote. He also asked to be paid $250 to tell what he knew. I responded that I could not pay for information, and never heard back.
Brittany Harper’s criminal record was comparatively unremarkable. In 2005, when she was 20, she married a man named Justin Hal Harper. They had no children and together owned and operated an equine hoof care business. The marriage was troubled. In 2010, she was arrested after being accused of slashing at her husband with a knife and hitting him in the head with a metal toy. They separated and her husband got a restraining order against her. (He died at his home near Joplin in 2012.) Last fall, Harper was in the backseat of a car that got pulled over. She had a backpack that authorities said contained hypodermic needles and a bag of methamphetamine. After Harper’s February arrest in Florida, a bail bondsman who knew her posted on Facebook: “I know we can’t blame one’s actions on drugs because they are ultimately responsible but the addiction to meth is real and it changes a person.”
Another bail bondsman in Joplin, who over the years had both Fitzgerald and Harper as clients (and did not want to be named in this story), told me that while he never saw direct evidence of Fitzgerald using methamphetamine, he knew it was part of his life. “He was a good kid and he got interested in the drug thing,” he says. “It took him down. It takes everybody down. It’s the devil.” Later, I found out the bondsman’s son briefly shared a jail cell with Fitzgerald in Joplin, and once spent time in a Missouri prison on drug-related charges.
When I visited Joplin in February, the bars were full of tattooed men with wide shoulders and thick forearms, and I thought of a friend who once lived in Missouri who told me the city had a “Wild West vibe.” The exact reason why Fitzgerald and Harper first set off on their desperate run never became clear, but there are several theories. Fitzgerald was still on probation for the burglary charge and someone said he flunked a urine analysis. (The Missouri Department of Corrections declined to comment.) Several people said Fitzgerald had fallen out with his family after taking a large stash of cash that belonged to his stepfather, and was told not to come back. I was also told that Harper may have been involved in the drug trade, specifically cooking methamphetamine, and may have recently run into trouble.
Fitzgerald had been living with his mother and stepfather. I talked with his mother, Renee Beale, several times. She believed he was doing well since leaving the state’s substance abuse treatment program, and did not know what sent him on the run. Not long before the couple left town, Beale called Fitzgerald. He was in Branson, Missouri, about 100 miles from Joplin, and said he was there with Harper. Beale asked who Harper was, and Fitzgerald sent her a picture. That was the first time Beale laid eyes on the woman.
I was told that Fitzgerald was kicked out of his house, and soon after someone broke into the Joplin home of Dr. Douglas Richards. Five televisions, a checkbook and eight firearms were taken, including a .45-caliber, the same gun Fitzgerald repeatedly wielded on the run. The crime is officially unsolved, but Richards feels certain it was Fitzgerald. He once worked on Richards’ wheat and cattle ranches about 50 miles northeast of town. Richards says Fitzgerald was capable of being a good worker – he once did a fine job leveling off five acres of land — but he was also prone to mishaps, like accidentally mowing down a wheat field. Last summer, Richards fired him. Also stolen were the keys to five vehicles left untouched in the driveway. I asked Richards why Fitzgerald would have done that. “To get even,” he says.
Richards also believes Fitzgerald was hungry for fame. “I think he was doing exactly what he meant to – building up a name,” he says. One of their kidnap victims said they seemed to like the media attention, and Carlen Baird-Baptista, a Missouri bail bondsman who knew Fitzgerald and Harper, posted on Facebook that once they were referred to as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde “it was on. They probably loved being called that.”
On Jan. 26, four days after the break-in at Richards’ home, Fitzgerald and Harper showed up at X-Treme Powersports, a used car lot in a Joplin suburb. It was about midday, and employees said later the couple appeared “antsy.” Harper filled out a credit application before they took a black 2009 Cadillac with a $14,000 price tag for a test drive with a salesman. After returning, the couple asked if they could drive it alone. It was technically against the rules, but the salesman decided they were trustworthy. Harper drove it off the lot. They never returned.
Two days later, Fitzgerald and Harper resurfaced about 300 miles away, walking into an Econo Lodge in Ozora, Missouri, a little before 6 a.m. Fitzgerald asked the female clerk about renting a room, but asked if his girlfriend could view it first. The clerk said that was fine, and took Harper to a vacant room. Fitzgerald waited. The couple claimed to be unsatisfied with the accommodations, declined the room and left. The clerk went back to her desk and noticed her purse and cellphone were gone.
While authorities in Ste. Genevieve County were taking the clerk’s report, deputies in Perry County, just to the south, were attempting to stop a black Cadillac speeding on I-55. “We suspected that was our culprits,” Maj. Jason Schott of the Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff’s Office tells me. After a brief pursuit, the Cadillac sped into the distance, and Fitzgerald and Harper managed to get away. The couple pulled into the driveway of a home in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, busted a window and unlocked a door. No one was home — they took two sets of keys to a white Chevrolet Trailblazer and left Missouri for good.
At some point, they were in middle Tennessee — Richards says two of his checks were cashed at a Walmart in Nashville. Two days later, on Saturday, Jan. 30, Fitzgerald and Harper walked into a Walmart near Birmingham, Alabama, and allegedly stole an air pump. It is unclear why they might have wanted it, and even more unclear why they would have stolen it. They had cash, as well as Richards’ checkbook. Next they checked into a nearby Economy Inn, where Harper provided a driver’s license and paid cash. Federal prosecutors say the couple did not stay long before heading south toward Tuscaloosa.
At this point, Fitzgerald and Harper had traveled roughly 785 miles in five days. They had committed a series of misdemeanors and felonies and Fitzgerald knew his probation was likely to be revoked. But aside from shattering a window at that Cape Girardeau home, nothing violent had occurred. These were foolish crimes behind them. They could still be viewed as a youngish couple with a history of substance abuse making a run of bad decisions. By the time Fitzgerald and Harper traveled the 40 miles of I-20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, however, something shifted. They stopped being petty criminals, and began doing the things that by the end of the week would have people comparing them to Bonnie and Clyde.
The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow enjoyed their fame. They were poor kids from Texas who met in 1930 at a mutual friend’s apartment. Both of them harbored dreams outweighed by realities. Clyde, who had been to prison, could blow a saxophone and wanted to be a musician. Bonnie, who had been through a failed marriage, could envision herself as a famous singer or actress. From 1932 until 1934, they robbed and killed together from Texas to Minnesota. “They wanted to be important, or at least famous, and were willing to die in return,” says Jeff Guinn, the author of “Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde.” “They loved the publicity and read every newspaper and magazine article about themselves that they could get their hands on.”
They also spent time in Joplin. It was in the spring of 1933 when Bonnie and Clyde and three other gang members came into town for something of a vacation. The crew rented an apartment above an Oak Ridge Drive garage for about two weeks. On April 13, authorities, having heard the duo were in town, staged an attack at the apartment. Bonnie and Clyde managed to escape, killing two police officers in the process, but left behind some luggage. Inside was a camera and undeveloped film, which eventually revealed photographs of Bonnie and Clyde playfully pointing guns at each other. The photographs made it to press wires, new at the time, and within days Bonnie and Clyde were national celebrities. “They were obviously doomed,” Guinn says. “And tragic death always sells.”
Bonnie and Clyde’s apartment in Joplin is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The owner told me that he and his wife once had a booth at Fitzgerald’s mother’s store, Connie’s Antiques. He remembers Fitzgerald as a “polite, nice kid” who was always helpful. Occasionally, Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia circulated around the shop, and Fitzgerald expressed interest in visiting the outlaw couple’s former residence. “He must have had an interest there that we didn’t know about,” he says.
Dease, the motel clerk, was still in the backseat of the Jetta when Fitzgerald and Harper spotted a white 2011 Camaro with a drop-top in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in a Birmingham suburb. Behind the wheel was Zora Harris, a McDonald’s manager, who had parked where she always parked: Straddling a yellow line in front of a row of crepe myrtles. That Camaro was Harris’ pride — bought new and nearly paid off – and she always backed in. As she stepped out of her car, Fitzgerald approached and said, “Ma’am, I’m fixing to rob you.”
Harris raised her hands and said, “I ain’t got nothing.”
“I want your fucking car,” Fitzgerald said, pulling a pistol from his waist. “I ain’t fucking playing with you.”
Harris tossed the keys across the parking lot and ran. Fitzgerald got back into the Jetta and Harris yelled something to her coworker about seeing the Jetta’s tag — the plates were from New Jersey, where Dease’s girlfriend is from. The Jetta sped north on Highway 31. Dease said that Fitzgerald and Harper were upset about Harris having seen the license plate. Dease told me that until then he had never feared for his life. But as he lay in the backseat, with the Jetta speeding through traffic, a dread spread in him. He felt they may get in a chase with police and he would be killed in a crash, or in a shootout. He began to pray. Relaying the story to me, though, he could not remember specifics, like his mind stopped registering moments. He might have passed out.
The Jetta came into a town called Vestavia Hills and turned off the main highway into the Montreat Condominiums, where it stopped in the parking lot. Fitzgerald asked Dease to give his word that he would not contact authorities until he was back in Tuscaloosa. Dease agreed, and was released. Fitzgerald and Harper then drove around a corner onto Monte Vista Drive, which is lined by two-story homes with brick mailboxes in a thicket of woods. They parked in front of a residence.
It was Sunday at about 8 a.m. and the family inside – husband and wife, two young children – was eating breakfast and getting ready for church. Fitzgerald walked in through the garage and announced that he was having car trouble. Then he pulled a gun and demanded a phone and car keys. There was hesitation. Fitzgerald placed the gun to the man’s neck and forced him toward the garage. According to a federal indictment, the man somehow managed to get away from Fitzgerald, and fled the residence. Fitzgerald then forced the woman into the garage and put her into the family’s 2010 Ford Edge. Harper got into the backseat beside the woman, and Fitzgerald drove.
Authorities say that at one point Harper saw the woman attempting to waive at another motorist, and told her, “You don’t want to do that.” Fitzgerald and Harper told the woman they were going to South Carolina and dropped her off at a medical center in Birmingham. I contacted the woman recently. “We haven’t spoken to any media through this nightmare and are choosing to keep it that way for our safety and our family’s safety,” she said.
By this point, authorities from Missouri and Alabama had identified Fitzgerald and Harper, and released a statement to the public to “be on the lookout” for a young couple considered armed and dangerous.
It was here, after the home invasion in Vestavia Hills and the couple’s escape yet again, that the swirl of media kicked up. Not only were the Joplin Globe and AL.com following the crime spree, now FOX News picked the story up. And the Huffington Post. And The Daily Mail. Photos began to circulate online. Among them were book-in portraits of both Fitzgerald and Harper from prior arrests, along with selfies of them together – their heads tilted in affection, the vacancy of their mugshot eyes replaced by a look of grinning confidence.
At about 11 p.m., on Feb. 1, Fitzgerald and Harper pulled up to a Murphy Express in Perry, a town of about 15,000 in the middle of Georgia. The gas station is right off the interstate, across from a Waffle House. Fitzgerald walked inside and saw that the clerk, a small, 19-year-old woman who lives with her parents, was alone. He placed a Mountain Dew on the counter and pulled out a pistol. He took $160 and five cartons of cigarettes, and told the clerk to go outside with him and get in the Ford Edge. He would not hurt her, he said. Fitzgerald opened the door for her, and the clerk sat in the front passenger seat. Harper sat behind her. Federal prosecutors say Fitzgerald handed the pistol to Harper at some point during the ride. Fitzgerald and Harper both used the clerk’s iPhone to call family members.
Renee Beale told me that Fitzgerald called her often throughout the run. Each time, she pleaded with him to stop, to let her come get them. His tone was often frantic, she says, like there was not enough time. Fitzgerald would say he did not call to explain anything, only to say he loved her. Then he always had to go.
After traveling about 15 miles, Fitzgerald exited the interstate and told the clerk to get out. She ran toward an adult store that was open — it was about 11:30 p.m. — and called 911. The clerk’s mother later sent Renee Beale a Facebook message, expressing sorrow for what had happened to Fitzgerald and letting Beale know that she harbored no ill will toward his family.
When I think of Harper and Fitzgerald barreling toward Florida, in a Ford Edge stolen from a good Christian family’s breakfast table, I imagine they leave the interstate in favor of two-lane South Georgia roads. The air likely smelled smoky, as it was the season when hunters clear land with fire. I see them driving into the Sunshine State somewhere between Quincy and Marianna, a place with moss-covered live oaks and wet earth and a stifling humidity impossible to escape from.
In February, the town of Destin, Florida, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, is full of “hiring” signs and retirees walking sidewalks. At about noon on Feb. 3, Fitzgerald and Harper walked into Alvin’s Island Department Store, which sells bright beach items for tourists. Some employees later told me they looked like a normal couple, and acted like one, too. They picked up a red basket and began shopping, sorting through shirt racks and inspecting watches. As they headed toward the register, Fitzgerald took a set of keys from his pocket and tossed them over an aisle of hats and T-shirts to Harper, who caught them and slipped out the front door. Fitzgerald told the cashier he wanted the money. The clerk, whose eyes were blocked by a monitor, could not tell that Fitzgerald had a gun, until he chambered a round. He jerked the money tray out of the register drawer and ran towards the door. Two customers happened to be coming in. He hesitated for a moment before bolting out.
Media reports from New York to Florida to Missouri were whirling. One headline read, “‘Bonnie and Clyde’ Stay One Step Ahead of Cops.” Police departments in jurisdictions where Fitzgerald and Harper could not have been began fielding more and more tips. There were reports of Fitzgerald and Harper trying to pass a bad check in Orlando, more than 400 miles from Destin. Someone claimed to have spotted the couple at a Joplin casino. The owner of a car lot in east Tennessee reported that they came to his business carrying cash, looking to buy a vehicle quick, only to be turned down. “You could just tell that something wasn’t right,” the owner told a local TV station. “That’s why I told them there’s nothing I can do for you, you need to go somewhere else. Now come to find out that’s the best decision I made all year.”
There were also reports that Fitzgerald and Harper had robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Walnut Hills, Florida, two hours from Destin on the Alabama border. When I visited the grocery store, a manager said Fitzgerald walked into the grocery store about 4 p.m., picked up a bag of Jack Links jerky and entered a checkout lane. He held up his shirt to show a pistol, and said he wanted the money.
“He was nonchalant about it,” the manager said, “like he had done it before.” When he got to the part where Fitzgerald exited the grocery store, he acted it out, moving across the floor of the fruits and vegetable department with an exaggerated limp, and said, “Walked out like a gangster, son.”
The culprit hopped into an F-150 pickup, extended cab, with the back window busted out, and sped off north, toward Alabama. A woman, the manager said, was driving. Authorities, though, do not believe that was Fitzgerald and Harper. John Molchan, a prosecutor in Florida, told me, “At this point, based upon my discussions with law enforcement, we do not have sufficient evidence to link that duo to that robbery.”
The real Fitzgerald and Harper showed up at a Famous Footwear in Pensacola, Florida, at about 7:15 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4. They casually picked out two pairs of Nike Torch shoes, an Adidas backpack and five pairs of Nike socks. At the checkout counter, Fitzgerald pulled out a pistol. When the cashier could not get the register open, Harper helped. They got approximately $390 in cash – plus their shopping items – and ordered the cashier to lie down in the back of the store. Shortly after they fled, the general manager arrived with a wanted bulletin from the U.S. Marshal service. Police later found some of the stolen items in the parking lot of a seafood restaurant farther up the highway. They reviewed surveillance footage at the restaurant, and saw that the suspects were in a Ford Edge.
At about 9:45 p.m., an Escambia County deputy spotted the Ford Edge in Pensacola Beach and a pursuit began. The 30-minute chase that followed went through Gulf Breeze and over Pensacola Bay via Three-Mile Bridge. At about 10:15 p.m., police found the Edge abandoned near Miralla Park in a residential neighborhood of Pensacola. Fitzgerald and Harper were nowhere in sight. David Morgan, the sheriff of Escambia County, would later say it was like they “dropped off the grid.”
The couple had run from the park and into the backyard of a residence on Whitney Drive. The homeowner, Ian Gunnell, a landscaper with a 2-year-old, was watching TV. His dogs began barking at the back door and through the window Gunnell saw Fitzgerald standing with a gun. According to a police incident report, Fitzgerald “hit the door, breaking into the house.”
Fitzgerald ordered Gunnell and his wife, April, to go into their 2-year-old child’s bedroom. At one point Harper told the 2-year- old things were going to be OK, and not to be frightened. April Gunnell told police she was scared of Fitzgerald, and avoided looking at him, worried that if their eyes met it might set him off. Ian Gunnell later told a local TV station that Fitzgerald and Harper “were under no illusion.” “They were in a bad place and they knew things were going to go bad,” he said, adding that Fitzgerald and Harper used his cell phone to call their parents.
Fitzgerald told his mother that he loved her. The tone again was frantic, and Fitzgerald said he had to go in order to call his brother, Chris. A short time later, he called his mother back and asked to speak to his 3-month-old child. Beale reminded him that it was the middle of the night, and the child could not talk. Before hanging up he added that if he did not call her back by 2 a.m., things went bad. “I told him not to talk like that,” Beale says. After Fitzgerald hung up, Beale called the number he had dialed from several times. No one answered.
After an hour inside the home, Fitzgerald wanted to leave. Harper, though, was injured from scaling a fence. They waited another hour, until a little after midnight, then took the keys to the Gunnells’ Chevrolet Colorado and drove away. Ian Gunnell ran down to an intersection and flagged down a police officer still patrolling the area. Deputies soon spotted the Colorado on I-10. The couple exited the interstate about 12:40 a.m. and drove south on Garcon Point Road with deputies in pursuit. It is a rural area and had the sun been in the sky, they could have seen horses in fields as they sped through. Fitzgerald turned down Saragon Lane, where a sign on the corner reads, “No Outlet,” and then into the first yard on the right. It was there that the run ended.
The homeowner is a 64-year-old affable southerner named Kenneth Broxson. That night he watched the 10 p.m. news, as he always does, and the broadcast included a report about the Famous Footwear robbery. About 15 minutes past midnight, Broxson awoke to the sound of sirens. He thought his home was on fire but smelled no smoke. When he got to the kitchen, he saw law enforcement vehicles sprawled across his front yard, their blue lights swirling. Broxson told me it might as well have been the middle of the day because of how bright things were.
A Chevrolet Colorado was parked in the yard. A man was sitting in the driver’s seat. Broxson never saw a woman, and figures Harper must have been laying low in the cab. Broxson woke his wife and reached into his closet for a Remington Model 870 shotgun. Together, they walked to the front door. The pickup began moving, though very slowly: the Onstar system in the vehicle had made it so the truck would not go more than 5 mph. Deputies fired shotguns at the tires and screamed for Fitzgerald and Harper to get out with their hands up. The truck eventually reached the Broxson’s backyard. Authorities came in the front door and took Broxson and his wife outside. “All the things you hear them say in the movies,” Broxson says. “They were trying to get them to surrender.”
With blue lights illuminating the way, Fitzgerald stepped out of his stolen pickup and reached the back porch of the house. Authorities said Fitzgerald slammed a .45 pistol against the glass of locked French doors, but Broxson had installed impact glass to protect his property against hurricanes — the pistol’s thump did nothing. Law enforcement agents were pointing guns and screaming. The gunfire injured Harper’s leg and ankle and when the sun rose later that morning, she was in Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.
Crime scene technicians worked the Saragon Lane scene until a little after midday on Friday, Feb. 5. Fitzgerald’s body remained on the back porch the entire time. At one point, Broxson walked over and asked one of the technicians, “How many times was he shot?” The only response was, “A lot.” Later, Broxson counted at least 13 bullets in his home. Six entered through wood panes, four lodged within the inside walls and one in the floor. Another came to rest beneath the kitchen table and was only discovered when Broxson’s wife stepped on it. To this day, the concrete Fitzgerald died on remains stained with his blood.
“They gave him every chance in the world,” Broxson says. “He chose to go out that way.”
The sheriff of Escambia County, Florida, David Morgan, held a press conference, where he was asked about a rumor: Word from the scene was that Fitzgerald had used Harper as a human shield. “Can you confirm that?” a reporter asked. Morgan, a confident and fit man, with salt and pepper hair, pondered the question for a moment. After wrinkling his lips, he responded, “Yes. Yes.”
In the weeks following Blake Fitzgerald’s death and Brittany Harper’s capture, strangers would drive by the home to see where the run ended. People stop by Bonnie and Clyde’s old apartment at 3347½ Oak Ridge Drive in Joplin to take photographs everyday. After repeatedly calling the number her son last called her from and getting no response, Renee Beale looked online. That is how she found out, on a news site. She watched a video that included audio of the shooting. As the gunfire rang out she knew Fitzgerald was dead. As she relayed the story to me her voice cracked. That night, an anonymous person, in response to Fitzgerald being killed and Harper being captured, posted online somewhere: “Hallelujah.” Beale saw that comment and felt her gut hollow out. She also received a Facebook message from a person who called her a “witch.”
“I have lost my baby boy forever,” Beale posted on Facebook the night after Fitzgerald was killed. “My heart is broken and will never heal from the loss of my precious son.”
Blake’s father, Terry Fitzgerald, tells me he viewed his son’s body and counted five bullet holes in the back, suggesting he was shot from behind. “I have a problem with that,” he says. One of the bullets, according to Renee Beale, struck Blake Fitzgerald in the back of the head. Fitzgerald’s family questions the need for law enforcement to use lethal force, pointing out repeatedly that Fitzgerald released each of the victims unharmed. Final autopsy results are still pending, but a four-month investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, released last week, found that the use of deadly force was justified.
Harper is in the Escambia County jail on a $1.2 million bond. Local prosecutors have charged her with six felonies. Her trial is scheduled for July 18. She also has indictments and arrest warrants in jurisdictions stretching from Missouri to Georgia. After Florida is done with her, though, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Birmingham is waiting: A federal grand jury issued a nine-count indictment against her in late March. She faces more than a century behind bars.