On Christmas Day in 2011, a 42-year-old prostitute named Stacia Berman was found dead in Lake Maggiore. Her body was wrapped in a bed skirt, her neck entwined with an electrical cord, her head covered with two plastic bags.
A couple of alligators lay motionless nearby, and there was concern they might thwart efforts to retrieve Berman’s body. But the reptiles didn’t seem to “show any interest in the victim,” a police report states, and they slithered away before they could be trapped.
Berman was identified easily because her fingerprints were on file, a consequence of her trips through the criminal justice system. A notation about a tattoo on her back – a naked woman with wings -- also was in law enforcement databases.
Today the three men authorities say killed Berman are scheduled to go on trial in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. They are Santonio Smith, now 23; Letrell McKnight, also now 23; and Darryl Williams, now 36. Each is charged with second-degree murder.
According to court documents, detectives maintain they solved the case through a combination of factors, including a tip from an informant. The suspects helped, too.
On Christmas Eve, one of the suspects, McKnight, bought three bottles of Clorox bleach at a Walgreen’s store on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S., records show. A witness told investigators he thought he saw the men trying to pour it down Berman’s throat.
Detectives found a receipt for the purchase in one of the plastic bags wrapped around Berman’s head. Surveillance video at the Walgreen’s shows a person who looks like McKnight buying three bottles of the bleach on Christmas Eve.
The day after Berman was removed from the lake in south St. Petersburg, investigators received a tip that there had been a fight at apartments at 527 Eighth St. N. on Christmas Eve.
Detectives tracked down Quantae Davis, who lives at the address. She told investigators she was sitting in a car with a couple of friends when she heard a loud commotion. She got out of the car and saw the three suspects carry a body to a red Chrysler 300, put it into a trunk and drive away, detectives say.
Davis, who lived in Apt. 3˝, knew the three men lived in Apt. 3. Other witnesses corroborated parts of Davis’s account, investigators say, with some telling authorities they heard the trio arguing while moving Berman’s body, or ordering one another to clean something up.
Davis’s roommate, Tyana Walker, told investigators Berman had been living with the three men in Apt. 3 for two months. Walker said Berman was known to smoke crack cocaine and prostitute herself, and that is why she believed Berman hung out there -- because crack was available at the apartment, a police report states.
The Chrysler 300 used to dispose of Berman’s body did not belong to any of the three suspects, according to another report. Rather, it belonged to a man, Daryl Davis, who had gone to Apt. 3 to buy drugs.
Daryl Davis told investigators he was at the apartment all night, smoking crack and getting high, when one of the suspects, Smith, discovered four pairs of children’s shoes he had bought as Christmas gifts were missing. He called Berman on a phone and told her to come to the apartment.
The three questioned her, and she denied taking anything, court records say. Smith was the first to strike her, and he beat her for a couple of minutes. Davis told investigators. The men then took her to an upstairs apartment while Davis stayed behind, detectives say, and he heard the woman yelling and a lot of banging. She returned 10 to 15 minutes later, naked.
She was trying to put on her clothes when one of the three struck her again, Davis told investigators. Berman approached Davis and asked him to help her. Davis froze, he told investigators, and headed to the bathroom. The last thing he saw was one of the suspects dragging her by the hair to another apartment, court records say.
According to a synopsis of the case, Berman eventually acknowledged stealing the shoes after the suspects subjected her to a beating, and she told them she had sold them.
They then beat her again, burned her with an iron and poured bleach on her, court records maintain. At one point, one of the suspects was sitting on her back, pulling her head back with an electrical cord wrapped around her neck, the synopsis states. She still was making noise when she was put in the back of the Chrysler 300.
Daryl Davis stayed at the apartment throughout the night while the suspects used his Chrysler to dispose of Berman’s body, court records say. When his car was returned the following morning, the records say, he accepted a couple of pieces of crack in return.