The latest twist in Florida’s ‘treehouse murder:’ a possible civil suit

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There’s a new twist in Florida’s infamous “treehouse murder” case — in the form of a potential bombshell civil suit.

Franklin Tyrone Tucker — the husband of CrossFit co-founder Lauren Jenai, and a suspect in the case who claims he’s innocent — is prepping a potential lawsuit in Florida against the Monroe County Sherriff’s office as well as members of the county’s State Attorney’s office, a new court filing reveals.

Tucker was arrested in 2017 on first-degree felony murder charges in the “treehouse murder” incident and was held in jail for nearly two years awaiting trial without bail.

Page Six exclusively revealed how during that time, Tucker’s former high school pal — successful fitness entrepreneur Jenai — learned about his case on Facebook and came to defend his innocence. The two also fell in love while Tucker was incarcerated. They married last summer after he was dramatically released on a $2 million bail, put up by Jenai just before the pair was originally meant to marry inside the Stock Island Detention Center.

According to new civil court documents filed in Florida last month, and obtained by Page Six, Tucker now claims he has “several causes of action” to file against members of the local sheriff and state attorney’s offices, including, “false arrest,” “malicious prosecution,” “various civil rights claims,” “defamation,” “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” and others.

His attorney alleges in the papers that there was “substantial, wrongful, dishonest and illegal conduct” by police and prosecutors in Tucker’s case, and “ample reason to believe that a conspiracy of misdeeds, illegal actions and false representations have been entered into by several members” of the sheriff’s and state attorney’s offices.

To initiate the suit, the papers claim, they’ll need to introduce the testimony of a witness, Paula Belmonte, that they say will clear Tucker’s name. Belmonte was deposed on Sept. 28, 2020, on behalf of Tucker, and is the surviving victim in the fateful “treehouse murder” robbery-homicide for which he was indicted with two other suspects.

The court documents say that Belmonte is currently “seriously ill” and has been given potentially “less than a year to live” by doctors due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But, Tucker’s lawyer Cara Higgins claims, his criminal case could drag on for months or even years.

Prosecutors have alleged that Tucker and another suspect stabbed Stock Island, Fla., resident Mathew Bonnett to death when he came to the aid of Belmonte as she was being robbed at knifepoint. Belmonte lived in a makeshift treehouse by Bonnett’s abode, where various transients came and went.

Higgins argues in the court papers that Belmonte in her recent deposition, “stated, numerous times that she was positive [Tucker] was not involved in the robbery-homicide,” and that Belmonte “personally knew” Tucker. The court papers also say that Belmonte testified that Tucker” had a different body style, size and voice,” than the attackers. The papers also allege that state attorneys continue to “prosecute [Tucker] knowing the surviving victim emphatically states it wasn’t him.”

Higgins further alleges in the court papers that a key witness for the prosecution in the case was falsely represented to a judge as “a concerned citizen,” but was actually a “paid informer of the State” who “asked for substantial legal benefits for his testimony.” She also alleges that former Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne “conspired with” members of the sheriff’s office, including Captain Penny Phelps, to “conduct clandestine meetings with witnesses… to pervert the discovery process.”

Tucker’s new civil court filing alleges that higher-ups in the Monroe County sheriff’s and state attorney’s offices failed to protect him despite their staffers’ actions.

The documents name nine potential defendants in Tucker’s planned lawsuit — including Dunne and Phelps, as well as current Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and State Attorney Dennis Ward.

Reps for the Monroe Country sheriff’s office declined to comment on pending litigation when we reached out, and reps for Tucker, Jenai, and the state attorney’s office, did not comment pursuant to a “gag order” in the criminal case imposed by Chief Judge Mark H. Jones in Key West.

Meantime, Dunne has separately since stepped down from her position after admitting to ethics violations in another murder case, and Phelps was caught on camera allegedly instructing a deputy to act like a “neo-Nazi” to put pressure on a black suspect in the case, who was later arrested and is a co-defendant with Tucker.

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