There's No Place Like Prison

Phillips families were already worried about the parolees next door. Then the headless corpse turned up.

All around him Paul Weir sees signs of hope. Five years ago the property adjacent to his house on the 2700 block of 12th Avenue South was boarded up. Prior to that it was occupied by drug dealers and members of a street gang known as the Vice Lords. Now it is a community garden where cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, and morning glories blossom. "I don't remember the last time I called 911," says the 62-year-old retiree as he strolls through the Phillips neighborhood, where he has lived for 25 years. "It used to be a daily, if not many-times-daily thing."

Hans Christian Andersen, one of the largest elementary schools in the state, is across the street. In the mornings, Weir watches as an increasing number of mothers and fathers shepherd their children to school--a clear indicator, he believes, that area families are more invested in their kids.

On the corner of 27th Street and 12th Avenue is another notorious house. Weir says that not so long ago, gangsters would literally engage in gun battles on its rooftop. Now the structure is a two-story candy cane, all milk-white stucco and red trim. "This is amazing," Weir gushes, walking past the property. "This used to be the worst house on the block." Just east on 13th Avenue, roofs have been re-shingled, panes

replaced, siding repainted. Only one property, which Weir refers to as "the crazy old aunt in the attic," continues to fester, featuring boarded up windows and a broken down, wooden fence.

The last stop on Weir's impromptu walking tour is the duplex at 2609 13th Ave. S. Once a well-known crack house, today the 100-year-old two-story is a picture of serenity. It is painted warm yellow, with green shutters and trim. The downstairs shades are drawn, and a fan quietly spins in the upstairs window. Weir is not impressed. "Totally innocuous," he exclaims, shaking his head.

The duplex is owned by a nonprofit organization called 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life, and has served as a group home for ex-convicts since 1998. Sex offenders, who have a harder time finding other landlords to accept their rental applications, have gravitated to the property. Typically, two or more men convicted of sex crimes are living at the duplex at any given time. Some of them have had multiple convictions for assaulting children. "We get the hard cases, definitely. We get the cases that no one else wants," explains Mike Davis, who started the organization from scratch four years ago.

Not surprisingly, the people of Phillips don't want sex offenders living in their neighborhood either. Davis's duplex is just two blocks from the elementary school. Stewart Park, a popular gathering place for youngsters, is just one block west. There's a public swimming pool in the area. And Waite House, a nonprofit group that provides programs for neighborhood children, sits a few doors north. "It's like throwing a lit stick of dynamite into a bus," says Paul Meek, who lives across the street from the duplex.

Last March, two residents living at 9 to 5 were arrested for possessing child pornography. Suddenly, the explosion Meek, Weir, and other neighbors had been bracing for seemed inevitable. Four months later, a man was dead.

 

According to documents filed in Hennepin County District Court, Bobby Holder was lured to 2609 13th Avenue South on July 5, 2001. The bait was former homecoming queen Tina Leja. The 26-year-old Leja allegedly told Holder she would be alone, even though her boyfriend Darnell Smith lived at the duplex. Leja and the 26-year-old Smith had met at Stillwater prison. She was working as a guard; he was an inmate, serving six years for raping a 12-year-old girl.

Darnell Smith believed "Holder was attracted to Leja" and wanted to teach him a lesson. After Holder arrived at the duplex, he and Leja began kissing. At that point Darnell Smith and his 17-year-old brother, Chaka Smith, came out from hiding and a fight broke out. Chaka Smith allegedly struck Holder in the head with a police flashlight. Then Darnell Smith shot him in the torso with a Desert Eagle handgun.

Holder pleaded with the brothers to let him go to a hospital. He was having trouble breathing. The 20-year-old promised not to reveal who had shot him. Darnell Smith responded by planting another bullet in his torso. Holder died from the wounds. A cell phone, keys to a 1980 Monte Carlo, and several hundred dollars were taken from the victim. The brothers then wrapped Holder in a sheet and stowed the body in Darnell Smith's bedroom. The next day Darnell Smith moved the corpse to the basement and dismembered the body.

Another resident of the duplex, Andre Lamont Parker, who had recently served time for second degree assault, got sucked into the madness. Darnell Smith allegedly showed him a cooler containing two arms, two legs, and a bag that held Holder's head. According to separate criminal complaints filed against Parker and Leja, the two accomplices then conspired to dispose of the body.

The deceased was stuffed into Leja's car and she drove east. Parker followed behind in the victim's Monte Carlo. After depositing Holder's vehicle at a Wisconsin truck stop, the pair allegedly buried the torso on property belonging to Leja's father in Chippewa County, Wisconsin. The remaining body parts were most likely deposited on the side of an abandoned road, but have never been recovered.

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