Published February 20, 2009
He was the only one of the four who got away with murder, according to the FBI.
For 11 years after the brazen robbery and shooting of a German tourist in Santa Monica, Calif., Paul Edmond Carpenter allegedly lived a double life in a Caribbean paradise.
Establishing himself in Kingston, Jamaica, and using the assumed name Jermaine Thomas, Carpenter got a job at a BMW car dealership, driving high-profile clients around town. He made lots of friends. He even had a child, a boy, who turns three next month.
Last week, Thomas' intricate web of lies finally unraveled when the FBI, acting on an anonymous tip, tracked him down. Carpenter, 31, was taken into custody Feb. 11 and extradited to California.
Carpenter didn't actually fire the bullet that killed Horst Fietze in 1998, authorities say. But he comes back to America charged with murder.
According to his boss in Jamaica, no one ever suspected that Jermaine Thomas was actually Carpenter, a man who hid a terrible secret and was running from the law.
"It's very unbelievable that this young man had a double life," Jackie Stewart Lechler, company director at Stewart Motors, said in a phone interview. "I can't explain to you from our side how traumatic this has been."
"Thomas" was a holdover employee from the dealership's previous owner and worked as a driver in the BMW division since June of 2006, she said.
He was well-liked and took his job seriously.
"He was a hard worker, a very well-mannered employee," said Lechler. "My customers loved him."
Lechler said she knows little of his life outside work, but did see Thomas with his 2-year-old son Devant Trey Junior Thomas from time to time.
Thomas was raising the boy on his own, said close friend Kemloy Peart, a parts supervisor at the dealership who has known Thomas since he first arrived in Jamaica in 1999. The mother left when the baby was only 2 months old, according to Peart.
"He loved his son world without end," he said by phone from Kingston. "He is very affectionate."
Before the extradition Thomas was battling for legal custody of the child, according to Peart, who said he didn't know where the mother is. Devant is staying with a close female friend of Thomas', Peart said.
Peart is still in shock, he said. The man he knew as "Trey" isn't anything like the suspect he has read about in the news.
"He’s honest, trustworthy, yes he is," Peart said. "He has never shown any sign of aggression or anger. I have never seen a violent side. ... The person I know is not that person."
On Oct. 12, 1998, two men and a woman approached Fietze, 50, as he walked with his wife near their oceanfront hotel in Santa Monica. They demanded money, but Fietze, who spoke little English, didn't understand them. He refused to turn over his bag. That's when the shot was fired.
Carpenter, then 20, gunman Lamont Dion Santos and the woman, Tyrina Lakeisha Griffin — said to be Carpenter's girlfriend — fled without taking anything from the couple, leaving Fietze bleeding on the ground, according to authorities. He died with his wife by his side.
The three suspects jumped into a getaway car with driver Roshana Latiesha Roberts behind the wheel and sped off. But a hotel security camera captured the crime on film, and police matched fingerprints taken at the scene with those in the car.
The shooter, the driver and the female accomplice were all caught, two in December 1998 and the third in January 1999. All were convicted of murder and attempted robbery and remain behind bars.
Somehow Carpenter eluded capture, authorities said. They believe he traveled to Kingston shortly after the killing.
"The case agent all along believed he was in Jamaica," said Laura Eimiller of the FBI in Los Angeles. "He had a lot of friends who were Jamaican nationals. It was a cold case for a long time."
In 1999, Carpenter was charged with one count of murder and three counts of robbery, even though he didn't pull the trigger. California law allows murder charges to be brought against anyone involved in a crime resulting in death.
In 2007, the FBI asked for the public's help in solving the crime, offering a $20,000 reward and featuring the case on "America's Most Wanted." Agents said Carpenter used four different birth dates and about a dozen aliases and was likely living in another country.
The effort paid off.
"The reward generated a lot of leads," Eimiller said. Two years later, one of those tips — from an unnamed source — led federal agents to Carpenter, and he was returned to Santa Monica. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and is behind bars without bail. He's due back in court March 24.
"There are victims who wait for this day. It's nice to be able to close a case," Eimiller said.
At first, no one at work at the car dealership knew why the FBI and police came suddenly last Wednesday and took "Thomas" away, Lechler said. Agents returned later and explained.
She and Carpenter's coworkers have been struggling with the shock of it all, finding it difficult to believe what their friend and associate is accused of doing.
"You can't bring back a life," Lechler said. "That's probably why we're having such a hard time grappling with this."
Carpenter was one of eight drivers who gave courtesy rides to customers and well-to-do company associates, as well as running errands for managers.
Lechler described him as "quite a good-looking chap" who had recently shaved his head after being reprimanded for wearing corn rows. That was the only time he was ever spoken to by his bosses.
"He never got himself into any trouble," Lechler said.
"Jermaine Thomas" had a Jamaican birth certificate and driver's license, but he did not have a purely Jamaican accent.
"It was a mix," his former employer said. "We assumed he lived in America — many Jamaicans do. In the early days, I teased him about his accent."
Since last week's arrest, Lechler has scoured old articles about the crime her popular young driver is accused of committing. She hasn't slept much.
"If you were in that position, don't you think you would be totally shocked?" she said. "I really hope they will have compassion for him. ... We're not wanting to believe that our Jermaine could be a part of this."
His friend Peart said that if the story is true, he is willing to forgive, and he understands why Thomas didn't tell him who he really was.
"I do not feel betrayed," Peart said. "I would not expect him to tell me what happened in his prior life. He was trying to shed the skin of the past. He's a totally new person."