Prisoner of Love
In the end, it all came down to the girl.
A 13-year-old girl with long, curly hair who captivated and charmed the heart of an older boy who should have known better.
But love has a way of making danger appear distant, of bridging the gap between age and family, of blinding hearts and binding souls.
Everyone warned the young man, then a 17-year-old high school student from rural Rainbow Valley. His family and friends tried to tell him: She's too young, too controlling. She's the sister of your best friend. Nothing good can come of it, no matter how much you love her.
Such is the story of Tremell Collins and Kristen de Sousa, two Buckeye teenagers whose union set in motion a series of events no one could have predicted.
What began as young love became a feud between two families. It culminated with an accusation, a conviction and a man being sentenced to 101/2 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit.
All because of a girl, the boy she dated and the color of his skin.
Race was never an issue for Collins' family and friends. They didn't care that he was black and she was white.
But de Sousa's family did, and told the girl so. When she kept seeing her black boyfriend, the threats turned toward him.
Kristen's older brother, Joseph, severed his friendship with Tremell, but refused to let the issue rest. He and his friends made threats. Tremell's friends and family retaliated. Both sides alleged near-fistfights, break-ins and car chases.
Back and forth it went for nearly two years, until one of Tremell's cousins had had enough. He says he decided to end the feud by scaring Joseph de Sousa so badly that he would leave the couple alone.
On January 27, 1997, the cousin, aided by another relative and a friend, conducted a poorly planned burglary at de Sousa's house. They broke in, tied him up and robbed him at gunpoint.
And they gave de Sousa the perfect opportunity: A chance to get rid of Tremell Collins by implicating him as leading the violent siege upon his home.
Four years later, Collins is turning 24. There is little celebration because this birthday is his second spent in prison. He likely will sit behind bars until he turns 31 if he is unable to convince a court to grant him one more trial.
Collins could have avoided all this.
He could have walked away from the girl once her family got involved. He could have skipped prison by pleading guilty to a lesser crime in return for probation.
But faith, like love, is blinding.
And Collins has never wavered in his faith. He maintains his innocence to this day.
His only hope is that someday, someone will hear his entire story. That he will have the chance to show why he believes he was falsely accused by a man whose family could not tolerate the color of his skin.
That a jury will finally hear the evidence he hopes will prove he was never even at the house the day Joseph de Sousa was robbed.
Given the evidence brought against Collins by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, it's hard to accept his word.
Even though it took three trials to secure a conviction, the prosecution's case remained strong at the same time the defense faltered.
There were fingerprints, an eyewitness account from Joseph de Sousa and the lack of a foolproof alibi for Collins' whereabouts during the time of the crime.
Detectives and forensic experts believed there was little doubt that Collins had been involved. Alibi witnesses for Collins wilted under cross-examination. Collins himself was a terrible witness, stumbling over the events and impeaching his prior testimony. He contradicted his mother's story, making both of them look confused.
After two days of deliberations, the third jury returned a guilty verdict on all charges -- armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault and first-degree burglary -- and he was sent to state prison in Yuma.
In most cases, that would be the end of the story.
But Collins has continued to fight. He has written letters to the Superior Court judge who sentenced him, to Senator John McCain, to anyone who might listen.
In June, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency rejected his bid to be freed. His first appeal for a new trial was denied in February. A petition for a review of that decision, submitted in May to the state Supreme Court, is pending.
New Times spent two months investigating Collins' case. Based on a review of more than 1,000 pages of documents and interviews with Collins, his family, the de Sousa family and key people involved in his three trials, significant questions arise to whether he was involved in the crime.
Among the findings:
Two of the three men who admitted to robbing Joseph de Sousa say that Collins was never there. Those men are Robert Miller and Rodney Callahan, who are Collins' cousins. Neither man was ever called to testify against Collins because, they both say, they told the county's two prosecutors that Collins was not at de Sousa's house on the day of the robbery. Miller and Callahan did accept plea agreements for reduced prison time by agreeing not to testify in any trial involving Collins, either to implicate him or to provide an alibi.
The third man who admitted to the crime, Nole Perez, refused to identify his accomplices, other than to say they were cousins.
Joseph de Sousa originally told a 911 operator and two sheriff's deputies that he knew only one of the men involved in the robbery of his home. That man's name, he said, was Robert. It wasn't until later that he implicated Collins.
The testimony of de Sousa changed dramatically between each of the three trials, according to court transcripts. The changes came after the first jury failed to reach a verdict, and it appeared Collins might not be convicted.
The troubled relationship between Collins and Joseph and Kristen de Sousa was not allowed into testimony during the third trial. The relationship was discussed in the first two trials, with both ending with hung juries.
A lot has changed in four years.
Joseph de Sousa left Buckeye after the robbery. He is now 23, lives in California and recently was married. He works at an auto parts store and wants to be a highway patrol officer, according to his mother.
Kristen de Sousa turned 20 this month. She spends her days caring for her 3-year-old son, a child by another man, and lives in Glendale.
Rodney Callahan, now 22, is out of prison after three years and working in Phoenix. His cousin, Robert Miller, 22, and Nole Perez, 32, are still serving seven-year sentences.
And a lot hasn't changed.
The summer sun in late July still bakes the scorched earth that surrounds Dovie Hill's home in Rainbow Valley, a small community outside Buckeye in the shadow of the Estrella Mountains.
She sits inside the three-bedroom house and thumbs through a cracked photo album filled with pictures, drawings and snapshots of her son, Tremell.
Several of the photos show her son's car, a 1984 blue Cadillac. Others show Joseph de Sousa's car, a vintage 1964 white-over-green Chevrolet Impala, which he labored to restore. In one photo, the two youths stand shoulder to shoulder, flanked by other friends and their two precious vehicles.
The majority of photos, however, are of Tremell smiling and laughing and hugging Kristen de Sousa, whose long hair frames her pretty oval face.
"I told Tremell, 'She's going to be trouble,'" Hill remembers. "And look what happened."
Not far from the couch where Hill sits is a china cabinet. Inside, there are no dishes, only more photographs.
One is of Tremell taken last year, sitting on some metal stairs, his face defiant, his body cloaked in an orange tee shirt and pants. Stenciled letters, ADC, for Arizona Department of Corrections, run down the left pants leg.
"Everything was fine between him and Joseph," she says, "until the sister."
The friendship started with their cars.
Tremell Collins and Joseph de Sousa had a mutual passion for repairing and restoring vintage automobiles.
Collins had lived in Buckeye most of his life, moving with his mother in 1980 to the rural community about 30 miles west of Phoenix. De Sousa's family arrived there after leaving California in the mid-1990s.
They met sometime in 1994 at Buckeye Union High School.
"Tremell was the first person who befriended him," Hill says. "Joseph was here [at Hill's home] all the time."
Hill liked de Sousa, but was wary of the young man because he didn't speak much.
Likewise, de Sousa's family was wary of Collins.
Cheryl Vidlund, de Sousa's mother, lives in Wickenburg and speaks to her son often. She says she had stopped thinking about what had happened until New Times called. It didn't take long for her to remember.
"From the get-go, I never really liked the kid," she says.
Vidlund's ex-husband could not be reached for comment.
While Vidlund admits her son was friendly with Collins, she says they were more "car buddies" and "occasional friends." She says Tremell was rarely at their home, a point that Tremell and his mother dispute.
"I was always over there," Collins says, speaking by phone from Yuma. "[There] wasn't no racial problems."
But that was before he and Kristen de Sousa fell in love.
"Before me and her started talking, everything was all right," Collins says. "On weekends, whenever he [Joseph] didn't have to work, we were always together."
Collins says it started with an innocent date and "it all just escalated from there."
Kristen de Sousa was barely a teenager when she met the 17-year-old Collins.
The difference in age gave Collins' mother pause.
"I was just not comfortable with it at all," Hill says today.
There were other problems, particularly the way de Sousa seemed to control Tremell.
"She would lead [him]," Hill says. "She would say, 'Hey Tremell, jump!' He'd say, 'How high?'"
In letters written while Kristen de Sousa was 13 and staying with relatives in California, that sense of control appears.
"Your [sic] always telling me not to fuck up but what about you?" de Sousa wrote. "All of a sudden you think you can just go out anytime."
Outside the family, friends commented on the union.
"They were a typical little couple. That little teenybopper crush thing," says Eddie Williams, a longtime friend of Hill. "They thought they were in love."
But Williams, 42, whose two sons grew up with Collins, was concerned that the relationship might affect Tremell's friendship with Joseph.
"I told Tremell to leave that girl alone," Williams says. "You can be best friends until you start messing around with each other's sisters, and that's when you break the friendship. And they were the best of friends."
Collins laughed off the warning, she says.
"You know how kids are. They laugh at you and go about their business," she says. "They don't expect things like this to happen."
Kristen de Sousa declined to speak to New Times about her relationship with Collins, other than to talk briefly about the day her brother was robbed.
Collins, during a prison interview, says they were in love.
They were like most teenage couples. They went to movies, high school parties, "haunted houses" at Halloween. Theirs was a public romance.
Joseph de Sousa stopped talking to Collins immediately after finding out. Then he wanted to fight, Collins says.
Kristen de Sousa, however, bore the brunt of the fallout. Although she declined to comment, others who knew her at the time say the family could not handle the fact that de Sousa was dating a black man.
In letters, Kristen gave Collins some insight into her situation at home.
She wrote of her mother taking away his letters. She asked that he have a woman call the house if he wanted to talk.
"I know the reason why she don't like you cuzz we was arguing about you yesterday," Kristen de Sousa wrote. "It's cuzz your too old and you were my brother's friend and my dad hates black people."
Cheryl Vidlund doesn't apologize for her family's beliefs.
"I'm not ashamed of that," she says. "We're Portuguese and German. We just weren't brought up that way. Call us old-fashioned."
Friendships between blacks and whites are fine, she says, but "not to mix" romantically.
Vidlund told New Times that she tried to warn Collins' mother, telling Hill that she, "better keep your son away, there's going to be some violence."
Hill denies the conversation.
While Joseph never told his mother why he stopped being friends with Collins, Vidlund says she believes it was because of Kristen.
Joseph de Sousa declined to comment for this story.
Despite the turmoil the relationship caused, Tremell Collins and Kristen de Sousa refused to stop seeing each other.
In 1996, during Collins' senior year, they attended Buckeye Union's prom.
The problems wouldn't go away.
Friends got involved. Fights nearly broke out. Hill says she remembers her son talking about an incident where Joseph de Sousa and another youth chased Collins and a friend down Buckeye Road, throwing bottles at Collins' car.
"Tremell wouldn't report anything," Hill says. "I guess it was because of Kristen."
There was a minor incident with the police in August 1996, where both Tremell and Kristen were detained for shoplifting. That also fueled the family's dislike of Collins.
By late 1996, the tension between the two families and their friends had reached a critical point.
Hill says Kristen told Tremell that Joseph was carrying a gun. She feared he might use it.
At that time, Collins had started attending community college in Avondale. He wanted to earn a degree in business management and learn how to sell real estate.
Collins is a bright person, Hill says, but he had not always applied himself. While he graduated from high school, his grades were not exceptional.
"He played around quite a bit," she remembers.
But he was trying, and some people didn't want to see it wasted.
His cousin Robert Miller, who knew Joseph de Sousa from high school, was tired of the feud. He says he was tired of de Sousa messing with his relatives, and he blamed Joseph for a series of actions against Tremell, including an alleged robbery.
"I was going to get him [de Sousa] back at all costs," Miller says, speaking by phone from state prison in Buckeye, where he will be until 2004. "Tremell was going to school. I didn't want to involve him in any of that. I was trying to get him to stay away from Joseph and the girl."
So Miller devised a plan.
The day that Tremell Collins' life fell apart -- January 27, 1997 -- began like any other.
He got up, showered, dressed and made a call.
"That morning, he paged me and said he was going to school," Kristen de Sousa says. "That night, I saw it on the news."
It was the first day of classes for Collins' second semester at Estrella Mountain Community College.
He testified in court that he had two classes that day. When his second class, English, ended at 10:50 a.m., he milled about, talking to friends he knew from high school and then left, late to meet another friend at the high school for a brief drive they had agreed upon the night before.
Back in Buckeye, a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass was pulling into the driveway of Joseph de Sousa's house.
A young Hispanic man got out and asked de Sousa, who had stepped outside, whether he had a vehicle for sale. As they talked, Robert Miller and his cousin, Rodney Callahan, slipped inside and waited. Miller was wearing a ski mask over his head and held a rifle in his hands.
Collins arrived at Buckeye Union High School shortly after 11:30 a.m. According to court testimony, he circled the school but didn't see his friend and left several minutes later, headed for home.
De Sousa, meanwhile, was being assaulted and robbed. His wrists were bound with a phone cord.
The three men ransacked his house, taking everything from televisions to coins from a jar. They demanded the keys to both his cars, and kept him kneeling in a corner, facing a wall, while Nole Perez, the Hispanic man, pointed a handgun at his head.
Outside, they worked on de Sousa's pride and joy, his 1964 Impala. They tore out the stereo and removed a set of spinners, expensive custom wheel locks designed to hold the tire rim to the wheel. They vandalized his other car as well.
Miller moved de Sousa into his bedroom, gagged him with a pair of socks and tied his feet with a shower curtain. He fastened an extension cord between the bedroom doorknob and the bathroom door to keep de Sousa locked tight.
Then they left, and headed for Collins' house.
"I just wanted to get him back, that's all it was," Miller says now. "It was a revenge thing for me." Miller claims his cousin never knew that he had planned the robbery, and Collins also maintains he never knew about it.
By the time the three men were headed to Rainbow Valley, de Sousa had already freed himself and was dialing 911.
Steve Roberts, a Maricopa County Sheriff's detective, was working in the department's Buckeye substation when the call went out.
It was a "hot call," meaning a crime in progress, and possible suspects were still in the area.
Roberts, during testimony, said he drove an unmarked sport utility vehicle to Rainbow Valley and searched for the getaway vehicle that de Sousa had described.
At the same time, deputies were arriving at de Sousa's house. They found the young man standing on his porch, his hands bound behind him. According to sheriff's reports, de Sousa initially told a 911 operator that he had been robbed by four black men. He told one of the first deputies who arrived at his house that he had been robbed by four or five men. He then said he had been robbed by three black men and one Hispanic man. He told the 911 operator and the first deputies to arrive at his house that he knew one of the men, a former high school classmate named Robert. He never mentioned Collins as being involved in the crime, but said that Robert lived with his cousin, Tremell Collins, off Airport Road.
Shortly after noon, Steve Roberts saw a maroon Cutlass pass his unmarked sheriff's vehicle, then turn into a driveway off Airport Road.
Roberts drove past the driveway, a winding stretch that led to an encampment of buildings. He testified to seeing four men standing around the car. Minutes later, the car took off.
By 12:14 p.m., deputies had stopped it.
Inside, they found Perez and a cache of merchandise, including car stereos, speakers and compact discs, later identified by de Sousa as his property. Roberts, as the commanding officer, ordered deputies to drive de Sousa to the residence where Roberts had seen the car.
The house belonged to Dovie Hill.
Once there, de Sousa identified two people as having been inside his home with Perez. They were Miller, whom de Sousa had already named, and Tremell Collins.
A fourth man, Callahan, was found at the house and arrested as well.
Deputies swarmed the property looking for evidence. They found a ski mask tucked beneath a milk crate, some stereo equipment and a cellular phone on top of Collins' car.
The four men were taken in for questioning, and three of them admitted to robbing de Sousa before invoking their right to speak to a lawyer.
Collins refused to say anything. He asked to speak to a lawyer and was never interviewed by sheriff's investigators.
Kristen de Sousa, then 15, heard the news.
Her brother had been assaulted and robbed. Her boyfriend had been arrested, accused of the crime.
She was angry, hurt, confused.
That night, as Collins sat in jail, Kristen went out to a party, trying not to think about him. And she met a new boy who might help her forget.
Dovie Hill spent the night at a Maricopa County Sheriff's substation in Avondale. She sat in on the initial interview of her cousin, Miller, as he confessed to being at Joseph de Sousa's house.
A videotape of the interview shows her sitting in a folding chair, her arms crossed firmly over her chest. At times, she coughs loudly, and the sound seems more a defiant gesture than a need to clear her throat.
Miller told Detective Roberts that he had worn the ski mask. That he had gone to de Sousa's house with Perez and Callahan. He said nothing about the past trouble between the families. He did not say that Collins had been involved. And Collins' name is never mentioned during the interview.
Still, it seemed a slam-dunk case.
De Sousa, an obviously shaken victim, had identified three of the men as being involved, according to sheriff's reports and court documents. While he was unable to positively identify Callahan, sheriff's reports show that Callahan confessed to taking part in the robbery.
De Sousa said he knew Collins and Miller from high school. He identified them at first by physical characteristics -- Miller's green eyes and Collins' voice and build -- and later by the limited glimpse he told deputies he got after they removed their disguises.
Collins, de Sousa said, had tried to cover his face with a tee shirt but eventually had let it fall down while carrying stolen items outside.
Collins maintained his innocence.
Over the next two years, he would have three chances to skip prison, to put the incident behind him.
The state, he says, offered him three separate deals: Four years probation before the first trial. Two years probation before the second trial. And one year probation for trafficking in stolen property before the third trial.
Each time, he declined.
"Because I'm innocent," he says. "There's no need to admit guilt when there is none."
The first trial started on February 10, 1998.
Collins had been out of jail on bond since March 1997, and was trying to live a normal life.
It wasn't easy.
Kristen de Sousa had given birth to a baby boy two months before Collins went to trial. The young man she had met the night of Collins' arrest had gotten her pregnant, but things weren't working out between them.
She was close to coming back to Collins.
When Collins took the stand in early February, it was the first time anyone involved in the case got to hear his version of events.
He said he was at community college the morning of the crime, which his professor confirmed in court. He said he left the Avondale campus, drove to Buckeye Union High School, looked for a friend and then drove home, arriving around noon.
Russ Kimball, a private investigator assigned to Collins' defense, re-enacted the drive with Collins before the first trial. The two followed the path Collins said he had driven from the college to the high school to his home. The route took 41 minutes to drive.
The state eventually countered Collins' story by having Roberts trace a direct route Collins could have taken from the college to de Sousa's house. It was clocked at 11.6 miles. Roberts also measured the time and distance from the college to Collins' home, which was 20.2 miles in 19 minutes.
Prosecutors argued that Collins had ample time to leave school, meet up with the other three men and commit the crime.
A few minutes after he got home, Collins said his mother told him there were some people outside to see him. He walked out and saw his two cousins, Miller and Callahan, and a man he didn't recognize, Perez.
Perez offered to sell Collins some custom wheel locks, called spinners or knockoffs, for his tires. Collins said he picked one up, looked at it and declined the offer. Then he went back inside.
A short time later, sheriff's deputies arrived.
Collins' story did little to dispel the evidence found by sheriff's investigators. Two prints matched to Collins were found, one on a wheel lock and a palm print on de Sousa's car near where the wheel locks had been removed.
And his explanations, while plausible, came across as weak.
He testified that he touched the stolen wheel lock when it was shown to him by Perez. He said he had touched de Sousa's car the week prior to the crime after seeing it at a local Auto Zone parts store where de Sousa worked.
The car, he said, had been damaged in an accident while he and de Sousa were in high school. Though Collins didn't elaborate on their failed friendship, he said he had not had a chance to see the car since it had been repaired. He touched it, he said, to examine the extensive body work.
The state brought in a fingerprint analyst who said the position of the palm print found on the car matched the way someone might lean against a vehicle to remove something, particularly something attached to the tire.
The state also had de Sousa testify extensively as to how often and how meticulously he washed his car.
He said he had washed and scrubbed the Impala the weekend before the crime at a coin-operated car wash in Avondale.
Even with this evidence, the jury could not reach a decision. It deadlocked at 10-1-1 in favor of a conviction, and a mistrial was declared.
Kristen de Sousa didn't attend the first trial.
She had her hands full with a newborn, and had distanced herself from Collins.
In the months between the first and second trial, she began asking Collins and his family for help. Tremell opened his arms to her again.
"[He] still accepted her. He kept the baby all the time," his mother recalls. "I baby-sat for her a couple of times."
Kristen attended the second trial, but had made up her mind that she would not testify if asked. Despite the love she felt for Collins, she still did not know what to believe.
The first witness to take the stand when the second trial began on Oct. 16, 1998, was Joseph de Sousa. The story he told was significantly different from the one he had given months earlier.
In the first trial, de Sousa testified to being close friends with Collins. During the second trial, he described Collins as an acquaintance, but not a close friend.
In the first trial, de Sousa told jurors he never looked directly at his attackers. Now he said he had gotten a clear look at their faces.
The key fingerprint found on de Sousa's car was questionable. When forensic analysts dusted the car, they found 40 prints. Six of them belonged to de Sousa, one to Collins and 33 were unidentifiable.
Collins' court-appointed lawyer, Herman Alcantar Jr., who defended him at all three trials, attempted to argue that it seemed unlikely a recently washed car would have so many unexplained fingerprints on it.
Yet nothing could dispute the fact that one of the prints belonged to Collins, and that his print had been found on the car while it was parked at de Sousa's house.
But the most damning thing Joseph de Sousa said in the second trial was that someone inside his house on the day of the crime had said, "Tre," a nickname for Collins.
It was new evidence, something he had never mentioned to sheriff's deputies or offered during the first trial, according to police reports and the transcripts.
The nickname became one of the key points that prosecutors used to hammer home their case to jurors.
Still, the jury in the second trial also could not make up its mind. Jurors deadlocked at 9-3 in favor of a conviction and another mistrial was declared.
The defining moment of the second trial, however, came during Collins' own testimony.
He stumbled over times, contradicted his prior testimony, even contradicted other witnesses who were testifying on his behalf.
His mother said he arrived home shortly before noon, but Collins testified that he got home just after 12. When she said he came in the house alone, he testified he was followed by another person.
He seemed sincere, but not entirely believable. Such inconsistencies would cost him in the third trial.
"I think I could have done better," Collins says of his testimony in all three trials today. "I'd never been in trial before. It was new to me. Alcantar, he didn't do any type of coaching or explaining to me, how to go about it, testifying on the stand."
Herman Alcantar Jr. initially agreed to talk to New Times for this story. He later canceled, saying it would not be right for him to comment since Collins is trying to appeal his conviction. The newspaper called Alcantar back and asked that he explain why the statements of Miller and Callahan were never used by the defense. Alcantar did not return that phone call.
While Collins and his mother say they had problems with the way Alcantar handled the case, they never changed lawyers. Collins says he had faith in his innocence and faith in his counsel.
"I figured his backbone would get stronger," he says.
Five months before the third trial, Alcantar caught a potentially big break in the case.
Two of the men who had admitted to the crime, Miller and Callahan, had accepted plea agreements with the state. Alcantar finally had his chance to talk to them.
In May 1999, Alcantar and Kimball, the court-appointed private investigator, sat down with Miller and Callahan and asked them the key question: Was Collins involved?
Both men said no.
Once the third trial started in October 1999, it became puzzlingly clear that Alcantar had no intention of bringing up their names.
"I asked him [about using the statements]," Collins says, "but he said it probably wouldn't be a good idea."
Such reasoning doesn't make sense to Kimball.
He found the two men to be believable, and he felt that given their statements, it would be difficult for a jury to find Collins guilty.
"They had no reason to lie. They were already convicted and sentenced," says Kimball, a 12-year veteran of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, who worked homicide and general crimes as both an investigator and supervisor.
Kimball, who has been a private investigator since 1994, was not called as a witness during Collins' third trial. He said he did not know that the statements were never used.
"I'm shocked. I'm shocked we spent the time and the government's money to further help our client and it wasn't used in trial," he says.
"Being a layperson, it was one of the first things I thought would be introduced," Kimball says. "I thought we were going to win with these two guys and the alibi witnesses from school."
According to Collins, Alcantar was worried because Callahan had named Collins as being involved during his initial interview with the sheriff's office.
Callahan's statement to authorities didn't make sense, however.
The summary of the interview, which is not verbatim, states that Callahan claims that he, Miller and Perez drove to Collins' community college shortly after 10 a.m. on the day of the crime. They then drove to Collins' house in Rainbow Valley, drove back to Phoenix and then went to de Sousa's house in Buckeye.
Callahan, in an interview with New Times, says he never told detectives that the three men found Collins.
"I said we were looking for Tremell," Callahan remembers. "The police had twisted all that up."
Steve Roberts, the detective who headed the de Sousa robbery investigation, spoke to all four men the night of their arrest. He interviewed three of the men, but Collins refused to talk.
Now a homicide investigator for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's force, Roberts says he has never second-guessed Collins' guilt.
"Do I ever doubt that he [Collins] was involved? Not at all," he says. "The evidence is what's going to convict a person. We don't hinge our cases on testimony of a person. It helps, but you've got to have physical evidence to back it up."
The prosecution had evidence, but the defense had Robert Miller and Rodney Callahan.
Miller, however, was a troubled juvenile who grew up on the streets, bouncing between homes while both his parents sat in prison. Callahan was a follower, who tried to convince authorities that he was simply along for a ride when an armed robbery occurred.
While holes could have been poked in their credibility, the state apparently feared they might hurt its case against Collins.
In fact, the prosecution worked hard to make sure they couldn't talk about his supposed involvement.
Both men say that they explicitly told the prosecution that Collins had nothing to do with de Sousa's robbery.
Whether the use of their statements would have affected the plea arrangements is not known. It also is not clear whether the two prosecutors -- Kurt Altman and Gina DeVito -- were told by the two men that Collins was innocent. The county attorney's office refused to allow New Times to interview them about the case.
"The case is completed, the jury's decided, the defendant's incarcerated," says spokesman Barnett Lotstein. "We don't think there's anything to be gained by continuing a dialogue with regard to a completed case."
Alan Spragins, a Phoenix lawyer who represented Miller, remembers the deal offered his client in December 1998.
"The state wanted Miller to say at the change-of-plea hearing that Tremell was present and Robert was not willing to do that," Spragins says.
When Miller declined to name Collins, a different agreement was discussed. The new deal, which he accepted, said Miller didn't have to implicate his cousin, but he had to vow not to help him either.
"It is not your intent, is it, to make yourself available as a witness either for the state or for the defense at the trial, at any trial, of Tremell Collins, is that correct?" the court asked Miller.
"That's correct," Miller said.
When reached by New Times, Miller says he was surprised by the prosecution's zeal to convict Collins.
"They went through a lot, it seems like, to implicate Tremell," he says. "I told them the same story I told Tremell's lawyer, which was that Tremell wasn't there."
Both Miller and Callahan have since written letters to Tremell and his mother, saying how bad they feel about what happened.
"I done wrote the judge saying he had nothing to do with it and when I get out I will speak to the judge face to face," Callahan wrote in January 2000. "I told the judge Tremell's an innocent man."
Miller feels the most guilt, however, because the robbery was his idea.
"It bothers me a lot to see him in prison," he says. "He shouldn't be here at all."
The third trial ended quickly.
By now, both sides knew the case and had established a fluid rhythm of calling witnesses, entering evidence and repeating the same questions that had been asked for nearly two years.
Kristen de Sousa was not at the third trial. Her mother, Cheryl Vidlund, was.
The prosecution was eager to finally nail a conviction. The state had assigned both Altman and DeVito to handle the case on this go-round. Each had been unsuccessful on their own, Altman in the first trial and DeVito in the second.
Alcantar sat by himself with Collins, his list of defense witnesses dwindling.
Everything that could go wrong did.
One witness, a student who claimed to know how much time Collins had spent at community college on the day of the robbery, admitted under cross-examination by Altman to having been intoxicated at a prior trial.
But the bombshell, the thing no one had expected, was Joseph de Sousa's dog.
The dog, a Queensland heeler named Cody, was shot in the leg by Perez.
The dog had not been used as evidence in either of the first two trials because Collins was not accused of shooting the animal. But the prosecution, anxious to convince the jury that a violent crime had occurred, one where men with guns were willing to cause harm, decided at the last minute to introduce a picture of the wounded pet.
Alcantar argued to no avail that he had no indication prior to the trial that the dog's bloody injury would be introduced as evidence. He said he had never disputed the violent intent of the men who committed the crime, that he had admitted to the jury that guns were involved. He said he had not been able to ask potential jurors about their feelings toward animals, or their feelings about people who injured animals.
The judge, Gregory Martin, ruled that the photo could be shown to jurors, despite the objections.
Vidlund says she asked Altman to use a photo of the dog.
"I really think that kind of glued the case," she told New Times, still proud. "It just made my day."
Collins' family held out hope, even on the day the jury returned from its deliberations.
Dovie Hill sat in the audience, trying to stay positive.
"I was thinking 'not guilty.' I just knew it was going to be not guilty," she remembers. "But when the jury walked back in there, you could see it on their faces."
The memory brings the anger and tears back.
She felt the same contempt for the jury that de Sousa's family apparently felt for her son.
In Hill's eyes, she saw an all-white jury going by what one white witness had said was the truth.
And the state finally had its conviction.
New Times tried to interview members of the third jury to find out what evidence or testimony specifically helped them make up their minds.
Of the four jurors reached, three refused to discuss the case. One cited a fear of retaliation by Collins' family, and was angered by the fact that juror names are public record. Another agreed to an interview, but later canceled.
The one juror who did talk is William Goff, a 76-year-old Sun City retiree, who says the trial has bothered him since the day the verdict was read.
"I wasn't convinced. I would not have said, 'guilty,'" says Goff, who was one of the first people picked and the last to vote on the third jury.
The evidence wasn't enough to convince him, he says, because there was just one eyewitness, the victim. The sheriff's investigators who testified to Collins' guilt were essentially repeating what the victim had told them, he says.
Then there was the friendship that de Sousa and Collins had shared. While Judge Martin refused to allow testimony about Collins' romance with de Sousa's sister, he did allow witnesses to talk about the relationship between the two young men.
"I sensed this was going back to their high school days," Goff says. "That raised my doubts."
He remembers the testimony about de Sousa's car, and how that made him think maybe the crime stemmed from an old disagreement. It was enough to make him doubt the veracity of de Sousa's claims, he says.
Goff says the day the jury retired to begin deliberations, a Friday, there were several people who shared his doubts. "There were three or four voting no [not guilty] on the first day," he says.
The jury got a break after the first day, a long weekend away from the case. The jury reconvened on a Tuesday and the number of people in favor of an acquittal had dwindled to just one: Goff.
Goff says he wasn't clear on the voting process, that he didn't know he could hold out and deadlock the jury. After a while, the others wore him down.
"You familiar with the movie 12 Angry Men?" he asks, referring to a classic 1957 courtroom drama about a juror, Henry Fonda, who convinces a jury not to convict a young man of murder. "I'm not Henry Fonda. I wasn't up for it. I just went along with the overwhelming majority."
Goff's vote made it 12-0 and it sent Collins to prison.
It's been almost a year since Tremell Collins last saw Kristen de Sousa.
She visited him three times after he was sent to Yuma, the last time in November 2000.
She no longer writes him or stops by his family's house in Rainbow Valley with her son.
Kristen, like her family, is moving on, trying to put the past where it belongs.
Her mother hopes that Collins serves his entire sentence. She says she heard he is trying to appeal the conviction.
"I have no doubt it was him. My son has no doubt. He wanted to get even with my son," she says. "I know they had a couple of close calls just before this. The tension was building."
Collins and his mother can't move on. It's likely he will serve the remainder of his sentence and not get back home until he's 31. His chances to change this fate are running out.
For now, he has only the petition before the state Supreme Court, asking that he be granted an appeal due to three errors a lawyer says were committed by Judge Martin during the third trial.
Not allowing testimony about Collins' relationship with Kristen de Sousa and how that relationship might have affected her brother, Joseph.
Allowing a sheriff's detective to vouch for the truthfulness of Joseph de Sousa's claim that Collins was involved, even though de Sousa did not immediately name Collins as a suspect.
Allowing the photograph of de Sousa's wounded pet to be shown to the jury.
Judge Martin did not return three phone calls seeking comment.
"My hope is that something does happen with this appeal, some kind of action, anything," Collins says. "If it doesn't, I'll still manage. I got a strong family. They're supporting me."
But it's not easy, especially on his mother.
"I know it's killing her," says long-time friend Eddie Williams. "She pretends she's okay, but I know she's not. . . . I think she's got her hopes that something's going to happen."
It's just so quiet now, and Hill has too much time to think. She works some days as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Most days, though, she sits and waits for her son to call. He does, at least once or twice a week, collect from Yuma for 15 minutes at a time.
She remembers the little boy she brought to Buckeye when he was 3 years old. How he grew up loving the desert, playing and running free across the arid, dusty land.
He raised goats back then, and chickens and pigeons. He rode dirt bikes through the wash basins.
"All his friends were out here," she says. "It didn't matter if they were white, black, Mexican. People were people to him. It didn't matter."
Not until the girl.
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