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The darkest night 

click to enlarge Brady Alexander.
  • Brady Alexander.

No matter what else might or might not be true, this much is not in dispute: Around dusk on the night of April 19, 2006, a slight, sandy-haired 18-year-old named Brady Alexander left his parents’ house near Ferndale, telling them that he and his friend Patrick Peters were headed to town to get something to eat. They were actually looking to buy some pot.

This much is also indisputable: By the morning of April 20, Alexander was dead. Just after 4 p.m. that day, detectives found his white Chevy Tahoe on a logging road near Wrightsville. The night before had been cold — lit only by a blade of moon and briefly by the fire his killers built to burn their clothes — but the day had come on warm and rainy. A slow drizzle was falling by the time a Little Rock police detective looked through the driver’s side window of the Tahoe and saw Brady Alexander’s body, wrapped in a sleeping bag and stuffed head-down into the passenger side floorboard.

Beyond that, things are less sure. Even in the phone-book-thick file on the case kept at the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney’s office — a file that helped send two men to jail for the rest of their lives and a third for the better part of his — the details of what happened that night are rarely clear. After awhile, the accounts of those hours as told by police, prosecutors and the people involved — most of them just kids — become a thicket, full of wasted young lives, broken families, and the unquiet dead.

By Tuesday, April 18, 2006, Marques Tavron and Martinous “M.J.” Moore were getting desperate.

For the past week, they’d been living in motels, burning through the money they had saved to rent an apartment together. As their bankroll thinned, they had slept a night or two in M.J.’s 2002 Grand Am. Old friends, M.J. and Marques had been living together for a few weeks by then, working shifts at the Sonic drive-in on Arch Street, spending their nights cruising and smoking dope. To make matters worse, a few days earlier, they had taken on M.J.’s friend Casey Harvey, an 18-year-old from Van Buren who had left home after a fight with her mother.

Originally from the Sweet Home area south of Little Rock, Tavron listed his mom’s house near Wrightsville when he had to fill in an address. M.J. had recently come to Little Rock from the tiny South Arkansas town of Emerson. By Tuesday, when the Grand Am’s “check engine” light started flashing, they were just this side of flat broke.

Though Marques and M.J. talked a good game, neither of them really knew anything about cars. After some discussion, Moore made a Hail Mary call and suggested that maybe things could be fixed by an oil change. Without enough money to have it done somewhere, the three decided to change the oil themselves, and had Casey buy the oil and an oil filter at an O’Reilly auto parts store. With the filter and fluid in hand, they were headed to M.J.’s cousin’s house near John Barrow Road to change it when Marques’ cell phone rang.

On the line was Gavino Mazurek. Marques had known Gavino — an 18-year-old former boxer; a fireplug-tough Latino kid — since the seventh grade. For the past few days, since he learned his old friend was without a place to live, Gavino had been keeping tabs on Marques via cell phone.

After hearing about M.J.’s car and the plan to change the oil, Gavino offered to help if they’d bring the car to his mother and stepfather’s house on Vesta Drive in the Otter Creek subdivision. Once they got there, however, they almost immediately ran into a problem. Though they were able to drain the old oil out and get the plug back in, they couldn’t locate the oil filter in the Grand Am’s densely packed engine compartment. For over an hour, they looked for the filter. They called auto parts stores and dealerships, trying to find someone who could help them locate it. In the midst of things, Gavino — who knew no more about cars than M.J. and Marques — mistook the car’s starter for the oil filter and unloosened the bolts that secured the starter case. Parts went everywhere.

Knowing he had screwed up royally, Gavino finally called in the cavalry, in the form of his father, Bernie Mazurek. A shade tree mechanic who worked on his own cars, the elder Mazurek came over and quickly assessed the situation. The starter was ruined, and would have to be replaced. It wasn’t going to be cheap or easy, either.

By that Tuesday morning, Brady Alexander had problems of his own, even if he didn’t know it. The son of former Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Jacque Alexander, Brady had a month to go before graduation from Joe T. Robinson High School in West Little Rock. With his diploma in the bag, the last few weeks of his life as a high schooler were pretty much a coast for him, an easy twilight before the demands of the Real World. Living at home on his parents’ horse farm near Ferndale, Brady mostly channeled his money and energy into girls, hanging with his best friend Patrick Peters — who had moved in with the Alexanders several months before — and having a good time; roughly in that order. At 5 feet 10 inches and hovering around 120 pounds — kept wiry by a case of cerebral palsy that had necessitated several painful operations on his legs and right arm as a toddler (though he carefully hid the fact from even his closest friends) — Brady was too small to make much of a beef with anyone. Though he sold some pot to friends — at least enough to save $3,000 for a set of aluminum wheels for his truck, according to Peters — he mostly avoided the darker doings that some of those he knew could get up to: larceny, assault, gunplay and burglary. He was known as the peacemaker among his extensive circle of friends — a stand-up guy.

Given that, it came as quite a surprise when Brady awoke that Tuesday morning to learn that he had been accused of attempted murder.

On April 16, while Brady was on an Easter weekend camping trip with his family at their wooded, 50-acre property near Snowball, a former soldier named Stuart Trumble — 20 years old and back a little more than a year from a tour as an infantryman in Iraq — was at a child’s birthday party in Murray Park when several carloads of people drove up, including a pickup carrying Gavino Mazurek and his sister Amber.

Amber was friends with several of the girls at the party that day, and was apparently there to see them. Gavino was questioned by police. He told them he was an innocent bystander, there to see the recently built Murray Park dog run, and was let go after less than five minutes of questioning.

Without warning, four masked men piled out of a four-door pickup and advanced on the crowd. By some accounts, at least one of the men shouted “Why’d you call the cops on us?”A girl at the party, thinking it was all a practical joke, walked up to the man in the lead — later identified by witnesses as David “Cali” Jones, a small-time thug who had already accumulated an extensive rap sheet by the age of 20 — and tried to pull down the bandana covering his face. When the gunman knocked her to the ground, Trumble ran up and slugged him in the head. As the man fell, he shot Trumble twice with a handgun secreted in the pocket of his jacket, hitting him once in the arm and once in the stomach.

At the sound of the shots, chaos set in. The masked men and those who had arrived with them scattered to their cars, terrified parents snatched up their children and people in the dog park ran for cover. Jones and another boy jumped into a truck owned by Taylor McGrew. McGrew threw the pickup in reverse and peeled away, careening through the park’s winding lanes, headed for Rebsamen Park Road. Just before the exit of Murray Park, however, McGrew stopped the truck and ordered the other boys out. After a few seconds of argument, they jumped out, fleeing into the woods across from the park.

Apprehended a few minutes later at a convenience store near Cantrell Road, McGrew — friends with boys who had a long-running beef with Brady Alexander, including an incident where Brady’s tires were slashed in Murray Park — told police that it was Alexander who had shot Trumble. Though Trumble and others soon told detectives that they recognized the man who shot him as Cali Jones, Brady’s name appeared in an initial police report about the incident.

At 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the phone rang at the Alexander house. It was Jacque Alexander’s boss, Didi Sallings, executive director of the Arkansas Public Defender Commission.

“Is Brady all right?” Sallings asked. When Jacque told her he was asleep, like the rest of the house up until the moment the phone rang, Sallings told her to go check on him. When Jacque got back from Brady’s bedroom, Sallings finally told her the reason for the concern in her voice. “The newspaper says Brady shot someone on Sunday night.”

Things hadn’t gotten any better for Gavino Mazurek by Wednesday. Since graduating from high school, he had landed a sideline job working alongside his father Bernie, setting up stageworks for concerts and plays at various venues around town. That week, they were at Robinson Auditorium every night from dusk to past midnight, putting up sets for a traveling Broadway show that was coming into Little Rock that weekend.

As if the prospect of working that night wasn’t enough, he still had the millstone of guilt about breaking M.J.’s car around his neck. Since Gavino accidentally ruined the starter on M.J.’s Pontiac and officially put his friends on foot the day before, Bernie and Gavino had been ferrying M.J., Marques and Casey around in Bernie’s Dodge Ram. On Tuesday night, with the car still not fixed, the three had come with Gavino and Bernie to work, sitting in the truck in a parking deck downtown until the father and son clocked out. After that, Gavino and Bernie took them to a motel on University Avenue, with Bernie paying for the room and Marques promising to pay him back. By Wednesday, Gavino was on a mission: Get their car fixed, hell or high water, before it was time to go to work at Robinson that night.

Check out time at the motel was 11 a.m. Gavino and Bernie picked up the three and they spent the next few hours scouring junkyards for a starter, coming up empty again and again. Things were looking bleak by 2 p.m. They were at U-Pull-It Auto Parts on Baseline Road, sifting through the acres of wrecks for something that might work, when Gavino’s phone rang. It was Brady Alexander. While you probably couldn’t call them friends, Brady Alexander and Gavino Mazurek surely qualified as acquaintances. They had gone to school together at Joe T. Robinson — Gavino had graduated the year before — and they orbited in social circles that frequently overlapped. Brady had dated Gavino’s younger sister Amber once or twice, and Gavino and Brady worked at the same Subway sandwich shop on University Avenue. Gavino had been to Brady’s house a time or two. And, prosecutors say, Gavino had already spotted Brady for an easy mark. Though Gavino’s friends and family dispute the charge, rumors surfaced in the aftermath of Brady’s murder that Gavino had set Brady up for a robbery before in 2005. According to prosecutors, Gavino called Brady one night and told him that a seller of bootleg CDs was outside on the Subway parking lot, adding he should come down to check out his selection. When Brady arrived and started to get out of his truck, the story goes, a masked Marques Tavron robbed him at gunpoint. With all that still a secret, however, Brady and Gavino had a nodding acquaintance. While they hadn’t become friends, Brady did trust Gavino enough that the former boxer was one of his go-to guys when he was looking to buy some pot.

While Gavino stood among the long lines of junkers at U-Pull-It, watching Bernie and his friends trudge from car to car looking for the part they needed, Brady told him that he and Patrick were going to a friend’s birthday party that night and needed some really good dope. Gavino put his hand over the receiver and called Marques over. Yes, Marques said, dope was one of the only things they did have. Gavino told Brady that he could get him some weed, and that he’d call him later.

This where the story mostly clouds over, with the whole truth only glimpsed. Many of the windows into what happened that night are those allowed by the perpetrators themselves, and they all have an interest in the way the story gets told — how it happened, how big of a part they played in it, why they did what they did.

At around 6 p.m. Wednesday night, M.J.’s car still broken, Bernie and Gavino dropped M.J, Marques and Casey off at the Red Roof Inn on Scott Hamilton Road. Again, Bernie paid for the room. On the way to Robinson Auditorium, Gavino worked out the details of that night’s pot deal, calling back and forth between Brady Alexander and Marques to set things up. He would meet Brady at the Waffle House on Scott Hamilton at 10 p.m. Park beside a black Rodeo SUV and wait for him there.

That’s one way of telling it. Another way — the prosecution’s way, backed up by sometimes-contradictory testimony from Casey Harvey — was that it was all a set-up for robbery from the beginning, hatched by Gavino that afternoon while Bernie was out of earshot. In that version of events, Gavino was to stall Brady in the parking lot until Marques and M.J. could come from the Red Roof Inn next door. Once they got there, they could grab Brady, take him to an ATM to withdraw the money they needed to fix M.J.’s car and more, and then ditch him unhurt on the side of some back road. Easy as pie.

Whether Gavino knew what was up or not, robbery was surely on the minds of Marques Tavron and M.J. Moore by the time the last call to set up the deal was made that night.

At his parents’ house near Ferndale, Brady Alexander flipped his phone closed. His mother and father had been hauling hay for the horses that afternoon — hoping in vain that Brady and Patrick might volunteer to help. Instead, the two friends had spent the afternoon chipping golf balls and then wiled away the rest of the daylight on the couch watching television and playing video games.

At dusk, covered in sweat and chaff, still in their muddy boots, Bobby and Jacque Alexander trudged up from the barn and settled their bones into chairs on the front porch, At around 9 p.m. Brady emerged from the house and told them that he and Patrick had to get out for awhile — that they were going to get something to eat in town. Whether a mother’s instinct, or just the residue of the odd mention of Brady in the previous morning’s newspaper, something didn’t feel right about it to Jacque. Still, she had kept them cooped up the night before out of fear something was going to happen, but nothing did. This time, she brushed it off.

“I remember sitting on the porch and they said they were going to eat. I said, ‘Don’t be long and be careful, and I love you,’” she said. “He said, ‘I love you,’ and that was it.” Still with that uneasy feeling in her stomach like a stone, Jacque watched as Brady’s Tahoe disappeared into the dark

The trip from the Alexanders’ farm to the Waffle House on Scott Hamilton might as well be a trip to the moon. In the 15 or so miles it takes to get there, the scenery goes from bucolic pastureland and winding two-lane roads to ugly, freewayside sprawl, full of dreary warehouses, strip malls, and gone-to-seed convenience stores.

Scott Hamilton Road, just up the off ramp from I-30, isn’t much better — a sad little huddle of an Exxon gas station, a Waffle House and the Red Roof Inn. Brady and Patrick arrived there at around 9:45, stereo bumping to a hip-hop CD. According to a statement and later testimony by Peters, they parked, and Brady made a call to Gavino, asking him where he was. Though Gavino was miles away at Robinson Auditorium by then, Patrick said Gavino told Brady that he was in the Waffle House “taking a shit,” and would be right out.

Brady hung up. After they had been sitting there awhile, waiting on Gavino to emerge, a man walked up and knocked on the window. Patrick would later identify the man as Martinous “M.J.” Moore. Patrick rolled down the window, and Moore told them he had the pot. Eager to let the deal go down and get the hell out of there, Patrick walked to the back of the truck while M.J. climbed into the passengers’ seat.

Patrick was standing at the back corner of the SUV when someone touched him on the shoulder. When he turned around, he was surprised to see a face he knew: Marques Tavron (saying he feared for his life, Patrick would withhold that information until the next morning, originally telling police nothing about Gavino or the fact that he knew one of the gunmen). Marques raised his shirt. The grip of a black pistol jutted over his belt. “Walk away,” Marques said. “Brady’s fixin’ to get hit.”

Seconds later, all hell broke loose. The truck started rocking, and Patrick turned to see M.J. and Brady fighting in the front seat. As Marques ran to the passenger’s side door, Patrick heard a gunshot and the truck filled with light. Forensics would later determine that M.J. had shot Brady Alexander in the right thigh with a .357 revolver. As the hollow point bullet went through Brady’s leg, it mushroomed big as a man’s thumb and then fragmented, tearing muscle and fracturing his femur. Brady screamed in pain. It was enough to break Patrick’s momentary paralysis. As Marques dove into the truck and the Tahoe careened out of the parking lot, Patrick Peters ran. He didn’t stop running for almost a mile.

Brady and Patrick had only been gone for what seemed like a short while when the phone rang at the Alexander house. Bobby Alexander went inside to answer it. It was Sandra Peters, Patrick’s mother. In a near panic, she told him that Brady had been shot at the Waffle House on Scott Hamilton. After the shooting, Patrick had run, flat out, across the freeway overpass and up the access road until he spotted someone at a church and borrowed a cell phone. His sister was on her way to pick him up at a barbecue restaurant on Geyer Springs Road.

She didn’t get out much more out than that before Bobby Alexander had dropped the phone and was out the door, screaming for Jacque. They grabbed their cell phones, jumped in the car, and started driving for Scott Hamilton, pushing Jacque’s Saturn sedan into the red.

As they drove, they were both constantly calling: Brady’s cell phone, the Waffle House, 911. The transcripts of the 911 tapes from that night are almost painful, terrifying, nearly gibberish, with Jacque Alexander alternately talking to the dispatcher and her husband, trying to make the operator understand, begging for an ambulance to be sent.

By the time they swung into the Waffle House parking lot, there were two police cruisers there, but Brady’s truck was nowhere to be found. “I was thinking he was on the ground there,” Jacque said. “I didn’t dream that he would be gone in his car.”

No one will probably ever
be sure what went on in Brady’s Tahoe after the truck left that parking lot. It is one of those gray areas in the record, shown only fitfully in the contradictory testimony of those looking to put themselves in the best light for police and prosecutors.

After he turned himself in two days later, Marques put everything off on M.J. Brady was bleeding bad after M.J. shot him in the leg, Marques said, and he had begged M.J. to take Brady to a hospital — to drop him off outside an emergency room. In response, M.J. said it was too late. To make his point, Marques said M.J. turned the gun on him and cocked the hammer.

For whatever reason, at around 10:30 p.m., they allowed Brady to make one last call to his mother’s phone (Jacque attributes her son’s childhood struggle with cerebral palsy — and the multiple surgeries that lent him a high tolerance for pain — for how composed he was during the call that followed, even with his femur broken and a bullet in his leg). According to Marques, M.J. kept a gun in Brady’s ribs while he spoke.

Jacque Alexander had gone into the Waffle House to use the restroom when the call came. Bobby Alexander answered the phone. He was on the freeway, Brady told his father, but he was okay. He was riding around with some friends, and would come back to the Waffle House soon.

“Come back now,” Bobby told him. Brady said he couldn’t. Bobby handed the phone off to a female officer nearby, who told Brady to come back. He told her he would, and then the line went dead. Soon after, Jacque came out of the Waffle House. When Bobby told her that Brady had called, she lit into him, screaming, asking why he didn’t come find her.

The spot where Brady Alexander died is a little nothing place that doesn’t even have a name — a dead-end stub of Matson Road, which is itself just a dirt lane that burrows into the trees off 145th Street on the way to Wrightsville.

Brady was surely in shock by the time they got there, both from blood loss and pain, his leg too badly broken to walk. His killers carried him more than once after the truck stopped, covering their clothes in his blood. For some reason — again, no one is really sure why — Marques and M.J. stripped off his pants and shoes. He fell at least once after that, the leaves sticking to the blood on his legs.

In the back of the truck, along with a pile of shirts and jeans and shoes and CDs — the flotsam and jetsam that seems to accumulate around a young man Brady’s age — was the blue and green sleeping bag Brady had taken with him on his family’s trip to Snowball the weekend before. The killers put him in it. When he was zipped up inside, one of them put the .357 to his neck, just below his left ear, and pulled the trigger.

Once it was done, they stuffed his body into the passenger’s side floorboard, head down. Then they changed into some of the things in the back of the truck. After pausing to burn their bloody clothes, a camera and Brady’s cell phone in a clearing just up the road, Martinous Moore called a cousin and begged a lift back to the Red Roof Inn, saying they had been stranded by a friend while catching a ride to Pine Bluff.

They got back to the motel around 2 a.m. Casey Harvey had been waiting for them for almost four hours, watching “Sling Blade” on free cable. Later, she told prosecutors that one of the first things she noticed was that M.J. and Marques had changed clothes — all a size too small for them, showing their ankles and wrists, one of them bizarrely clomping in on a set of golf cleats.

The second thing she noticed was that Marques was crying.

Epilogue: The Golden Rectangle

Though Jacque Alexander wouldn’t know for sure that her son was dead until she saw police towing his truck out of the woods on the five o’clock news that evening and then heard it from two uniformed police officers who came to her door not 10 minutes later, she said she had believed for hours by then that Brady was gone. Once they left the police station, she and Bobby had driven aimlessly through Maumelle Park and Murray Park; places Brady and his friends liked to hang out. Not knowing what else to do, they went home. It was there, surrounded by the silent house in the darkest part of the night, that they came to grips with the truth.

“We sat down on the couch and we just knew,” Jacque said. “I said, ‘Do you think he’s alive?’ and he said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ You could just feel that it had happened. Even though it was so traumatic to actually find out — for them to find his car and him in it — we already knew.”

The year since that night has been no kinder to her. First there was Brady’s funeral at St. Margaret’s Church. Half his ashes went to the columbarium there. She keeps the other half at home, in a small box in her pie safe. Someday, she said, they’ll probably scatter them on the Buffalo River, but not yet. Around her neck on a long, silver chain, she wears a dog tag with Brady’s picture on it — a shimmering, cloudy portrait that makes it look as if his face is just under the surface of still water. On the back is an inscription: “What is really you will live.”

After the funeral, she spent months preparing for the trials, reading every scrap of discovery, every bit of testimony, every police report. She went out to the crime scene near Matson Road more often than she should have, “just walking around — trying to figure things out.”

The last thing she did to get ready for the first trial was to view the crime scene photos. She started off asking Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley to let her see them. Then she begged. Then she demanded. Though she said Jegley fought like a tiger, bringing up everything from standard procedure to her own mental wellbeing, she eventually found herself in a room with a manila folder full of the most awful pictures any parent will ever have to see. Even today, the horror of those photographs still lingers in her mind. But, she said, she couldn’t bear to have a whole courtroom full of people see them before she did.

“They haunt me. They do,” she said. “But I had to see them. Hell, he went through it. He was my child, and he went through it. How can I say that I, who am still living, can’t experience that?”

She and Bobby sat through the trials, reliving that night twice over again — first at the trial of Marques Tavron, who was convicted of capital murder in October 2006 and sentenced to life in prison without parole; then for the trial of Martinous Moore, who was convicted and sentenced to the same in April 2007. She was spared a third trial when Gavino Mazurek took a plea deal for 35 years in exchange for testimony against Martinous Moore. Though Mazurek tried to pull that plea and go for a jury trial, Judge Chris Piazza denied his request, sentencing Mazurek to the full 35 years, saying the Alexanders had been through enough.

Now that the trials are over, she deals with it the best way she can. If Jacque Alexander was a painter, she’d probably make paintings about her son’s death. If she was a poet, she might write poems. But because she’s an office administrator and that’s the way her mind works, she makes spread sheets.

In one, all the incoming and outgoing calls to Brady’s phone the day he was killed are laid out in columns: the number, the time, who the number belongs to, how many times the number was called, all asterisked and annotated and highlighted, with footnotes. In another, the boys who killed Brady and the kids they ran with are each assigned a color-coded rectangle. At the top of the sheet are crimes they pulled in the year leading up to the murder — strong-arm robberies, shootings, assaults, burglaries, run-ins with the cops. By looking at the colored rectangles below, rectangles that cantilever over others or die out and start again elsewhere on the page, you can almost make yourself believe what she does: that somewhere in the world, there’s a rectangle that would make everything click into place like the tumblers in a lock — the unseeable color that could make it something more than just a horrendous, stupid, meaningless crime that took away the boy she carried for nine months below her heart and whose ashes she keeps in her pie safe. For Jacque Alexander, this is what grief looks like: neat, ordered columns that should add up to something, but don’t.

“I keep thinking that if I can figure out how it fits together,” she said, “it will start to make sense.”

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