SEBRING — It was arguably Avon Park’s most famous bank robbery, and although the stick-up men — actually, they were just teenagers — were caught and sentenced the same year, three of their cases are still in legal limbo.
At 1 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2005, Sammy Etheredge, 16, Stephone Buckle, 16, and Edol Hanna, 17, entered Southtrust Bank.
In precisely one minute, they jumped over the counters, stuck a gun to the head of a teller, and got away with $10,486 and a red-dye pack. A teller told police that when the gun was rammed into her head, she didn’t know if she would live beyond the next second.
Justice was swift for these members of the Knotty Head Clique. In November 2005, the three robbers were sentenced by Judge Olin Shinholser to life in prison. Their getaway driver, Robert Lee Vann, 17, received 40 years.
In 2010, though, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida that juveniles can’t be imprisoned for life without parole for non-homicide offenses. According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, 77 men and women in Florida and 52 in 10 other states were serving non-parole life sentences for non-homicide crimes, which they committed as juveniles.
Although the mother of Stephone Buckle believed her son was good and wouldn’t lie when he said he didn’t rob the bank, the evidence proved otherwise.
The four Knotty Heads stole a white 2002 Dodge Intrepid at Eye Specialists of Mid Florida in Sebring just an hour earlier, drove it to the robbery, then ditched it at Lemon Tree Apartments, 1015 W. Bell St., a dozen blocks south of the bank.
One of the robbers spit on the ground, so former Avon Park detective Sgt. Greg Pearlman matched the DNA to Vann. More DNA from their ski masks was sent to Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a technician matched it to the suspects.
Police picked up their trail. When the green Oldsmobile Aurora with temporary tags wouldn’t stop for the Florida Highway Patrol, deputies north of Lake Placid deployed Stop Sticks and punctured a front tire. Nevertheless, Vann continued south another three miles to Highway Park.
Etheredge bailed out and ran into the home of Christine Woods, who had watched police chase the black male. She took off for a neighbor’s house.
Police with a bullhorn tried to talk Etheredge out of the house. The standoff ended after tear gas was fired into the house several hours later.
“They all had bad prior records,” said Asst. State Attorney Steve Houchin, who prosecuted the cases.
In fact, all but Vann were career criminals: Hanna had been previously picked up for shoplifting, battery, carrying a concealed weapon, burglary, grand theft and attempting to elude officers in a high-speed chase. Buckle and Etheredge were co-defendants in a prior grand theft auto and trespass cases. Buckle had been convicted of grand theft and trespassing at age 15.
A pre-sentencing investigation showed Etheredge had been picked up in Palm Beach County at age 9, at 11 for petty theft, that same year for burglary and grand theft, in Lantana for possession of burglary tools and burglary of a structure, and again at 14 in Martin County for grand theft auto and trespass.
At the time of his final arrest, he was married, had a newborn son, and was a 10th grader at Palm Beach High School. The Florida justice system had treated him as an adult since March 2004.
Because of their records “and the nature of the crime, going into a bank and putting guns in people’s heads, wearing masks,” Houchin recommended severe sentences. “This bank had several branches robbed, all in the same manner.”
The gang of 20 to 25 Knotty Heads — their nickname for their own dreadlocks — were professional bank robbers, according to Broward-Palm Beach New Times.
One night in 2003, West Palm Beach members were hanging out in front of a Walmart in Royal Palm Beach, looking for a car to boost. They picked a black Ford Crown Victoria belonging to Pahokee Police Chief Rafael Duran, who exited the store just in time to see his squad car speed away.
They jumped light years ahead in their criminal careers after they found the arsenal in the trunk: a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, a pistol, a shotgun, and boxes of ammo. Two week later, they robbed Fidelity Federal Bank on Broadway.
In the next year, the Knotty Heads became South Florida’s most sought-after crooks, robbing 16 banks of $283,000 and training others as young as 16. They developed their own strategies, like stealing two getaway cars.
Hanna was captured with a .40 caliber pistol. His mother, Lajana, burst into tears when her son was sentenced to life. “I know he can be rehabilitated.”
Attorney William David McNeal asked Shinholser to impose youthful offender status, which would have limited Buckle’s term to six years.
The judge found no reason to sentence Buckle to lesser time than the rest of the defendants. As for juvenile sanctions, they would be an insult to Highlands County residents, he said.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Kennedy, the conservative who delivered the 6-3 majority opinion, explained that juveniles “are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of ‘irretrievably depraved character’ than are the actions of adults.”
Etheredge’s attorney, Michael Hursey, filed for a Graham hearing and won. Etheredge reappeared in circuit court before Judge Angela Cowden, who invoked a 60-year sentence.
Vann’s Graham hearing motion was denied, Houchin said, because Shinholser sentenced him to life, but suspended the sentence after 40 years.
“So the circuit court said Graham doesn’t apply to you,” Houchin said.
Hanna, Houchin said, is entitled for Graham hearing, “but he didn’t apply for one.”
Buckle’s attorney applied for a Rule 3.850 hearing, a motion to vacate a conviction based on ineffective counsel. That motion was denied, Houchin said. His Graham motion has never been set for a hearing.
“It’s still hanging out there,” Houchin said.