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Cracked

Colby Katz

The crime had none of the resonance of the big media stories that mesmerize the television- and tabloid-obsessed public nowadays. A handyman with a violent past allegedly taking a metal pipe to his girlfriend in front of numerous witnesses on a grimy Fort Lauderdale street?

Nancy Grace, Larry King, the National Enquirer, and the rest took no notice.

But the reasons the couple suffered a public meltdown early that Saturday morning in June are as intriguingly complex as those that caused a Modesto, California, fertilizer salesman to murder his pregnant wife or some unidentified wrongdoer to kidnap an American teenager in Aruba.

Joannes Pierre, 39, and Camille Wilson, 35, had spent two years living together in Progresso, a transitional and tattered neighborhood near downtown that is a longtime home to Caribbean immigrants. Capped by a city water tower with a small collection of auto body shops, clapboard cottages, and ill-maintained apartment buildings, Progresso occupies a rectangle between Sunrise and Sistrunk boulevards, Powerline Avenue, and a lazy curve in the Florida East Coast Railroad.

Their lives weren't easy -- Pierre scraped by with temporary labor jobs, and Wilson seemed to spend most of her time scratching for drugs -- but the two were in love. This was despite the fact, Pierre now says, that when he met Wilson, she was pregnant and homeless.

"She ended up having the baby in a crack house," Pierre says, his calm voice squeezed through a filthy black phone at the Broward County Jail, where a sheet of smeared plexiglass separates him from a reporter and a friend.

Pierre met Wilson almost five years ago. She already had three children, two boys and a girl, ranging in age from 5 to 14. By 2004, the two shared a squalid house on NE Second Avenue, a mosquito-infested nightmare missing a back wall, with a weed- and trash-strewn patch of dirt for a yard. These conditions didn't deter Pierre from starting a family with Wilson.

Her habits were troublesome. She was arrested 15 times for crack possession from 2000 to shortly before her death. But their daughter, Angel, was born last November, and they both treated the event as a blessed moment.

A fleeting golden moment.


Pierre can be sanctimonious in his pronouncements about child-rearing, but he hasn't exactly been the best dad to his four other children -- the pairs of sons and daughters he had with Rosemary Pierre, his wife of ten years. By the time she filed for divorce in May 2000, court documents show, he owed her close to $15,000 in child support. The amount was up to $17,600 by January 2003, when Rosemary -- who has relocated, remarried, and could not be reached for comment -- waived her right to the money.

"She wanted to move on and didn't want me to know where she was," Pierre says.

During mediation for the divorce, caseworkers representing Rosemary noted that her husband had "failed to make a single... voluntary payment toward child support." The two were ordered into counseling "due to domestic violence upon the mother with the children present and the instability of the father."

The disparity between Pierre's words and his actions was typical of the diminutive Bahamian handyman, who to this day blithely maintains that it was Camille Wilson herself who did the bludgeoning, "accidentally" committing suicide with a pipe that day in June.

There may be reasons for the disconnect between the reality of Pierre and Wilson's lives and his perception of it, say some who know him.

Pierre acknowledges that he has been receiving treatment for schizophrenia for the past 13 years, since before he left the Bahamas. He says he was taking monthly injections of Depacode, a medication often prescribed for depression, but in jail he has been prescribed different drugs. "It helps me to be calm and not to worry," Pierre explains.

His symptoms usually consist of dizziness and weakness, but he also says he's suffered hallucinations and blackouts and has heard voices.

"I've heard the voice of God," he says, "telling me to help people."

The message apparently wasn't getting through when Pierre's wife finally pried herself loose from him five years ago.

The divorce was bitterly contentious. In October 2000, Pierre was arrested after he showed up at the Lauderdale Lakes apartment Rosemary shared with the children and her new boyfriend, who told Joannes to leave. Yet the pounding on the door continued, Rosemary alleged in a domestic violence complaint. "He said he will be back to kill us all. He called my family in the Bahamas and said 'I am going to kill Rosemary and the kids now.' He said he is going to kill my daddy and mother and my sister and brother if he doesn't see his kids."  

In her statement, Rosemary also alleged that Pierre had an unspecified "drug problem," though he denies this, and his record reveals no drug-related arrests. At the end of her appeal, she wrote, "my kids are very scared of their father. So please judge, help me and my kids."

In 2001, Rosemary requested that the charges be dismissed. Joannes now estimates it's been seven years since he has seen Leonardo, 13; Shanice, 11; Bradley, 9; or Kesey, 8.

Despite those stories, many of Pierre's friends and coworkers were surprised at his arrest. They professed to know him as a quiet Christian man who spent his days working to make ends meet. The individuals who came in contact with his violent outbursts are dead or have moved away. In person, his beaming smile, his soft, steady voice, and the impression he often made as an easygoing man of virtue do not point toward either religious fanaticism or a steep ramp to anger.

When the murder made headlines in Fort Lauderdale, those who knew him expressed shock that someone so gentle -- someone they'd invited inside their homes -- could possibly have harbored such hatred, contempt, and anger. The gap between the good-hearted soul they knew and the brutality of the crime was simply too much for them to fathom.

To them, Pierre was just a quiet, honest man trying to make a better life for himself.


Pedaling his beat-up bike through Fort Lauderdale's downtown, Pierre networked with landscaping companies, local day-labor pools, and area homeowners needing a strong hand to help lay sod or plant trees. And to those he worked with, he was an affable, upbeat man and an extremely hard worker.

For more than a year starting in 2002, one such homeowner -- a gay Wilton Manors resident who asked that his name be withheld -- routinely hired Pierre to work helping with landscaping and rehabilitating investment property. The two frequently worked long, hot days together, which provided ample time for idle chit-chat about politics, relationships, and religion. They'd usually listen to music while working, and Pierre took a particular liking to U2, identifying with some of the religious references in the band's songs.

Pierre relied primarily on Scripture for his beliefs, so he was out of his comfort zone working with gays, considering them sinners. "So I would occasionally try to explain my point of view, that I don't think God would be so arbitrarily cruel as to condemn people just for being gay -- just to give him another way of looking at things," the Wilton Manors resident says. Usually, Pierre took it all in stride, but one day, he grew agitated and asked to knock off early. "As I was driving him home, he was quiet and looked upset," the man says. "I said to him, 'I scare you, don't I?' He said, 'You terrify me! I just want to go home and read my Bible. '"

But he had a practical-joking side to him as well. "I remember once, on a very hot day, him jumping fully clothed into the deep end of a pool where we were working so he could cool off," Pierre's benefactor recalls. "But just before he did, he took on this kind of maniacal look as he yelled, 'You know I can't swim, right?' Then he thrashed about in the water for a few seconds before laughing and swimming over to the side. He got a big kick out of that."


In the face of problems, Pierre sought solace in the Bible. It was his life raft during his divorce, which ended up separating him from his children. During the mediation phase, he scrawled a note to Cindy Woodward, the public attorney representing Rosemary. If Pierre were a ticking time bomb ready to explode with rage, he kept it well hidden.

"Dear Mr. Attorney at law," he wrote, "I love my children very much and would like to see them. All the members of my church have been waiting, hoping, and praying to God for Rosemary to bring them kids to church so that God can bless them with the spirit of Jesus."

Accompanying the note was a typewritten tract with Scripture and heartfelt pleas to see his children.

"I have asked Rosemary and her sister over and over, time and time again to bring my kids to church for God to bless them because I am a minister of God. Nobody respond. Instead they punish me because God has cleaned up my life." He signed the note "Paster [sic] Joannes Pierre."

But Pierre wasn't a pastor. In fact, he was barely a parishioner, say the men who ran the churches Pierre attended.  

"God is with me," Pierre wrote in his letter. "My kids need to know this. God hates divorce." He apologized for not meeting his child-support requirements but noted that without a green card and a driver's license, his job prospects were limited. "Can anybody help me to get a good job?" he asked.

Looking for comfort and guidance, Pierre became an occasional congregant of two downtown churches during 2000 and 2001, following the stress of his divorce. John Neuhaus, who ran a homeless shelter off Sistrunk Boulevard called the Fort Lauderdale Discipleship Training Center, tried to help him find salvation through the Bible. He doesn't remember Pierre as particularly devout.

"He wouldn't listen, and he didn't make the right choices," Neuhaus says of the 18 months Pierre spent at his shelter. Yet he also remembers that Pierre never caused trouble. And to the best of his recollection, drug use played no role in Pierre's problems, "though he was around those kind of people." Then again, so was the minister, who recalls Pierre as responsible and a "pretty gentle soul. He wasn't a violent person, but he wasn't a disciplined person." Neuhaus' ministry, he explains, "was in the midst of a crack area, and we used the Bible as a reference, as a way to live. I took in the worst of the worst."

Pierre, who spent five months living at the ministry, says Neuhaus was "most influential on my behalf."

The main issue, Neuhaus says, was that Pierre never fully embraced Christianity. "His problem was messing with women -- one or two or more women. And now, he's being disciplined, [because] he didn't listen, he didn't follow through."

Another local minister, Christopher Origho of the Deeper Life Christian Ministry, took Pierre under his wing next at a small Progresso church located in a tiny cinderblock box surrounded by a leaning chainlink fence. While working odd jobs around the neighborhood, Pierre stayed at the church along with other down-on-their-luck men from the streets. Origho says he never saw a dark side to Pierre but qualifies that, adding, "Just seeing somebody in church on Sunday does not give you insight into what their character is outside of church." Pierre didn't strike him as particularly religious: "I cannot characterize him as such, but he was a regular churchgoer," he says.

In the handwritten letter that's part of the divorce file between Rosemary and Joannes Pierre, Joannes urges his ex-wife to call "Pastor Chris." One line echoes with more than just desperation. "God's judgment is about to fall on anyone who refuse to help his son," he wrote. "God has given me a new life with Christ Jesus. Whatever the problem is, God will take care of it."


Pierre found steady work thanks to Bruce Corneal, one of the owners of Rivers of Grass, an ornamental/architectural boutique near Andrews Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard. Corneal also rented a small duplex to Pierre and often picked him up to give him rides to and from work.

"Yeah, I knew him," barks Corneal, an intense, scowling man with a short shock of graying hair. The June 26 story in the Sun-Sentinel still has him angry due to its characterizations of Pierre and Wilson. "I liked him. He wasn't some bum. He was a very good guy, a very responsible guy, an incredibly hard worker. And he didn't do drugs. His problems started when he met her [Camille Wilson]."

Corneal sums up Wilson simply. The newspaper headline ("Mother of Five Beaten to Death") doesn't represent the woman he often saw on the corner near the apartment. Corneal failed to see her as a sympathetic character. "She was a crack whore," he says vehemently. Street-savvy, smart, and attractive, "she was a hustler," he continues, whose street nickname was Candy. "Joannes, who was not streetwise, just fell for her. He always was very jovial, had a good sense of humor, had the biggest laugh, but we rarely saw him smile after that."

A neighbor in Progresso often put Pierre to work in his yard. "I found him to be a total gentleman, one who worked in the hot sun all day long," says Victor (who asked that his last name not be used), an urban pioneer renovating a small bungalow across the street from the hovel Pierre shared with Wilson and Angel. "He was very trustworthy, always smiling, and he had a very spiritual quality. I think he just picked the wrong woman."

Both Victor and Corneal remember that, for a brief period, Wilson entered a treatment program and cleaned up for a period of several months. "He always tried to save her," Victor insists. Down the street at a small daycare facility called God's Little Lambs, director Carolyn Stevens sits under fluorescent lights in the middle of a dark afternoon, her office part of an ancient turquoise church on Andrews Avenue. She remembers seeing a different side of Wilson then.  

"She was the most sweet, attentive, loving mother when she wasn't using drugs," Stevens says. Before she discovered crack, Wilson was a well-meaning soul, those who knew her say. She would dress Angel in frilly dresses and pretty socks and shoes and show up to pick up her daughter looking smart, clean, and professional. The transformation lasted only a few months. Soon, she started coming in to fetch Angel later and later each day, and the baby's appearance went downhill.

"Her clothes were ratty, and she just looked dirty," Stevens says. "Camille admitted to me that she was using crack." One Monday morning, just a few weeks before Wilson's murder, Pierre came in to the center and told a teacher that his girlfriend was back on drugs and that he didn't know where she -- or the baby -- was. Corneal remembers him arriving one morning to work in tears over the whole mess.

When the pair finally showed up, Angel looked worse than ever. At one point, Stevens recalls, Wilson, by then trapped in the devastating throes of addiction, sent a street person in to pick up the baby. "I was concerned whether I should call child abuse and neglect," she says. She spoke to Don Wilson, Camille's father, and her sister, Rhonda, who took custody of Angel. Neither responded to interview requests for this story.

On a Saturday night a week before she died, Camille Wilson left a slurred voice message at the daycare saying, "Fuck you, God's Little Lambs," Stevens remembers. According to her, Pierre never acted violent or angry, despite his obvious frustration with Wilson's drug habits.

"He seemed to have a level head," she says. "With the baby, he was always extremely loving and gentle. So when I heard what happened, I was shocked."

"There is no way," Victor says of the charges against Pierre, shaking his head. "The girlfriend was always the instigator. I'm sure it drove him insane."

By the time of her death, Wilson's older children weren't on the scene.

"Oh, she'd abandoned every single one of those children!" shouts Corneal, adding that the kids not born in crack houses had been born in jail. He also alleges that Wilson -- who topped Pierre's five-foot-five by several inches -- may well have been the aggressor in the relationship. "He [Pierre] came into work, twice, with a swollen lip," he adds.

Wilson's drug arrests didn't make the newspapers when she died, but the fact that Pierre had been arrested in March on battery charges did. The officer who responded then found Wilson with an eye injury and a bruise on her neck and reported that Pierre admitted causing her injuries. "He then began to try to justify his acts by saying God wanted him to do it," the report states.

Pierre's explanation is a classic Joannes denial. "She put scratches on her neck and did something to her eye," he says.

The charges were later dropped when the prosecutor decided there was "no reasonable likelihood of conviction, no evidence, no victim statement, and no independent witness listed. Victim does not want to file charges."

Corneal sided with his employee and gladly posted Pierre's $500 bond for the battery charge.


Four days before all hell broke loose, Camille Wilson and Joannes Pierre found themselves locked in a sick sort of symbiotic prison, a co-dependency well on its way to undoing them both. On the afternoon of June 21, 2005, they managed to get each other arrested and hauled off to jail together. A cop on routine patrol wrote that he was "flagged down by an irate Mr. Pierre... yelling and screaming about his girlfriend being on drugs. He was repeatedly advised to calm down and refused to do so. Four to five passing vehicles stopped to witness his uncontrollable behavior. Numerous neighborhood people emerged from their homes to view his yelling."

Pierre says, "I tried to tell the police she was smoking crack and that we had a 9-month-old baby. They told me to shut up." He was charged with disorderly conduct.

Camille Wilson was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. It was the fifth time she'd incurred that particular charge in Broward County since 1989. "The judge let her out the next day," Pierre says.

By the time Pierre got out of jail, he'd missed Wilson's release by a few hours. He dashed home, hoping he could catch her there, and then, when she would have finally fallen asleep, "I'd have called the cops," he says sadly. "I wish it had happened like that. But I couldn't hold her still."  

That final week, Pierre says, he tried to get Wilson to check herself into a drug treatment facility, but she took the baby and disappeared. He continued working and worrying. He believes Wilson was so out of control that "she made plans to have the drug people hurt me. She was giving out my job salary to people who were holding on to her. She was making plans to have me shot and killed for her $200-a-day crack habit."

Despite all the drama, Pierre tried to work and relax "like a normal person." On Friday night, June 24, Pierre cashed his paycheck and bought a six-pack of beer at a convenience store. He strolled over to a bus stop to drink, where at first he believed he was struck on the head from behind. (Later, he sheepishly admitted he passed out.) Paramedics took him to Broward General Hospital, where he was held for observation. When he woke up, he discovered he'd been robbed of $125.

Around 5:30 in the morning, he was discharged from the hospital and started walking north toward home as the sun came up. About a half hour later, on NE Second Ave., he spotted Wilson. According to Pierre, she told him the baby was in a nearby crack house. She owed money to the dealers there, which was why she was standing on a street corner at 6 a.m. Pierre says she was drunk and smoking crack. "I gotta do what I gotta do," he says she told him.

"I haven't heard from you in days," he replied. "The baby needs you." Wilson again insisted she wouldn't enter a treatment program, no matter what happened. Though he's retelling the story in soft, measured tones through the jail receiver, the actual discussion must have been much louder by the time the pair ended up near a dingy triplex at 900 NW Fourth Ave., because residents came outside to see what the yelling was about.

Pierre insists he didn't want to fight with Wilson, just have her arrested so she'd be forced to enter court-ordered drug rehab. Wilson was showing signs of shortness of breath, he says. "I needed help. I wish the police had gotten there quicker. I wish they'd seen how drunk she was, had seen her there with the pipe in her hand. To help me."

Pierre's description of his girlfriend's death is startling.

It was Wilson who picked up the heavy metal pipe from a pile of junk in the street, he says. She swung it at him.

"She hit herself with the pipe a few times," he says matter-of-factly. "Then she fell and hit her head, and I think she might have caught a fit. I tried to turn her on her side to give her mouth-to-mouth. I yelled at the people standing around to get help."

He says Wilson told him she would rather die than go to jail or enter treatment.

But the witnesses, who each told police Pierre kept clobbering Wilson with the pipe even after she was on the ground, were all crack dealers or addicts, he claims. In fact, he says one of them walked up and said, "She owes me money. She has my dope."

Pierre says he started running home. He made it across Sunrise Boulevard and a few more blocks before police stopped and arrested him. "I tried to give them the real story," he says. The cops told him witnesses had seen him kill her. "It's not true," he repeats. "I tried to pick her up."

Pierre was charged with one count of premeditated murder and one count of obstruction of a police officer without violence. According to the police report, witnesses followed Pierre down the street, pointing him out to officers, who chased Pierre and handcuffed him after a brief struggle. "It was also learned that the suspect in past disturbances over the last week has threatened to kill the victim," the report concluded.

When a New Times reporter parked on the block where Wilson died -- avoiding rotting garbage, broken beer bottles, and a small, shattered glass pipe -- suspicious activity was clearly taking place. Once it was determined the interloper wasn't an undercover police officer, crack cocaine was even offered for sale. But no one could recall the death of Camille Wilson.


Wearing an affable smile for an accused killer -- dressed in gray-black striped jumpsuit with MAX SECURITY INMATE in red letters on the back -- Pierre talks about his worries. He's learned that Wilson burned through so many different public attorneys who fought her numerous drug cases that it will take him extra time to find an untainted one to defend him in her murder. As this story went to press, the public defender's office explained that Pierre's most recent lawyer had to recuse himself when it was learned that he had defended some of the state's witnesses in the past.  

In the meantime, he knows that life down at the crack houses where Wilson hung out has returned to normal. "They fed her drugs constantly, and they didn't like me because they thought I wanted to get them arrested. Now they know I'm not going to come preaching and try to stop them.

"I want everybody to know the truth. I still think about Camille. I still love Camille; I cry every night for her. She's the mother of my baby. We were supposed to get married and have a nice, normal family. But the drug dealers took her away."

It's the kind of ending one might expect from mixing a corrosive drug habit, an obsessive quest for spiritual peace, the distorted perspective of the mentally ill, and an inexorable whirlpool of misery that can draw even stronger personalities toward disaster.


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