The Life and Crimes of Bam Jones
Something unusual happened on Monday, September 9, 2002. Keith Gross was late for work. A 24-year-old with tanned white skin and brown hair cropped short on the sides, Gross was known around Kitchens to Go in Fort Lauderdale as a firebrand who spoke his mind. But during the five years he had worked at the store on NE Fourth Street, he'd virtually always been punctual. It traced to a short stint in the Army at age 18. "You could set a watch by Keith," remembers Ken Walker, Gross' friend and boss.
Gross had been expected at Walker's house in Victoria Park the day before to watch football. But the 24-year-old never showed. At first, Walker assumed his buddy had met some young girl that afternoon, making the Dolphins game only a secondary priority.
But at 10 a.m. the next day, when Gross was one hour late for work, Walker began to wonder. He called Gross' apartment. No one answered. "Why don't you go over there and see if he's home?" Walker remembers an employee asking.
"If he were at home," the boss said dismissively, "he'd be coming to work."
Two hours passed. Gross still hadn't reported. Around noon, Walker decided to drive the few blocks to Gross' home at 1022 NE Second Ave., a cream-colored duplex across from North Side Elementary School, near Sunrise Boulevard. As Walker strolled under three leafy trees that shade the west and south sides of the duplex, he heard the incessant hum of the living-room air conditioner.
He knocked on the front door. No answer. He knocked again. Still no response. Walker sauntered around toward the west side of the apartment and peeked through the living-room window. Nothing seemed unusual. But then the 44-year-old Fort Lauderdale native noticed that the bedroom air conditioner was also on. He walked to the rear of the apartment and looked in the window through an opening in the venetian blinds. "That's when I saw him," Walker recalls.
Gross lay facedown on the floor next to the bed, naked and gagged, a T-shirt wrapped tightly around his neck. Rope bound his arms and legs. "He was hog-tied," Walker says, tears welling in his eyes as his voice rises in a falsetto of anger. The young man wasn't moving; his throat had been slit. "I didn't see any blood on the floor; it must have gone under the bed," Walker explains. "But there's one thing I remember most about seeing him. There was a smudge of blood on his butt cheek. It looked like [the killer had] used Keith's butt to wipe off the knife, like how a butcher would wipe off his knife on an apron."
Walker hurried back to his car and returned to Kitchens to Go. He called police. One of his employees then phoned Michael Gross, Keith's 25-year-old brother. The two had been adopted at an early age. Michael moved from New York to Fort Lauderdale in 1997 to attend college. Keith, who had always been close to his older sibling, followed him south.
"You need to go to your brother's apartment right now," Michael remembers being told.
"Why?" he asked. "What happened?"
"Just go to your brother's apartment," the answer came. "Right now."
An ambulance was outside Keith's apartment by the time Michael arrived. Walker explained what had happened. Keith didn't show up for work, he told him, so he came over. The air conditioner hum. The window. The body. The smudge of blood.
Gross had been raped and murdered. Today, more than one year after Walker discovered his friend's body on that September afternoon, police have yet to file charges. But that may soon change.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Gross case is one of several throughout the Southeast that police have begun to reexamine following the September 17 arrest for murder of Henry Lee Jones, a 40-year-old violent drifter and occasional Fort Lauderdale resident. Jones' rap sheet, which extends back before he was 18 years old, documents his life and travels like a detailed time line. It also documents the steady escalation of his violence.
Jones was the product of an ineffectual justice system. As a teenager, he was a brutal thief. Jones spent his 20s in prison, rejoining the citizenry in 1997 at age 34 after serving less than half his sentence. Once back on the streets, according to public records, Jones graduated to more insidious crimes, from battery to rape. In fact, from 1997 to 2001, police agencies and state attorneys throughout Florida had at least seven opportunities to throw Jones back in prison. They all failed.
October 3, 1981, was a warm sunny day. Early that morning, 45-year-old used-car salesman Joseph Giovanni was anxious to make a sale. Giovanni worked at Johnny Harris Pontiac on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. At 9:10 a.m., he spotted his first customers. They were two black men, about 19 or 20 years old as far as Giovanni could tell. One stood nearly six feet tall and had short black hair and long arms. His companion, whose stockier frame measured about five feet, eight inches, wore his hair in long cornrows. The tall one was a 19-year-old from Fort Lauderdale named Jackie Johnson. The other was 18-year-old Henry Lee Jones.
They were interested in a used car, Jones told Giovanni. Then he showed the salesman $600 in cash for a down payment. "He claimed his wife had credit, had a car financed with the bank," Giovanni later said in court testimony, "and they seemed like buyers to me." The salesman showed his customers around the lot for about 15 minutes. Then the pair spotted a ride they liked: a tan 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Giovanni walked back to the office for a dealer license plate. Joel Kay, a fellow car salesman, pulled Giovanni aside. "You're not going to take a ride, are you?" Kay said.
"Yes," Giovanni responded. "They showed me money."
"Boy," Kay said, "you better be careful."
Giovanni and his two customers headed north on Federal Highway. Jones was driving. Johnson sat in back. Giovanni took the passenger seat. A few minutes into the ride, Jones turned into a residential area. "What do you think?" Jones repeatedly asked his back-seat companion. "What do you think?"
Then Jones slammed down the accelerator. The engine roared louder and louder as he zipped through the neighborhood. Giovanni knew he was in trouble. "That was when I turned... and the gun was pointed at my head from the taller one in the back seat," Giovanni remembered.
"Keep it cool, motherfucker," Jones warned. "Keep it cool."
For the next ten minutes, Jones drove around as Johnson kept the gun steady on Giovanni. The driver then spotted a vacant area with trees and shrubbery. It was perfect. Jones pulled in and ordered Giovanni out of the car.
Johnson continued to point the pistol at Giovanni as Jones led the used-car salesman to the back of the Grand Prix. Jones bent Giovanni over the trunk, facedown, and rifled through his pockets, taking about $40 in cash and four or five credit cards. Next, he pulled the man up and opened the trunk. "Then they, under gunpoint, told me to get in," Giovanni remembered.
About 10 a.m., the Grand Prix arrived at 2400 SW First St. in Fort Lauderdale, where Jones' girlfriend lived. Annie Mae Robbins was asleep. Jones woke her. "Let's go," he said.
As they drove, Robbins, who was seated in the back, heard a muffled voice from the trunk. It sounded like a man. "Let me out!" it said.
"What's that?" Robbins asked. The two men laughed.
About two hours later, Giovanni recalled, the Grand Prix stopped. Jones opened the trunk. "Get out of the trunk, motherfucker," Jones told him. Johnson stood nearby with the gun drawn. They were in the middle of an orange grove west of U.S. 441 in Lake Worth.
"I walked about 23 paces, and they shoved me underneath an orange tree," Giovanni said. "I thought I was going to be killed."
But then he heard the Grand Prix drive away.
State Trooper J.H. Cooper, a 14-year Florida Highway Patrol veteran, was driving on State Road 200 just north of Jacksonville at 7:05 a.m. on October 4, 1981. As he approached the Duval County line, he saw a Grand Prix barreling toward him. He clocked it at 75 miles per hour and immediately gave chase, then pulled over the vehicle.
Cooper walked up to the Grand Prix and asked for Jones' license and registration. He began to stroll back to the patrol car as Jones looked for the documents.
"What are you going to do?" Robbins recalled asking her boyfriend.
"I'll go to jail," came the response. Then he cranked up the engine and sped away. Cooper ran back to the car and requested backup. He followed the Grand Prix north.
They continued for about one mile, Cooper recalled in court testimony, and then turned east and traveled for approximately two miles, reaching speeds upward of 110 miles per hour. Finally, Jones turned left onto an unmarked dirt road. Cooper knew the road ended at a paper mill one mile away. But Jones didn't. He continued north at top speed as Cooper slowed down.
Then came impact. The Grand Prix slammed into a set of train tracks at 60 to 65 miles per hour, Cooper recalled, the momentum of the car carrying it 500 yards until it came to a halt.
Jones continued to press the accelerator. "It wouldn't go no good," Robbins said in court testimony. All four tires were flat; a stream of oil extended from the car to the train tracks.
The three passengers exited the Grand Prix and ran along the tracks for five hours, Robbins remembered. When they were about six miles away, Robbins and Johnson rested as Jones climbed atop a train to look around. He jumped down quickly. "I see a helicopter coming," he said.
Moments later, they were surrounded. Police were everywhere. Jones and Johnson ran. Robbins lay facedown in the grass.
"I arrested the black female," Cooper told the court. Then other troopers chased Jones and Johnson, catching them as they tried to cross a fence near U.S. 17 and Interstate 95. All three arrestees were sent back to Broward County, where Jones and Johnson were nailed for robbery, kidnapping, and grand theft. Robbins was not charged.
Awaiting trial the next spring, Jones apparently realized he was going to stew in prison for a long, long time. On March 11, while being transported from jail to the Broward County Courthouse, Jones escaped. He was quickly captured.
On September 2, 1982, a jury found the 18-year-old guilty on all three charges. Judge Joseph E. Price sentenced him to 30 years in prison, plus an additional five years for attempting to flee.
Once incarcerated, prison officials cited Jones 11 times for fighting or assault, twice for weapons possession, and numerous times for insubordination and disorderly conduct. In fact, on January 23, 1991, Jones incited a riot at Liberty Correctional Institute in Bristol, in North Florida. In all, Jones had 36 citations on his prison record. As punishment, his sentence was lengthened by about two years and nine months.
He was still able to benefit from Florida's overcrowded penal system. At the time, anyone incarcerated in the state automatically received at least a one-third reduction in sentence, no matter how violent or numerous the crimes. On July 1, 1997, after serving less than 15 years, the 34-year-old Jones walked out of Tomoka Correctional Institute in Daytona Beach a free man.
From his prison release to mid-2001, Jones was in and out of jail. In June 1999, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office picked him up for stalking. He served 15 days in jail, plus 12 months of probation, for the offense. One year later, on May 31, 2000, Flagler County Sheriff's Deputy James E. Burroughs found Jones in a car parked on State Road 100 in Palm Coast. Burroughs believed he had foiled Jones' plans to break into vending machines, according to the police report. The officer discovered marijuana in an Altoids tin. Although authorities charged Jones with loitering and possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, the Flagler County State Attorney's Office inexplicably dropped the charges. Jones spent two days in jail.
On August 29 of that same year, Jones was back in Jacksonville, where sheriff's deputies arrested him for battery. Those charges were dropped as well. Jones didn't receive any jail time. Seven months later, on March 21, 2001, Jones violated a restraining order and was put away for 72 days. (Police couldn't provide details of the cases.)
So, by the summer of 2001, law enforcement had Jones in custody at least four times since his 1997 prison release, yet none of the charges resulted in serious punishment.
By October 10, 2001, Jones had returned to Fort Lauderdale. That evening, he offered law enforcement a solid opportunity to put him back in prison when he cruised around town in a gray 1988 Ford Fiesta that had been reported stolen from a Daytona Beach used-car dealership on September 1. With him in the passenger seat was a girlfriend named Brandy Collins.
At 6:25 p.m., Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. Bill Johnson spotted the stolen car on Broward Boulevard. Johnson observed Jones beating Collins as the Fiesta approached the Interstate 95 entrance ramp. The officer stopped the vehicle. As the car came to a halt, Jones fled. Collins had bruises and a laceration on her face, Johnson observed.
Fort Lauderdale police later found Jones hiding in a car parked outside 180 NW 20th Ave. He submitted without a fight. Authorities initially wanted to come down hard on Jones, charging him with battery, resisting a police officer, burglary, and grand theft.
But Assistant Broward State Attorney Peter F. Laporte declined to press the grand theft charge, a felony, pursuing only misdemeanor battery and resisting arrest. The problem, explains Ed Walsh, the assistant state attorney who supervised the case, was that state prosecutors would have had difficulty proving that Jones knew the car was stolen. A witness to the car theft in Daytona Beach could not describe the culprit beyond saying he was a black male. What's more, a defense attorney could have argued that Jones was fleeing because of the battery, not because he was knowingly driving a stolen car. "That's a constant problem with grand theft," Walsh explains.
Jones pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanors and received 126 days in jail. The sentence was lenient. For the battery charge, he could have received up to one year. That was the fifth time police had Jones in custody following his release from prison.
The sixth collar would come eight months later. On May 14, 2002, a woman who identified herself to police as one of Jones' friends filed a complaint with Fort Lauderdale police, alleging that Jones had drugged and raped her mentally handicapped teenaged son. (Because the alleged victim is a minor, police will identify neither mother nor son.)
That day, according to the victim's statement to police, the teenager "ran into" Jones near Mount Olive Apartments about 4:30 p.m. "They both started drinking together and rode bicycles and walked around," according to the police report. Jones offered the boy a Percodan, which is a narcotic generally used as a pain reliever, and the two of them each swallowed one dose.
Jones then recommended they "chill" at his girlfriend's home at Lakeview Garden Apartments at 2224 NW Second St. in Fort Lauderdale, the statement continues. The two-story apartment was abandoned, the electricity turned off. The deadbolt on the front door was removed. Empty beer cans littered the staircase. Bugs scurried on the floor.
The two drank some more. Jones offered the boy another pill. He accepted. "The Percodan and alcohol hit [the victim] hard and he was almost completely incapacitated by it," according to the police report.
Jones then escorted the boy upstairs to the bedroom. The teenager lay down on a mattress, and Jones took off the boy's shoes and pants, according to the victim's statement. Then Jones put the alleged victim's penis into his mouth. "[The teen] told Jones he wasn't with that and that he [wanted] to leave," according to the police report. Jones began to choke the boy, then turned him around and violated him, according to the victim's statement. The purported rape lasted about three hours. Every time the boy tried to leave, Jones choked him again.
The victim's mother filed the police report later that evening. Six weeks after the incident, Broward Assistant State Attorney Lauren Covitz declined to prosecute "because there is not reasonable likelihood of conviction," according to a memorandum obtained by New Times. Covitz believed it would be difficult to prove to a jury that sex was not consensual because the victim had spent the day "chillin'" with Jones and willingly followed him to the abandoned apartment. In addition, the state would also have had a difficult time prosecuting Jones for sexual battery against a mentally handicapped person because "we would have to prove that this person did not even understand the concept of sex," Covitz wrote in her memo. "In this case, we would not be able to do this as the victim has had sex before and understood what it meant to have sex with someone of the same gender."
Jones had apparently acquired a taste for young men. Around the same time that he was accused of raping and choking the mentally handicapped teenager, Jones struck up a friendship with a 24-year-old employee of Kitchens to Go.
One afternoon in July 2002, Keith Gross came over to Ken Walker's house in Victoria Park to borrow $20. Payday wasn't until next week, and Gross was short on cash. Gross brought a friend with him, a 40-year-old black man who looked young enough to be in his late 20s, Walker says. He wore his hair in long cornrows; his front teeth were capped in gold. He went by the nickname "Bam."
"What up?" Walker asked Bam.
They were "short-talking," as Walker puts it, conversing with one- or two-word phrases. But Gross' new friend didn't need to say many words for Walker to make his assessment: Bam Jones was one evil motherfucker. That judgment was quickly confirmed when Walker noticed a teardrop tattooed under Jones' left eye. Teardrop tattoos, traditionally associated with gangs, can signify either the loss of a friend or blood on the hands. Walker suspected the latter.
"Oh, what is it, the gold teeth?" Walker remembers Gross asking. "Is it a black thing? You're black too, you know."
"It ain't a black thing," Walker told his friend. "There's something about him. I can feel it. Don't bring him back here again."
After Gross left in his new friend's white four-door Lincoln Town Car, Walker never saw Bam Jones again. Although Gross obeyed Walker's request by not bringing Jones over to Walker's house, he continued to spend time with him. "They smoked weed together," Walker admits, pausing as he collects his words. "That's what they did. That's what they had in common as far as I know."
Walker didn't have another reason to think about Jones until the afternoon of September 9, 2002. That was the day Gross didn't show up for work. "Seeing Keith," Walker says of that terrible day, "that will stay with me forever."
Mark Shotwell, a 46-year-old homicide detective with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, led the murder investigation. Due to the sexual nature and brutality of the crime, Shotwell believed the murderer had likely known the victim and was possibly a scorned gay lover.
Police posted pictures of Gross in gay bars throughout the city. "We are looking for leads and asking the gay community to help if they have any information," Shotwell commented to The Express, a weekly gay-oriented newspaper.
But the investigation, Walker contends, was off the mark from the beginning. The problem? Gross wasn't gay. "I don't think Keith had anything against gay people," Walker explains, "but I do know for sure that Keith never would have gone into a gay bar."
Yet Shotwell, who declined to discuss the specifics of his investigation with New Times, didn't listen. It seems the detective was skeptical of Walker. The Kitchens to Go owner was one of the prime suspects. In the three months after the murder, Shotwell interrogated the Fort Lauderdale businessman, whose only indiscretion was a 1998 charge of driving with a suspended license, three times and reviewed files on the company's computers, looking for any documents or e-mail correspondence that might offer clues to the murderer's identity. "He said I was a suspect because I found the body," Walker recalls. "But why would someone connect themselves to the crime scene?" All the while, Walker and Michael Gross were telling police they had their own theory: The murderer was Bam Jones.
Detectives questioned Jones about the Gross case but never made an arrest, explaining to Walker and Gross' brother that Jones was an unlikely suspect because he was not only heterosexual but one of Gross' friends. That would prove to be the seventh time Jones was in police custody following his prison release.
By late August, nearly one year after the murder, the Gross case was growing cold. Then police discovered two dead bodies in Tennessee and a third in Melbourne, Florida. A serial killer apparently was on the loose.
Eighty-two-year-old Clarence James and his 64-year-old wife, Lillian, were fixtures in Bartlett, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb of 42,500 people. The easygoing African-American couple lived on Bartlett Boulevard, the town's main thoroughfare, and during rush hour, it was common to see Clarence sitting in his driveway, enjoying the weather as he waved to passing traffic. Most people in Bartlett waved back. "He was very friendly, very approachable, a gentle-spirited man," remembers Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald.
Clarence was a World War II veteran and father of 12 children. He had retired from the Memphis Park Commission and met Lillian late in life. Lillian worked as a housekeeper at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis.
Occasionally, she would join her husband in front of the house. They'd work in the yard together. As cars would pass, they'd wave in unison. "I know of a couple here in town who had a troubled son who Mr. James really impacted by being friendly and waving," McDonald says. "He apparently stopped his motorcycle one day and went to Clarence. He said, 'It makes me feel good that you take time to wave at me every day.' It was reported to me that Mrs. James came out and said, 'Child, what do we need to do to help you?' That's the kind of people they were. There's no color barrier here. This happened to be a white kid. We have a small-town sensibility about us."
On August 23, when Lillian didn't report to work or answer the telephone, her 41-year-old daughter, Margaret Wilson Coleman, went to the Bartlett Boulevard house. She walked inside and called her mother's name. "When I went in the house," she told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, "I knew something was wrong when I saw the scissors lying around. My mother is a very clean person. She don't want nothing on their floor." Coleman grabbed the portable phone, went outside, and called police.
Investigators found the James couple inside the house, stabbed to death. The murderer left with some jewelry, according to police. News of the murder traveled quickly through suburbia. It was the town's first murder in five years. What's more, because everybody knew Clarence and Lillian James, everybody also knew that no one should have had reason to kill them.
Police surrounded the house on Bartlett Boulevard. Television crews arrived. Family members stood outside. That afternoon, drivers who expected to see Clarence waving and smiling as always instead observed the makings of a crime scene. "If you went by and the garage door was down, you wondered if they were sick or something," McDonald says. "You can imagine what people thought when they saw the crime-scene tape and television crews."
Bartlett police initially told Memphis news media that they believed two black men were responsible for the crime. "This is certainly unexpected when you look at their lifestyle," Bartlett Police Inspector Steve Johnson told the Commercial Appeal on the day the bodies were found. Johnson refused to answer questions about the case when interviewed by New Times.
Did Clarence James' daily routine of waving to drivers in some way invite in his murderer? McDonald sighs. "I can't comment on that," the mayor says.
A week after the murder, Bartlett police still hadn't collared anyone. Then news came from Florida: 19-year-old Carlos Perez was found dead at the Super 8 Motel on Federal Highway in Melbourne.
On August 26, Perez had left his father's Wilton Manors house early in the morning hoping to land a construction job through Dependable Temps in Fort Lauderdale. But by 1 p.m. that day, Perez was 150 miles north, checking into a room at the Super 8 Motel. He had a black man by his side. "He used what we call a nom de plume," says a Super 8 employee who requested that his name not be used. The next morning, a housekeeper found Perez's body. "He was wrapped up in a comforter, laying on the bed," the Super 8 employee explained.
Dependable Temps couldn't provide police with much information. "We don't know these people," George Kenney, an employee of the staffing agency, told New Times. "The kid only started working for us for a few days. All of a sudden, you get a call from the police. Nobody around here really knows anything."
Melbourne police caught an early break that appeared to connect the Jameses' killings in Tennessee to Perez's murder. A black male driving a white four-door Lincoln Town Car had used a credit card registered to Lillian James to buy gas in Melbourne. Detectives phoned authorities in Tennessee.
The investigators compared notes. Their crime scenes had similarities. What's more, a witness had seen a white Lincoln Town Car outside Dependable Temps in Fort Lauderdale on the day Perez disappeared. Henry Lee Jones owned just such a car.
On September 16, Tennessee filed first-degree murder charges and issued a nationwide bulletin for Jones' arrest. The next day, Fort Lauderdale Police Det. Charles L. Morrow spotted Jones driving along Sunrise Boulevard, near Interstate 95. Local cops and U.S. marshals attempted to pull him over. He immediately fled, leading authorities on a chase that ended quickly near 24th Avenue. Jones was taken into custody and continues to be held by the Broward Sheriff's Office for possible extradition to Tennessee. He declined to be interviewed in jail. "It ain't gonna do no good," Jones told New Times. "They're gonna do what they're gonna do."
Since Jones' arrest, police agencies throughout the Southeast have begun to reexamine unsolved murders that they believe may be linked to the Fort Lauderdale man. James R. Miller, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's special-agent supervisor in Melbourne, won't specify how many cases Jones might be linked to, choosing instead to describe the number as "several."
"There's certain characteristics to all of the cases," Miller adds. "We know he's traveled to Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. But our work has just begun in regards to determining what he's done and where he's traveled." So far, Jones has been charged only with the murders in Tennessee.
Although Miller acknowledges that the Gross and Perez cases are among those being reexamined following Jones' arrest, Fort Lauderdale detective Shotwell is apprehensive about pointing fingers. In fact, the detective won't even admit that Jones has ever been a suspect in Gross' murder. "I have never said Jones was a suspect in Keith Gross," Shotwell comments. "We've also never said he was not. As soon as law enforcement says anything interesting, traditionally the press will jump on it. Then law enforcement says something more. All of a sudden, it takes on a life in itself. I say show me. If we accuse Henry Lee Jones of being the next Ted Bundy, that's unfair -- not only to any potential victims' families but quite honestly to Jones himself."
The north wall of Ken Walker's office at Kitchens to Go is painted Miami Dolphins blue. Autographed pictures of yesterday's Dolphins stars adorn the wall. Used tickets from two Super Bowls hang next to the desk. Football was something Walker and Keith Gross had in common. "I'm a season ticket holder, and I'd take Keith to Dolphins games and charity dinners," Walker recalls. "It was great for him because he came from nothing, had to work for everything he had. He loved the game, being so close to the players. The energy there, he loved it."
It's been just over a year since Walker saw Gross' lifeless body through a crack in the venetian blinds. It haunts him. "I'd rather be hit by Mike Tyson," he says, "than ever see something like that again."
Walker shakes his head, disgusted and drained from reliving his nightmare. He thinks Clarence and Lillian James and Carlos Perez might all be alive today had Fort Lauderdale police done their jobs one year ago. "They had Bam," Walker says, leaning forward, his elbows atop the desk as his hands gesture disbelief. "A year ago, when Keith was killed, Keith's brother and I told the police who we thought it could have been: Bam. They fucking had him. You know what I think? I think Keith was Bam's first victim. He got a taste for young boys when he raped that [mentally handicapped] kid. But Bam knew Keith was strong. Bam knew he'd fight back. That's why he had him bound and eventually had to kill him. That's what I think."
Walker leans back, his eyes watery. He cradles his head in his open palms and looks down. "They had him, man," he says. "They had him."
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