Almost Justice: Two mothers' sad bond over one trial

Lana Hollerud reaches to touch the marker on son Beau Zabel's grave after watering the planter in the cemetery in his hometown of Austin, Minn.
Lana Hollerud reaches to touch the marker on son Beau Zabel's grave after watering the planter in the cemetery in his hometown of Austin, Minn. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2013

The story so far: Beau Zabel and Tyrek Taylor are dead, and police think Marcellus "Ant North" Jones murdered them both. A witness gives them the link to both killings.

Chapter 5: One Trial, Two Mothers

Beau Zabel's mother sat in the lonely pews of a Philadelphia courtroom. She had prayed for strength and grace for what lay ahead. Another woman walked in, wearing a strained smile. It held back waves of sorrow.

"This is Tyrek's mother," the prosecutor said.

The women shook hands.

"I am sorry for your loss," said Beau's mother, Lana Hollerud.

Lana seemed like a sweet woman, thought Tyrek's mother, Monteil Bennett. She felt sorry for her.

The mothers' uncommon bond was forged in prosecutors' belief that the same man killed their sons. The trial offered a chance at a clear verdict for one and some form of justice for the other.

With DNA and eyewitnesses, authorities were trying Marcellus Anthony Jones, known as Ant North, for the murder of 19-year-old Tyrek Taylor in September 2008. They believed he executed Tyrek to silence him about the killing of Beau Zabel, the 23-year-old teaching student from a small town in Minnesota shot for his iPod three months earlier near the Italian Market.

But they had a problem. As Jones' suspected getaway driver, Tyrek represented the only potential witness in Beau's murder.

Though they lacked enough evidence to charge Jones directly in Beau's death, they faced a lower burden of proof in establishing his motive for killing Tyrek. Pennsylvania allows evidence of "Prior Bad Acts" - even uncharged crimes - if they explain another crime.

Beau's death completed the picture of Tyrek's killing, they said.

Statements to police by Devonne Brinson, who would play a central role at the trial, provided prosecutors a link between the killings. Jones killed Tyrek because he thought Tyrek would snitch about the teacher - Brinson said Jones told him that in jail.

But without physical evidence in Beau's killing - the gun or his stolen iPod - prosecutors still needed more than Brinson's testimony for a conviction.

At Jones' trial, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Cooper Nixon would tell the story of two murders, with a shot at justice for only one.

Nixon was anxious about notifying Beau's mother about the trial. No arrest had been made in his killing. She worried over the pain she would bring to bear.

But as she prepared for the trial's opening on May 30, Nixon was saying Beau's name as often as Tyrek's - she was giving life to his case, too.

She picked up the phone.

When Lana thought of her son's final moments, she imagined he met up with evil. In the family's hometown of Austin, she worked as an advocate for domestic violence and rape victims, a job she held before his death. Beau's stepfather, Terry Zabel, would have been grateful for a few minutes in a room with Beau's killer, but anger did not consume the couple.

Lana needed to see Jones - to confront evil. Doing so, she hoped, could tell her whether Jones was the one who hurt her son.

Getting off the expressway, Lana, 54, and Terry, 51, passed Drexel University, where Beau was to have earned his teaching degree. Had he lived, Beau would have graduated already.

Monteil Bennett and Tyrek's younger sister, Cinquita, took the Route 17 bus to the courthouse. Monteil, 43, had arranged time away from her job at a Sam's Club at Franklin Mills mall.

When she saw Lana, she realized whom she must be.

Lana held no anger toward Monteil. Tyrek had paid the stiffest penalty for whatever role he played in Beau's death. It was just sad that someone else died because of what happened to Beau.

The trial did not attract spectators. A sheriff's deputy instructed the two families to stay to one side in case Jones' relatives showed. They never did.

Nixon directed Monteil to the first pew. Lana and Terry sat behind her.

Jones, 33, was led in through a side door. He wore his orange prison clothes. He scanned the courtroom. Terry glared; Jones turned away.

Monteil wanted to scream. Take his head off. Jones had played with her older son when they were children. There was something wrong with him even then. He was always mean. Tyrek had trusted him. To take his life like that -.

Monteil fought back tears.

Lana thought she would have a physical reaction to seeing Jones. But he was just a person. A little man. That's all he was.

When Nixon introduced Homicide Detective George Fetters to Monteil, he recognized her from her job at Sam's Club. He shopped there with his family. They had exchanged pleasantries countless times, with Fetters never knowing she was Tyrek Taylor's mother.

It was Fetters who interrogated Tyrek after linking him to Beau Zabel's murder through another robbery. He had told Tyrek he would talk to him again.

Fetters felt a flash of guilt. "I am sorry for what happened to your son," he told Monteil.

Each morning, Fetters would bring water to Cinquita, 22. Try to make small talk. Make her at ease. She seemed so angry.

"Why is he not getting the death penalty for killing my brother," she snapped one day, "but he would for killing the white boy?"

Monteil and Lana began to talk during breaks.

Monteil said she had to keep a smile on at work. That was hard. She had gone to a meeting once for mothers who lost children to violence and talked to a counselor there, but never went back. Her neighbors didn't bring up what happened. She was handling it on her own.

Lana shared something she often told the victims she works with: No matter the outcome of the trial, it won't restore you to whom you were before.

"You have to be prepared for that," Lana said.

Sometimes Lana found herself comparing her experience to Monteil's. Monteil had been there to hold Tyrek; she had not been for Beau. That scared her the most - that Beau had been alone.

Then she would think of Monteil. She had been there. Had seen Tyrek so hurt and been unable to help.

It was an impossible choice.

A medical examiner described how the bullet tore through Tyrek's neck, killing him instantly - a wound nearly identical to Beau's. Monteil broke down. Lana hugged her.

A forensics expert testified that DNA on a Newport - the cigarette found in the abandoned house where the killer waited for Tyrek - matched Jones'. The likelihood of the pairing was one in 3.4 sextillion.

Carl Boyce, a neighbor of Monteil's on Bouvier Street, said he had been talking with his nieces when he saw Jones burst from the house and rush up behind Taylor.

Wanted for a probation violation, Boyce, 46, had initially given police his brother's name. Jones' attorney, David Rudenstein, attacked Boyce as a liar.

"I don't do cops," Boyce said. "But I went in anyway, because what I saw wasn't right."

James Claiborne, 60, said he heard the shot and looked through his bedroom window to see a man who matched Jones' description rifling through Tyrek's pockets.

The Army vet decided to testify because "you got to stand up for something."

A guard banged on Devonne Brinson's cell at 3 a.m., told him to get ready.

On the ride to court, Brinson, 30, said, he felt like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. No turning back.

He wasn't promised anything for his testimony.

The District Attorney's Office wasn't offering any time off his sentence. The Zabel case was still open, so there was no reward money yet. Just the chance down the road, he hoped, that a parole board, or a judge, or somebody would look favorably upon his cooperation.

As he saw it, the city wanted justice for Beau Zabel's killing - for some sort of civic pride. He just wanted his life back.

He gave Jones a hard stare as a deputy escorted him to the stand. He always looked a man in the eyes before putting him down.

Nixon approached the witness box. Moved the microphone to the side.

Brinson glanced at the room. Monteil and Cinquita were the only ones from 17th Street there. Some of Tyrek's own friends knew who had killed him, yet it was him up on the stand. Cowards.

"Is that them?" Brinson asked Nixon, looking out toward the Zabels.

"They didn't sign up for this," he said.

Brinson told his story.

Tyrek had called him on his prison cellphone the night of Beau's murder, looking for his older brother. Ant North had "rocked" a dude when they were out on a robbery, he said. Months later, at chow, Jones told Brinson he killed Tyrek because he feared he'd snitch about the dead teacher.

Stepping off the stand, Brinson felt a sense of accomplishment.

When Jones took the stand, he wore a suit jacket over his prison jumpsuit.

He did fine with his lawyer. He didn't know Tyrek. Didn't kill him or Beau.

When Nixon rose, Jones leaned back in his chair.

His DNA was on the cigarette, she told him. Two witnesses put him on the street. Before long, she accused him of the crime.

Jones flashed rage. He shouted. "No, no, I didn't!"

Nixon attacked.

"You were worried that Tyrek was going to flip on you, he was going to flip because he wasn't built for this, and he was the weak one, did that happen?"

"I mean, possibly with somebody else," Jones said. "Not with me, though."

The night before closing arguments, Nixon had sat on a sofa watching a dance show with her 11-year-old daughter. She thought of Monteil and Cinquita and their blank stares. Of Lana, so stoic and gracious. Of the blemishes of her witnesses. That her words would be inadequate. She began to cry.

"What's wrong, Mommy?" her daughter had asked.

To the hushed courtroom, she began with a childhood story about her father, a meticulous preacher who prepared his sermons equally as hard when he ministered at the jail as in church, she said.

"When I start making distinctions amongst who I serve, I want that to be the last day I preach," he would say.

In the same way, jurors had to overlook any flaws of Boyce and Brinson. "If you cannot see the truth and beauty in what they say, then I hope this is the last homicide I try," Nixon said.

Not wanting to face justice for killing Beau Zabel, she said, Marcellus Jones had decided to be Tyrek Taylor's judge, jury and executioner.

Nixon pointed at Jones.

"He knew that if Fetters got an opportunity to get a photo and come back and talk to Tyrek Taylor, you might get the full story," she said. "You might really find out what happened to Beau Zabel when he was walking with his earplugs in his ears, when he was probably listening to his music, oblivious."

She paused before adding:

"But we will never know, and now Monteil Bennett doesn't have a son."

The mothers wept.

"And that's why we are here," Nixon said, "to give justice to one mother for justice one mother may never know."

Lana and Terry went home to Minnesota. They did not wait for a verdict. Lana now knew who had hurt her son.

The prosecutors and police working Beau's case had always talked to Lana about closure.

Before leaving, she hugged Monteil goodbye.

"I hope the verdict gives you some of the closure everyone is always telling us about," Lana said.

The jury took less than an hour to reach a verdict. The foreman said "guilty," then scanned the courtroom for the Zabels.

Nothing can restore you to the way you were before, Lana had said.

And what has been restored?

The murder of Beau Zabel remains open. There is a $55,000 reward. Fetters works it between new cases, convinced he's got some live leads. He wants to be able to tell Lana they have charged the man who killed her son.

Sometimes he sees Monteil while shopping. They still exchange pleasantries.

Devonne Brinson continues his appeals. Some nights, he lies awake to the clanging of inmates banging their metal tables.

"In the end," he says, "you get left all on your own without no help, and only a smile that says thanks."

He still reads the newspapers. He is up for parole in 2017.

Marcellus Jones will spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of Tyrek Taylor.

Since his arrest, he has stacked up 170 behavioral infractions, which include attacking guards and throwing urine on staff.

He is kept in lockdown 23 hours a day, with no books, magazines, or television. He receives meals through a slot. In the recreation yard, he is confined to a small caged-in area.

He is allowed a box of personal papers and a "safe pen."

"Hi, how're u?" he answered a letter recently. "I'm better than some worse than others."

He maintains his innocence.

Monteil felt something close to joy the day of the verdict. She and Cinquita walked home instead of taking the bus. Monteil couldn't bear to be around all those people who didn't know.

But life back on Bouvier Street swallowed that feeling.

Monteil still smiles at work. Still struggles to keep it all at bay, to think of the good, not the bad.

She collected the stuffed animals from Tyrek's sidewalk memorial and kept them in a living-room corner. She kept his car, too. The Bonneville. She used to drive it, feeling close to him when inside it. But the transmission is going. It's parked on the curb. Where Tyrek always parked it. Where he parked it that day. Weeds grow around it.

The abandoned house where Jones waited still sits shuttered. There is talk a neighbor might fix it up.

And every day there is that reminder - that spot of ground where she held him.

"It's like a picture," Monteil said in her soft voice on a recent afternoon, sitting on her front step. "And I can't get that picture out of mind."

She wiped at tears.

"The hurt," she said, "just stays hurt."

Tyrek is buried in a patchy rise of earth on the outskirts of a Delaware County cemetery. He has no headstone.

"Most of the business we get are from gunshot victims from Philadelphia," said a woman working at the cemetery office.

Some remember Beau in small ways.

His housemate, Meg Guerreiro, went on to work as a teacher in Philadelphia and always shared Beau's story with her students. They seemed to connect to the loss. She kept Beau's teaching supplies. His pocket Constitution.

Beau's old Boy Scout troop at Camp Cuyuna in Minnesota laid a stepping-stone by the lake and built a tree house in his honor.

"All God's critters got a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher," the troop sung at the dedication.

Lana Hollerud will come back to Philadelphia if there is ever a trial in Beau's killing. And she will stay for a verdict.

But a mother's closure cannot be found in a courtroom.

She has faith, and believes someday she and Beau will be together again. That will be her closure.

For now, she misses him always. She wishes Beau had found a soul mate before he died - that he knew what that felt like.

In the warm months, Lana visits Beau's grave daily. It sits in the full sun, and the flowers wilt quickly without water.

Sometimes, the deer come up from the tree line and eat the tops of the flowers. Lana likes to think of the deer coming to visit Beau.


Contact Mike Newall at 215-854-2759 or mnewall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @MikeNewall.

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