Photo: Stephen Keen
With his quick smile and quirky demeanor, it is almost impossible not to like Stephen Keen. Even at 32, the man is boyishly enthusiastic, bright and affable.Talking to him, it’s easy to forget that a few short years ago the state of Florida charged him with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
Since I first wrote this story about Steve, he and I have remained in loose contact. He’s still being affected by the tale that follows and as I cover the difficulties military members have with assimilating back into civilian life, I’m re-publishing the story here.
Keen says he was injured in the military and after an honorable discharge, he became a South Florida woodworker. He then turned to general contracting and family life, complete with a wife and two kids, grossing almost $3 million annually: It all took just a handful of years. “Things,” Keen says, “started to change between me and my wife after the birth of our second child, my son Sam.”
It wasn’t long after that he and Jodi’s relationship began to crumble and they began an ugly divorce and Jodi Filed a restraining order. Dropping his daughter off at school one morning, Keen yelled out the window of his car to his soon to be ex-wife. She called the police.
Far from giving him the slap Keen imagined, the Florida court sentenced him to 90 days in the Manatee County Jail. “The Port,” as inmates and law enforcement call it, took Keen for the ride of his life.
“I ACTUALLY HAD clients to meet after my hearing that day,” Keen says. Instead of meeting them, Keen was bound in shackles and loaded onto a transport for the trip from the courthouse to the jail. Keen was taken to a part of the jail called the annex, a separate building designed to house minor offenders and those awaiting trial with less than substantial bonds. It’s a locale with a broad demographic; Keen struggled to find a niche. That’s when he started telling his fellow inmates that he wished his wife were dead.
“I was so pissed off,” Keen says. “I was locked up in jail for not doing anything. How would you feel? Yes, I wished Jody were dead. Who hasn’t said, ‘I hate her’? ‘I wish she were dead’? Divorce is hostile and your wife is one of the few people who can push your buttons.”
It didn’t take long for jail authorities to recognise Keen’s particular skill-set and to put him in charge of the construction of a sewing facility. Keen found himself directing a reluctant workforce that resented being told what to do, especially by another inmate. “I tried to run it like any other job,” Keen says. It was a managerial style that shortly had him face to face with another inmate bearing a shovel and swinging it for Keen’s head. “That old training kicked in,” Keen says. “A huge black guy … nearly twice my size. I blew his fucking nose up. I can’t remember if I broke any teeth out. He went down like a ton of bricks. Night-night. It was either that or a shovel upside my head.” It happened quickly and quietly but the incident let Keen know that the racial divide in jail was real and he was not at all safe.
Photo: Stephen Keen
“We had a lot of freedom in the annex and there were a lot of tools. Maybe I started running my mouth in a way I shouldn’t have,” Keen says.”Steve tried way too hard to fit in,” says Christopher Drescher during an interview at the port. Drescher met Keen in the annex, where he was also locked up on a misdemeanour charge. Through an odd twist of fate Drescher was later put back in the same cell with Keen, in maximum security, when they both caught felony charges. Drescher testified on Keen’s behalf at his trial.
“Steve didn’t have a clue what was going on around him. He was green — greener than green. He tried to fit in, but nobody liked him. He didn’t know how to fit in,” Drescher says. Drescher is talking to me via video visitation from his location in H-Pod southwest, maximum security. I’m in another building, across from the annex, talking to him on a phone in front of a video monitor. I ask Drescher if he ever heard Stephen Keen say he wished his wife were dead and he chuckles: “Yeah, I heard him say that. Everybody heard him, and nobody took him seriously.”
Drescher’s pod houses him and 23 other inmates in six cells, all bordering a common area and a small recreation yard. It is the place Drescher has called home for the last 15 months, after being charged on May 5, 2008 with the April home invasion and beating of former Anna Maria Island Commissioner Linda Crame. His fellow inmates stroll by as we’re talking, looking me more in the eye, it seems, than Drescher.
“Steve talked a lot about the stuff he had,” Drescher continues, “about how his ex took all his shit. How he hated her. Nobody cared. The brothers really wanted to beat him up. He tried really hard to fit in. … They control the show in here, but man, they all, they all laughed at him behind his back.”
ENTER PATRICK BELVIN. Known as “Dough Boy” on the streets, Belvin was the inmate who wasn’t laughing. In March 2008, Belvin had just finished 60 days at the port for possession of drug paraphernalia. On April 29 he called 911 from a Race Trac in Palmetto, telling the dispatcher he was on crack and needed to be taken to the emergency room, to be put on medication before he hurt himself. While in the hospital, he picked up four felony charges for biting and assaulting emergency workers and a security guard.
Belvin was diagnosed young as having schizophrenia, and has been battling hallucinations most of his life, haunted by the ghost of a boy he saw murdered when he was 11. “It ain’t like I’m seein’ no little green men,” he says in his deposition, “but the ghost of that boy tells me to kill myself.” At the port he got back on Thorazine for the schizophrenia and Remeron for his major depressive disorder. He also suffers from physical impairments that require him to wear a catheter and urine bag.
Belvin, according to statements in his deposition, has been to the port over 20 times, hasn’t spent more than six straight months on the street since he was 14 years old and has a record that trails around Florida and into Georgia. “Yeah,” he says in his deposition, “I’ve been in jail a lot of different places, but I ain’t think I got no felonies.” In fact, Belvin has 12 felony convictions in Manatee County alone. With so many convictions already on his record, when Belvin was arrested in 2008, he could have faced the maximum sentence on all charges and spent the rest of his foreseeable future in prison.
Belvin started his stint at the port in the annex, but because he got in trouble, he was moved from the annex to D-Pod, or disciplinary pod — where inmates are housed alone, able to communicate with each other only by screaming through air vents or by rigging the food slot in the cell doors. It was while he was in D-Pod that Belvin decided Stephen Keen was his ticket out.
BELVIN CALLED THE jail’s crime tip line and was connected to Detective Sergeant William Diamond’s Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU), the organisation that pursues crime within the jail.
He told CIU that he overheard someone in the annex say he wanted his wife dead. Belvin convinced CIU to take him out of D-Pod, drop the disciplinary charge and put him back in the annex. In return Belvin agreed to wear a recording device and obtain evidence against the man, who turned out to be Stephen Keen.
Diamond states in his deposition that his only instructions to Belvin were: “Just act your normal self so that you don’t draw attention to yourself because you have a bug on you.”
Belvin was given no restrictions on how to obtain damning evidence. During his deposition, he has no problem telling Keen’s attorney, John Pangallo, “I want to get something straight. I can talk a cat off a fish truck. I can sell ice to an Eskimo 20 below zero outside. You want the Lamborghini? I’ll make you drive a Volvo.” Belvin says he coerced Keen to write down and commit verbally to hiring Belvin to kill his wife Jody. Belvin produced a written note with information about Jody, allegedly in Keen’s handwriting, along with phone numbers that proved to be disconnected or out of service. Belvin also says he got Keen to agree to pay him five grand: $2,500 up front and $2,500 after Jody was dead. Law enforcement was never able to determine where this money would come from or how it would be delivered.
In Belvin’s deposition, when Pangallo pretends to doubt his ability to get Keen to do as Belvin wished, Belvin responds: “No. No, no, no. I got him to say he wanted to kill his wife,” Belvin adamantly replies, “I got him to say that. … But they wanted to hear him say how much. They wanted me to get him to say how much he was going to pay me. So that’s what I did.”
When I ask Keen why he would agree to an amount at all, he replies: “I didn’t. He came up with the numbers. He came up with the plan. I just never said, ‘No.’ That was my mistake. I told him to go away, ‘You’re stressing me out,’ but I just never confronted him and said, ‘No.'”
Not that saying no would necessarily have worked. Belvin was determined to come through and deliver, saying in his deposition: “I just wanted to get some more juice and berries for Diamond, ya’ know?”
According to testimony by Belvin himself and other inmates, Belvin hounded Keen in the annex at every turn. During more than 20 hours of audio used by the prosecution, not once did Keen initiate a conversation with Belvin. Belvin apparently saw Keen as his only hope to avoid a lengthy prison term.
Belvin’s brother-in-law, Randy Anthony Allen, who talked to Belvin through the air vents while they were both in D-Pod, testified in open court that: “[Belvin] thought he was going to get a life sentence, sir. … For this [charge] right here, he thought he was going to get a life sentence, sir; that’s why he did it.” Allen was at the port, serving county time on a contraband charge. He is currently housed at Hardee Correctional Institute in Bowling Green, Fla., with a scheduled release date of 2031.
Allen’s testimony proved key when the judge overruled the prosecution and allowed Allen to further tell the jury: “[Belvin] said Detective Diamond kept coming back to him, kept coming back to him, told him that he needed to get information, and if he didn’t get this information [Belvin] would be charged with it. Then he also stated that it took a lot of time; it took a lot of time for him to get this because at first Mr. Keen didn’t want to talk about it, sir.”
For his part, Detective Diamond says in his deposition: “I didn’t have [Belvin] go in there and try to get anybody to say anything.” As for offering Belvin a deal? Diamond, who Manatee County Jail’s Public Information Office confirms remains in charge of the Criminal Investigation Unit but who could not be reached for comment, continues, “We weren’t offering him any time off his sentence or anything of that nature. I don’t reward these guys with anything.”
Whether Belvin saw the 13-month sentence he was finally offered as a deal is unknown, but he immediately signed it and was back on the street Oct. 18, 2009.
Keen tells me Diamond and a few other officers at the jail took a certain pleasure in his predicament. At one point Diamond told him, “You’re my show pony Keen.” When I ask Keen what that means, Keen says: “I have absolutely no idea.” Often, Keen tells me, guards would walk by his cell, rap on the bars to wake him up and ask, “Getting comfy in there Keen?” They would smile and continue walking.
When his trial finally started on March 23, 2009, it came as a relief to Keen, who had been locked up for 15 months. Keen can’t say for sure, but he thinks the unravelling of the case for lead prosecutor Lauren Berns occurred during Jody Keen’s testimony. Jody was pulled in from witness protection and put up in a hotel. Her testimony proved so festooned with holes and outright lies that she was stricken as a witness. The state could not salvage any of her testimony. Jody disappeared again while the trial was still concluding.
The trial lasted all week and adjourned on Friday evening, forcing Keen to spend one very long weekend in the port wondering if he would spend the rest of his life behind bars or walk out of the courthouse a free man. On Monday morning, March 30, Christopher Drescher watched as Keen left for court, Keen’s arms piled high with his accumulated belongings. Seeing the question in Drescher’s eyes, Keen said: “I ain’t coming back here, man.”
He was right. The jury came back with a not-guilty verdict in about 40 minutes — the time it took them to fill out all the paperwork and return it to the bailiff.
Following Keen’s acquittal, a civil judge called Jody to begin the process of lifting the restraining order against Keen. Jody promptly dumped her phone number. On Thanksgiving 2009, Keen paid three Kentucky investigators to sit outside three houses belonging to Jody’s family. She never showed. Keen fights the inclination to believe he will never see his kids again.
Keen is still in court today with his third attorney and a new judge trying to find Sam and Ryan. He’s built his business back up, he says, for the sole purpose of fighting his way through the courts and back to his children.
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