The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was brutally slain with her kids. A jury will decide if the killer was her ex-boyfriend or the cartel.

After Brandi Peters and her three children were found murdered in Tallahassee in 2010, prosecutors pointed the finger at her ex-boyfriend, Henry Segura, who owed her more than $20,000 in child support.

But just before the trial began, a competing theory added an explosive new dimension to the case. A member of a Mexican cartel came forward, saying he had ordered the murders from prison because Peters, who worked as a drug mule, had helped herself to more than $90,000 worth of drugs and cash. It sounded like an outlandish claim — but DNA evidence found in her bedroom came back as a possible match to a Colombian cocaine trafficker.

Now, Segura, 41, is waiting for a Florida jury to determine if he is guilty of the grisly quadruple murder and should face the death penalty. His previous trial, which took place in 2017, ended in a deadlock. The case has only grown more tangled since then, with both sides pointing to contested DNA evidence and testimony from jailhouse witnesses to bolster their claims.

“There ain’t no black man anywhere in America who is killing anybody over child support,” defense attorney Nate Prince told the jury earlier this month, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “This is the most heinous offense committed in Tallahassee. There isn’t any argument against that. The problem is that it wasn’t Mr. Segura.”

Peters and her young children were found dead in their home on the morning of Nov. 20, 2010, after a neighbor in their quiet Tallahassee subdivision called police to request a welfare check. She and her 6-year-old daughter, Tamiyah, had been shot, and Peters, then 27, had also sustained blunt force trauma to the head that left her with a cracked skull. Tamiyah’s twin, Taniyah, had been drowned in a bathtub, as had 3-year-old JaVonte, Peters’s son with Segura.

Segura, a journeyman welder, owed so much child support to Peters that he faced potential jail time and the loss of his welding license and driver’s license. Prosecutors say he didn’t display any emotion when he learned his son had been killed. Instead, he initially lied to police, denying he had an affair with Peters and claiming he had been home watching a movie the night of the murders.

But cellphone records showed he had been in Peters’s neighborhood that night. In court last week, Segura said he lied because he didn’t want his wife to find out about his affair and the child he had fathered. The truth, he said, was that he went to Peters’s house at around 5 p.m. to have sex with her and watch TV with JaVonte, then left at around 8:21 p.m.

Right around that same time, prosecutors say, Peters’s cellphone was turned off for good. They believe the murders occurred during a roughly two-hour period when her married ex-boyfriend was at her home. As evidence, they point to a mixture of DNA found on the grab bar in the bathtub, which includes a sample that partially matches Segura.

But the 41-year-old’s attorneys say that since Segura’s son was found in the bathtub, the DNA match isn’t surprising. They also point out Peters’s hands were bruised from fighting off her attacker, and blood was splattered all over the house when police showed up. Anyone responsible for the murder would have injuries from a struggle, they argued in court earlier this month, but Segura only had a small scratch on his arm.

The defense team also highlighted the fact that five sets of shoe prints were found on a carpet in the house’s foyer — a detail which could bolster the testimony of James Carlos Santos, who testified on Thursday that he organized a seven-person hit squad and ordered the quadruple murder.

A member of the Vice Lords gang, Santos was serving federal prison time for charges including armed robbery when the murder took place. He came forward with his explosive confession in 2016, but invoked the Fifth Amendment and remained silent throughout Segura’s first trial.

Taking the stand last week, Santos said he had wanted to make an example out of Peters. The two met in 2001, he claimed, and before long, she was traveling to the Texas border to collect drugs from the Los Zetas cartel, then driving them to Tallahassee or Atlanta, where the Vice Lords would distribute them. (Peters’s family members have denied this and said she didn’t have a driver’s license at the time.)

Santos, who is still in federal prison, testified on Thursday that he had continued running his drug ring from behind bars using contraband cellphones and an elaborate code, and learned Peters had skimmed more than $90,000 in drugs and cash from the organization. He said he ordered the killings because other cartel-linked figures inside the prison could have come after him otherwise, and later confessed because he thought his testimony would definitively prove to the cartel he wasn’t behind the thefts. Authorities haven’t said whether he would face charges if Segura is acquitted.

Defense attorneys presented letters that Santos wrote to Peters in the days leading up to her murder as proof the two knew each other. But prosecutors have sought to undermine Santos’s story, saying the gang member has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffers from delusions of grandeur, the Democrat reported. They also noted he has taken credit for several murders over the years, but those claims haven’t been proved.

As wild as Santos’s story might seem, police did find evidence that could potentially add credence to his claim. A DNA sample taken from a phone cradle in Peters’s bedroom came back as a possible match for Angel Avila-Quinones, a Colombian national who in 2000 was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges after being caught with almost five tons of cocaine on a fishing boat.

In court on Friday, the state’s expert and an another DNA analyst both testified the sample taken from the phone cradle was consistent with Avila-Quinones’s genetic profile, the Democrat reported. Another expert who was hired by prosecutors disputed that finding, saying the sample was missing some key genetic markers and shouldn’t be considered a match.

Complicating the matter even further is the fact that Avila-Quinones was deported in 2009, according to court testimony. There’s no evidence he had returned to the United States at the time of the murder, though he was known to sneak across the border with help from the cartel when he worked as a drug smuggler.

Avila-Quinones has denied any involvement in the murder. In a video interview played in court on Friday, he said he had been to a number of cities in the United States, including Tampa and Talladega, Ala., but he didn’t know Santos and had never been Tallahassee. Later, he contradicted himself and said he had never been to the United States at all, the Democrat reported.

Later on Friday, jurors heard even more explosive testimony — this time from Segura’s former cellmate, who said the 41-year-old frequently wrote rap lyrics about committing four murders.

“He told me he killed his baby’s mom because him and her were going through some child support issues and he was upset,” Kelsey Kinard testified on Friday, according to the Democrat. “He killed her and the kids and everybody.”

Deliberations are expected to begin on Tuesday after both sides present their closing arguments, the paper reported.