|Crime and Redemption, Part 2|
|Written by Kathy Glasgow, BT Contributor|
Tray Battle’s struggle: It’s hard to plan a future when you can’t explain yourself
In August 2015, Chris Kesl’s home in Morningside was burglarized. Several months afterward, Kesl contacted Biscayne Times with an intriguing request: She suggested the BT publish a letter she had received from Tray Battle, who had written her while he was in jail, charged with the burglary.
It was not just a letter. It was fourteen pages of something like a dense, stream-of-consciousness journal. Battle had written it not just to reiterate his claim of innocence in Kesl’s burglary, but to communicate a desire to get his life on track, and she believed he was sincere. Part 1 of “Crime and Redemption,” published in the December issue, dealt primarily with the burglary, the arrest of Battle, and Kesl’s reaction to his extraordinary letter.
That first installment ended before the case was closed, with Battle still in jail and set to enter a plea agreement on that and another burglary. He was anxious to make a deal because it would, once approved by a judge, allow his speedy release.
Kesl, for her part, had been pressing law enforcement and prosecutors to conduct a DNA test comparing Battle’s DNA to that found on various objects inside her burglarized home. Her persistence was rewarded. As Part 1 of the story closed, Battle and Kesl were awaiting results of the DNA tests.
(After Part 1 was published, Battle was distressed that I had associated him with the presence of marijuana in jail during his incarceration at Metro West Detention Center from September 2015 to May 2016. He still has legal problems that he fears could be worsened by any hint of illicit drug possession. Therefore, he scrupulously avoids drugs.)
When Kesl first brought Battle’s letter to the attention of the BT, he was out of jail, but no one seemed to know where he was. I intended to write a story about his letter anyway, and the unusual circumstances under which it came about, but naturally I wanted to speak with Battle in person.
I’d been leaving messages for him on someone else’s cell phone but wasn’t getting a callback; the address I had for him was apparently a freeway swale. My remaining option was to meet up with him at an arraignment hearing scheduled for November 18 at the South Dade Justice Center on SW 211th Street. According to court records, Battle had been arrested in October and was facing his fourth petit theft charge in three years.
I sat in the brown and beige courtroom watching men and women line up as their names were called. They were either black or Latino, none looking to be over 40. Battle’s name was called, but he didn’t line up. I waited until the next batch of defendants was ushered in (hearings were at 30- and 45-minute intervals) and then got up to leave, wondering if there was another way to find him and knowing that before the end of the day, the judge would issue a bench warrant, another setback Battle didn’t need.
Right then, before I reached the courtroom door, my phone rang. It was Tray Battle. He was returning my calls and had no idea he even had a hearing scheduled. So I went to pick him up in Little Haiti and drove him back to the courthouse, where he patched things up with the judge. I can’t say I got to know him very well during our two long trips down and up S. Dixie Highway. But anyone who reads the Buddha’s Dhamma and loves Raury’s music is a person who shouldn’t be wasting his time lined up before a judge hearing misdemeanor pleas.
Battle early on got into the habit of sizing up any situation with an eye to getting out of it. Growing up in North Carolina on the shifting sands of the foster-care system and then on gang-controlled streets, always having to rely on the unreliable, he took what he saw as a necessary gamble when he moved, alone and with no contacts, to the town called Magic City.
The train wasn’t too far outside Miami when Battle struck up a conversation with another passenger, a Carol City girl. “She looked at me and she said, ‘You’re not from here, are you?’” Battle remembers. It was early February 2014. Some 20 hours earlier, he had left the familiar cold of winter in Raleigh. He was only 22, a Missionary Baptist choirboy gone thug, an ex-con already weary and wary. With $1000 in his pocket, Battle was about to start a quest for, as he put it, a “solid life.”
“I was asking that girl how do I get to Biscayne, how do I get to Little Haiti.” Battle talks much like he writes, words rushing forth in staccato waves, freestyling: “She helped me. She was explaining things about Miami to me, like, ‘You go to this [part of town] for white people, that way for Spanish; this way for black.’ That’s how I holed up on Biscayne. I stayed at the Sinbad for a while. I stayed at a lot of those [motels]. I thought a thousand would last me for a while, but not here. People treat you real cold if you have nothing; they don’t want to listen. This town is one of the coldest places I’ve been.”
From Battle’s poem called “every piece of my mind #1,” included with his letter to Kesl: In a sense this is worst then torture/I just keep my composure/I was raised to show strength I’ll break down when its over/…. I learned a true lesson of life when you broke people look at you different/they don’t wanna listen/they just wanna prick you for parts/a arm a leg a good pick on your heart the same ones you go all in for/show you aint worth a call/you give it your all/you should’ve done better.
Battle worked sporadically, for cash. He had acquired construction skills in North Carolina but was relegated to day-labor jobs (and worse, like handing out flyers 16 hours a day in exchange for a motel bed and a few Quarter-Pounders) because he had no identification. He couldn’t get an ID because he didn’t have a birth certificate. (In December 2016, after three years of wrangling with the North Carolina vital records department and his adoptive parents, he did finally obtain a Florida ID.)
Dislocated and relocated from birth, Battle had little trouble mixing with the cultures and customs flourishing along the Biscayne Corridor; he picked up some Cuban slang, some Kreyol, and he found refuge often in Little Haiti, to which he had been drawn even before migrating to Miami.
Back home, Battle had felt like a man in quicksand: every time he’d tried to get free, the muck pulled him in deeper. A month out of prison, he was staying in a trap house, assailed by gangsters and police alike; his strung-out mother accused him of “putting a hex” on her; his adoptive parents all but disowned him. Nevertheless, and uncharacteristically for anyone raised in a wasteland, Battle stayed aware of life outside the constriction and obscurity of his own.
He read books, despite not finishing high school; he drew portraits and still lifes; he learned about Buddhism and meditation. “I used to go to a graveyard to meditate,” he recalls. Then a video about vodou in Little Haiti turned his thinking magical. He came up with a plan to escape the quicksand. He would move to Miami, find a guide, and sell his soul for money, like the video showed people doing in Little Haiti. He thought that might buy him a future. It’s the devil talking to him now, but back then he convinced himself of crazy things in order to keep going.
A few months in Miami, and Battle’s thinking turned in different directions. He met Tiny, a beautiful woman from Port-de-Paix, who had no use for soul-selling, who was focused on bettering herself in the here and now.
“My knowledge changed about life,” Battle wrote in his letter to Kesl, “[Tiny] told me no matter how good my intentions, my plans were bad. She enlightened me on something different, and then she was killed.”
Sandy Celin, the girl Battle called Tiny, was shot to death on the Fourth of July, 2014. Battle had lost a rarity in his life -- someone who looked after him, or at least tried to. He mourned but didn’t show it. “I really do love,” he admitted later, “and that’s a weakness.”
Another piece of “every piece of my mind #1”: Every night I fell asleep in Legion Park/I woke up to no ceilings/I woke up with no feelings/just a man on the edge/…There’s no rehab for this no remedies or no meds/I tell my self it’s all in my head but it’s right in my face/times I hadn’t ate in a week I was living off taste/too proud to ask for help nights bugs help theirself to my face/picked up a new faith made a vow to never break/I just need to escape I did what it took to what it takes/long nights with less sleep work days without breaks.
By the end of 2014, he was still nowhere near getting an ID or a steady job. He refused, though, to walk around looking as poor as he really was. His hair was always neatly combed and twisted or braided, and his clothes stylish and clean. He was proud, and he sometimes stole things he didn’t have. Which led to his first arrest in Miami, on Christmas Eve. He was caught shoplifting clothing at a Walmart while holding a bit of weed. The next month, another arrest for shoplifting; charges dismissed.
“I didn’t want to go to jail, but I was trying to survive,” Battle asserts. “I never took anything unless I really needed it.”
His serious troubles began in late summer 2015. He was still essentially homeless, sleeping in Legion Park unless invited to crash on a friend’s spare sofa or bed. He also was in the habit of occasionally stealing items left outside houses in the area -- things like tools or sports equipment that he could sell. One afternoon in late August, he deviated from his usual modus operandi and lifted some small electronics from inside a house in Belle Meade; he claims the theft was too easy to pass up.
One night, Battle slipped into Chris Kesl’s back yard. “When I come in your yard I was looking for bikes yard tools something I could make a couple of dollars off of to get thru the day,” Battle wrote Kesl in his letter. “I was unsuccessful because there was nothing in the back and I couldn’t get in the garage…. I seen two dogs at the back window [and] I left I wouldn’t have risked going in a house with 2 dogs barking.”
That may have been the night before the early morning -- 3:00 a.m. on August 23 -- that intruders did break into the house. Or it could have been a few nights earlier, since on the date of the burglary Kesl had been out of town for several days.
During their investigation, police found Battle’s fingerprints on the outside of the garage window and posited that he’d been the “lookout” for the actual burglars. He denies this and maintains he left Kesl’s yard around 11:00 p.m. without seeing anyone break in. Still, there was evidence he’d been on Kesl’s property and, according to prosecutors, could technically be charged with burglary.
On September 8, Miami Beach police picked him up in a park after hours. The next morning he figured he was getting out of jail, but instead “[The police] come back with two A forms. I go to court the next day. I kept telling them, yes, I did that one [Belle Meade] burglary, but not the one at Ms. Christine’s house.”
Battle formally confessed to the Belle Meade burglary but insisted on going to trial regarding Kesl’s. His public defender, however, persuaded him to take a plea deal on both cases that would involve boot camp and probation.
At a court hearing several weeks after his arrest, Battle was taken into a jury room, stripped, and inspected for bite marks on his arms and legs. Authorities found nothing. The inspection stemmed from the death of one of Kesl’s dogs, thought to have been caused by kicks or blows during the burglary. Kesl believed her dog would have tried to attack the intruder, so she had asked the prosecutor to check the suspect’s body.
Kesl was never entirely convinced that Battle was the perpetrator since the police were basing their case on fingerprints and had so far not analyzed the extensive DNA evidence left inside her house. The DNA wasn’t processed until April 2016, after Kesl had met with Battle in person, received his letter, and repeatedly demanded DNA testing.
In May prosecutors advised Kesl that the DNA in her house was not a match to either Battle or anyone else in their databases. (To date, no one besides Battle has been arrested for that crime.)
But Battle, still locked up at Metro West and still anticipating pleading to both crimes, didn’t know the DNA results until he went to court on May 17, 2016. He recalls hearing the prosecutor telling the judge that the DNA didn’t match the defendant’s. Nevertheless, Battle ended up pleading “no contest” to Kesl’s burglary and guilty to the other in Belle Meade. He received five years’ probation (no boot camp) and two felonies on his record.
At least Battle was out of jail, free to hone his talents in art and rap. His essential dilemma, though, remained ever more daunting: how to secure a steady job with a living wage. His prospects dimmed further when, just a month out, he was picked up for cannabis possession. After another month in jail, the charge was dismissed and conditions of his probation tightened.
Then, four months later, the misdemeanor shoplifting arrest. Because he’s on probation, his most recent petit theft charge isn’t so petty; he can’t take a plea and must request a trial, which is not yet scheduled.
From “every piece of my mind #1”: I think I lost my soul last year/ambition and coldness behind each tear/I closed my eyes to the world it beginned to whisper in my ear/don’t go here I went there too ignorant to pay attention/… my gifts didn’t glisten/so they were left in the dark…I never bit a hand but to survive I’m differently cutthroat/it’s the truth when you compared my life to a rollercoaster/The difference is I would compare it to a locomotive/because I’m going full force into the world like the headcar conductor with no instructor/….stressed so I test the structure/apologizing to everything in my past.
Battle is smart enough to know apologies alone won’t distance him from his past. He knows the odds are against him. “My life is going nowhere,” he concedes. “But I’ve learned a lot and I believe if you do right, you can’t go wrong. Some people ain’t going nowhere, but they don’t know it. My power is: I know.”
This is the second part of a two-part story.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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