On Jan. 26, 2001, Delois West and another Durham police investigator went to the Few Gardens housing project to arrest Khalid Abdallah. As in the case of Erick Daniels, police charged Abdallah with robbing Ruth Brown after Brown picked him from a photo lineup. When the cops apprehended Abdallah that day, West effectively closed the investigation that began four months earlier when Brown reported she had been robbed by two masked gunmen. Records show that investigators had reason to suspect that four people were actually involved in the crimethe two robbers, a lookout and a getaway driverbut with Daniels and Abdallah in custody, police did not pursue any other leads, nor did they consider that Brown may have misidentified either of their prime suspects.
Ironically, during Abdallah’s arrestthat final act of the investigationpolice recovered evidence that could have sent them in a new direction. They found several color photographs that show Abdallah and his associates striking menacing poses and brandishing handguns. Many of those pictures include a man named Samuel Strong or “Doc,” one of Abdallah’s old friends, who fits Brown’s description of the first gunman. Police either ignored or missed the connection, and handed the case over to prosecutors. But Strong would soon become entangled with the law, and some say, try to confess to his involvement in Ruth Brown’s robberyand clear Erick Daniels.
In July 2001, Samuel Strong masterminded the heist of a Central Carolina Bank branch on Roxboro Road in Durham. Unable to make bond after his arrest, he remained in the Durham County jail for several months. In December 2001, just as Erick Daniels was going to trial for robbing Brown, Strong hired Robert Harris to represent him on the bank robbery charges. Harris also was representing Daniels.
Interviews suggest that some time after Erick Daniels was convicted, Strong attempted to confess to robbing Ruth Brown in an attempt to exonerate Daniels and make a deal on the bank robbery charges. Karen Daniel, Erick Daniels’ mother, recounts a conversation she says she had with Robert Harris. “He said in January of 2002, maybe a couple weeks after Erick’s trial, Strong came to him and said, ‘The kid didn’t do the robbery. I did it.’”
Harris disputes the timing and, citing attorney-client privilege, says he will not say what Strong told him. “When Erick’s trial was going on, I never heard one thing or the other from Samuel Strong,” Harris says. “He never said anything then or immediately after. If he did, I would have withdrawn.”
Kam Russell, a suspect in Brown’s robbery, also got word that Strong confessed. “When Khalid [Abdallah] got out on bond, he told me Doc was trying to say he did the shit to get out of the bank robbery,” Russell says. “If they would have let Doc do it, he was going to testify against Khalid to get a plea.”
Shannon Tucker, Abdallah’s attorney, says she heard no such thing. “I don’t recall anyone ever wanting to testify against my client and clear Erick,” Tucker says. “My client has maintained his innocence throughout this entire procedure and he has never told me anything different.”
Freda Black, who prosecuted Daniels and Abdallah, says she recalls getting word that Strong wanted to come forward. “I remember hearing that there was a man in federal prison who wanted to suggest that he was a perpetrator,” Black says about Strong, who was convicted in federal court on the bank robbery charges. “It might have been Robert Harris who told me. There was an affidavit in which he was prepared to present that information, but it was never presented to me.”
But Harris denies that. “I went to Freda to find out if there were any confessions out there and she never got back to me,” Harris says. “But we never discussed the person’s name. If she’s saying somebody’s name, that should be looked into.”
Carlos Mahoney, Daniels’ appellate defender, is sifting through the jumble of hearsay to find facts he can use in court. He says Black’s failure to tell him about the attempted confession may be tantamount to withholding exculpatory evidence. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors have an ongoing duty to disclose such evidence, even after conviction. Mahoney is also exploring whether Harris’ concurrent representation of Daniels and Strongtwo clients with diametrically opposing interestsqualifies as ineffective assistance of counsel.
The circumstantial evidence linking Strong to Ruth Brown’s robbery rises above mere talk. As the prisoner control report created after Strong’s bank robbery shows (below), Strong is 5-feet-4-inches tall, has light skin, and wore his hair in cornrow braids. At 145 pounds, he had a slight build. That fits Brown’s description of the first gunman. Moreover, Brown testified at trial that the first gunman attacked her with an old, silver .22 revolver. The warrant for Strong’s arrest in the bank robbery shows that he was apprehended with a silver revolver in his possession.
Strong’s track record bolsters the notion that he could have been involved in Brown’s robbery. He was released from a North Carolina prison three days before Brown was robbed. Twenty-two at the time, he had just served almost three-and-a-half years for involvement in a rash of armed carjackings in Raleigh. Strong confessed to those chargeshe was the principal gunmanas did his accomplice and longtime friend, Khalid Abdallah. The two served time together, and the photographs from Abdallah’s arrest show they remained close when they left prison. The pictures are not dated, but they must have been taken between Sept. 18, 2000, when Strong was released from prison, and January 26, 2001, when officers found them.
Samuel Strong is now serving 14 years and five months in federal prison on the bank robbery charges; he is due for release in 2014. One of his accomplices, Aminah Abdallah, Khalid Abdallah’s sister, has already been released.
Strong did not respond to letters seeking permission to visit and talk to him about the Daniels case. Khalid Abdallah denies that his friend Strong was involved in Ruth Brown’s robbery. A jury acquitted Abdallah of those charges in 2003.