Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly this afternoon announced the arrest of 15-year-old Da’Mari Barnes, a 10th grader currently enrolled at Matanzas High School, on a manslaughter charge in the shooting death of Jamey “JuJu” Bennett, 19, during a bonfire party nearly three weeks ago in north Palm Coast.
Barnes sped away from the scene in a Hyundai at the time of the shooting and turned himself into authorities in Georgia, where he remains in detention at a juvenile jail, pending his extradition to Florida. When that occurs, he is expected to be incarcerated at a Department of Juvenile Justice jail in Volusia County
State Attorney R.J. Larizza, speaking with the sheriff at an afternoon news conference, said he has not yet reviewed the case fully enough to determine whether Barnes will be charged as an adult. But Larizza is strongly leaning that way. Even if he is charged as an adult, Barnes would remain in detention in a juvenile facility pending the resolution of the case.
“I can tell you when a death is involved, Larizza said, “it’s difficult to justify anything other than adult charges in most instances. But we haven’t got all the paperwork yet. We haven’t got all the information. Once we do, we’ll review it. And then we’ll make a decision based on the facts, the circumstances in the law, and what we believe is the appropriate thing to do.”
The shooting took place early the morning of Feb. 5 in an isolated wooded area near Matanzas Woods Parkway and Old Kings Road, site of a party that had been advertised on social media and attracted some 50 people, most of them teens. Staly said Barnes had been “talking trash” to some of the people there. An argument developed, escalated, and promoted Bennett to intercede between Barnes and a girl there, at which point Barnes is said to have fired a shot, striking Bennett. Bennett died at AdventHealth Palm Coast.
“This was a difficult case. Many witnesses were not totally forthcoming during their interviews to solve this case,” Staly said, describing the breadth of the investigation, which included reviewing 911 calls, 20 search warrants and subpoenas on cars, homes and electronic devices, 50 preservation orders involving social media accounts, nearly 20 hours of in-person interviews and reviews of hundreds of hours of surveillance footage from across the county, plus the canvassing of neighborhoods and the processing of physical and digital evidence.
Staly would not disclose whether the weapon was recovered or what it was. Detectives obtained an order to have Barnes arrested on Feb. 22. They had convinced his parents to convince him to turn himself in. It isn’t clear why he went to Georgia, other than his hopes to get away.
The manslaughter charge is a first degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison, if Barnes is charged as an adult. Larizza said the charge could potentially be upgraded to murder.
“We do not expect anyone else to be charged,” Staly said. “And while it is tragic to charge a 15 year old with murder, it is my hope the state attorney and a grand jury if necessary, will indict and charge him as an adult. The juvenile system has significant limitations on serious crimes like this. And I don’t think the juvenile system will provide the proper justice for the victims family or community.”
“This was a 15 year old. 15 years old,” Staly said, setting aside his prepared remarks. ” This is a killer. It’s amazing to me, at age 15 that this would be done at the hands of a 15 year old. He was trying to be a macho man with a gun. So parents, I asked you to teach your kids that it takes a bigger man to walk away from a dispute than it does to be a punk with a gun. Know what your kids are doing, where they are and who they’re with, before it’s too late. How many parents knew that their kids, 50 kids were in the woods at a party that would end up in a murder at two o’clock in the morning? I would venture to say that most of those parents had no clue where their kids were. Because let me tell you, nothing good occurs after midnight, especially with 50 kids in the woods at a party.”
Larizza spoke of his concern about what he perceives as an increase in gun thefts and attendant gun negligence by people who do not secure their guns.
“All four counties are seeing this kind of crime, guns are being stolen by kids,” Larizza said. “They’re being traded and sold by kids to other kids, and they’re being used in violent crime.” It is a misdemeanor in Floirida to leave guns unsecured, but prosecutions under that statute are extremely rare. Larizza cited one such case in Volusia. There appears to have been none in Flagler in at least a dozen years. The state attorney did not suggest that there would be greater enforcement of the law, but noted the dearth of such prosecutions.
“And the end, the thing that’s so frustrating to me is these kids, it’s like, they just don’t realize, or maybe they do, which is even worse I suspect, what they do when they kill somebody, when they pull that gun, and they shoot it and somebody dies, or somebody gets injured,” Larizza said, “or even if they don’t, the mere fact that they fired that gun, it alters their life in a very substantial way forever. And now this 15 year old kid is going to have to face the music regarding the fact that an individual he shot is now dead.”
The sheriff’s office is working two other homicides (all three resulting in the death of young, Black males). FPC Student Noah Smith, 16, was shot and killed as he appeared to have been caught in a shootout in Bunnell. On Dec. 29, Zaire Roberts, 23, was shot and killed at a house on Regent Lane.
“Those investigations that we still have outstanding are progressing very well, but we’re not ready to make arrests yet or bring them to conclusion,” Staly said. “The same team that you see behind me and those that are still out in the field are working those cases, along with parts of this entire agency and FDLE,” the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “I am confident that we will bring them to a successful resolution.”