DEARBORN, Mich. (Detroit Free Press/USA Today) -- A fired assistant manager at Family Dollar has been charged with killing two workers last week in a crime that the police chief said "shocks the conscience of all civilized people."
Lavere Bryant, 34, of Dearborn, Mich., who records show is a convicted sex offender, was arraigned Wednesday under heavy security in Dearborn District Court on two counts of first-degree murder and a multitude of other charges. Judge Sam Salamey ordered him held without bond.
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Family members of the two victims glared at Bryant in the courtroom. As he was led away after the arraignment, Bryant turned toward the family members and said: "I did not murder them."
Joseph Orlando, 20, and Brenna Machus, 20, were employees at the Family Dollar store off Michigan Avenue in west Dearborn. Employees arriving for work on July 16 found the store in disarray and Orlando's body.
Machus' body was found two days later in the woods between the northbound Southfield Freeway service drive and Michigan Avenue. She had been shot in the head.
Two Family Dollar employees told the Free Press that Bryant was fired earlier this year from his job as an assistant manager at the company's Inkster, Mich., store over complaints he sexually harassed workers. Multiple people had complained about him, they said.
In addition to the sexual harassment complaints, Bryant had been upset because he was passed over for a manager's job by the man who ultimately fired him, according to employees Jasmin Gregory, 20, of Inkster and Sara Coulter, 19, of Taylor. They both work at the Inkster store.
The two women speculate that the crime may have been an act of retaliation but said that they don't know why Bryant would have targeted Machus and Orlando.
"Everyone is puzzled," Gregory said. "Why Brenna? She wouldn't hurt a fly."
Bryn Winburn, public relations manager for Family Dollar, told the Free Press on Wednesday that Bryant had been terminated from the company in the spring. She said she couldn't comment on other details surrounding his employment. She said the company is working closely with police on the case.
"We are saddened by the loss of Joseph and Brenna, and our hearts go out to their families and friends," Winburn said in a statement. "We have a strong, tight-knit team in Detroit, and our focus is on taking care of them right now as we all work to understand what happened."
Both Coulter and Gregory said they were somewhat relieved to hear about Bryant's arrest but wonder whether there are other suspects still on the loose.
The killings have left them on edge. Both now carry pocketknives. And since the shootings, they said, Family Dollar employees walk down the aisles, check the back room and inspect other areas of the stores together as a group at closing time.
Coulter said when she was closing the Inkster store Tuesday night, every little noise made her jump.
"I'm so shooken up," Coulter said.
Kaylyn Lee, 24, of Brownstown Township, a cousin of Machus and spokeswoman for the family, was relieved to hear of the arrest.
"I've been really scared since all of this happened," Lee said. "When I found out they had the person who did this, it was like a weight had been lifted off me."
Two police detectives visited Ashley Sulla's house Wednesday to tell her they had arrested a suspect. Sulla was Machus' girlfriend.
"It won't bring her back. ... But at least we're not suffering knowing her killer is on the run, living a free life," said Sulla, 18.
Sulla and relatives of Machus have described her as outgoing, loving and funny. Sulla lived with her and said she misses her laugh the most.
"It's hard," she said. "It's like if you would have your heart torn out of your chest, knowing you won't be able to get the one you love back."
At the arraignment, Salamey read the long list of charges against Bryant and entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf. The judge noted Bryant has two previous convictions: criminal sexual conduct in 1999 and an assault with intent to do great bodily harm in 2001.
According to State Police records, Bryant was convicted in 1999 in Detroit of second-degree criminal sexual conduct during the commission of a felony. A related charge of home invasion was dismissed. He was sentenced to a year in prison and five years on probation. He was charged with probation violation in April 2001. Other details were not available.
After the arraignment, Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad said citizens' tips led to the arrest. Haddad added, "Clearly, this type of crime shocks the conscience of all civilized people."
Haddad said police were flooded with tips after news media reports about the murders. They didn't just call, "they ran into the police station" to give tips that helped solve the case, Haddad said.