The love story between Crossfit co-founder Lauren Jenai and Franklin Tyrone Tucker is anything but conventional.
It blossomed in a Florida jail, where much of the burgeoning couple’s communications were restricted to video conferencing or closely monitored phone calls and letters.
They didn’t have their first embrace until Jenai put up Tucker’s $2 million bond and he was able to walk out of state custody and into Jenai’s waiting arms as news cameras rolled.
Tucker, known as Ty, is facing charges of first-degree murder for a Florida robbery-gone-wrong that left one dead, although he continues to maintain his innocence. He's now staying in Jenai’s Oregon home as he awaits trial.
But despite the uncertain future ahead, Jenai and Tucker are planning to get married at her home next month and remain staunchly committed to a life together.
“Ty and I have been eager to be married, but with him on house arrest, initially, we thought we should wait. But since we all have been on some level of ‘house arrest’ we realized there is no time like the present, and that we could have a lovely wedding from home,” Jenai told Oxygen.com of the approaching June 26 nuptials. “And with more and more people communicating virtually, we can even invite friends and family to our beautiful June wedding through Zoom!”
A Romance Begins
Although their romantic relationship didn't begin until Tucker was behind bars, the pair actually first met decades earlier.
“We met through a mutual friend when we were about 14, 15 years old,” Jenai said.
Tucker never made a move on the blue-haired “punk rock girl” at the time because she was dating his best friend, but said he still remembers the first time he met her.
Jenai and her mom had been living in Philadelphia with the family of one of Tucker’s friends. The group invited Tucker for dinner where he dined on his first-ever tofu stroganoff.
“It actually wasn’t bad,” he recalled. “I am not a big tofu fan but it actually wasn’t too bad.”
When Lauren first walked in for dinner, he said he was struck by her blue highlights and combat boots.
“As soon as she came out, I got real stupid,” he said. “It was one of those [encounters] where you can’t talk and all of a sudden everything you say you feel like an idiot.”
Jenai remembers Tucker as being “super fun” and “adventurous.”
“He got me to do things out of my comfort zone that I appreciated,” she said. “He was known amongst our friends as being super smart and a little bit crazy, but in a good way, and just a fun person.”
The high school friends eventually went their separate ways.
Jenai went on to marry Greg Glassman and the pair started CrossFit in 2000, according to Town & Country. The couple had four children together, two boys and two girls, before the romance soured.
They divorced in 2013 and Jenai received an estimated $20 million during the divorce settlement for her role in the highly successful CrossFit franchise, the magazine reported.
Tucker worked as a laborer in Philadelphia before making his way to Arizona and then Florida.
The pair later reconnected through Facebook a few years ago. Jenai had tried to get Tucker to meet up with her before his arrest, but the meeting never happened, she told Oxygen.com.
“She was kind of being subtle about it,” Tucker later joked. “Subtlety doesn’t work too well with me.”
Tucker’s life took an abrupt turn when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He had been linked to a robbery-gone-wrong that took place on Nov. 17, 2017 in a shanty dwelling on Stock Island, Florida.
The crime is known locally as the “Treehouse murder” because it occurred in a treehouse built on top of a property in a trailer park.
The target, Paula Belmonte, later told police she had been robbed by two masked men wearing dark clothing who cut her neck with a knife. While Belmonte survived her injuries, Matthew Bonnett died trying to protect her. His body was discovered face-down, covered in blood on a landing on the property.
Belmonte identified one of the suspects as a black male she knew as “Detroit.” That man was later identified by police as Rory Wilson, according to police reports obtained by Oxygen.com. The other man was described as a white male.
Another witness reported seeing one of the suspects run up the street after the attack and take off his face mask. The witness described the man as a white male. Investigators later recovered a bloody knife and bloody mask near the scene of the crime, according to the reports.
Police began surveillance of Wilson after identifying him as a possible suspect and allegedly observed him placing clothes and a towel inside a black trash bag outside his property shortly after the crime, according to the police report. It's not clear what, if any, DNA evidence was obtained from the items found inside the trash bag or from the bloody knife and mask found near the scene of the crime.
Tucker was linked to the crime after a confidential informant told police that "Detroit" had gone to a Metro PCS store with a white male, whom a clerk at the store later identified as Tucker, according to the report. Wilson and a third suspect, identified as John Johnson, also both placed Tucker at the scene of the crime during police interrogations.
During his interrogation, Johnson allegedly told investigators that Tucker had heard that Belmonte was in possession of a large sum of money and talked about carrying out the robbery with both Wilson and Johnson. Johnson also said he had driven Wilson and Tucker to the treehouse to commit the robbery, but then got spooked and drove away before the pair returned, according to the police reports.
Johnson told authorities that Tucker had been carrying a dive knife that matched the description of the knife later found by investigators in a planter box in the trailer park.
Wilson's pregnant girlfriend, April Walker, also allegedly told authorities she saw Tucker changing out of black clothes in a storage area the night of the murder and claims he later threatened to hurt her and her unborn baby if she talked to investigators, according to the police report.
Tucker, however, has denied any involvement in the crime.
“I know I am innocent, but the hard part is yeah, just because I know, doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “You know it’s other people that becomes the problem and at this point, I mean, you know, not only did they not have any evidence showing that I had anything to do with it, but they have evidence showing that I didn’t.”
Tucker admits he knew Wilson and Johnson and was staying in the same warehouse building at the time the crime occurred but said he was staying in another area of the building. According to the police reports, a small group of people had been staying illegally in the warehouse space, which had multiple entrances, after a man leasing the building decided to sublet it out to make some extra cash. The property did not have any power and it's unclear how many people had been staying in the warehouse at the time.
Tucker told Oxygen.com that he had been watching his friend's room inside the warehouse and that he did not go to the treehouse that night.
“The night this happened, every piece of evidence is that it’s a two-person crime, every single piece, witnesses, you know, the physical evidence, the video evidence all of it,” he said. “It’s a two-person crime yet there were three of us in jail.”
Tucker allegedly told investigators that on the night of the robbery, he had started drinking around 4 p.m or 5 p.m. with Wilson, Johnson and a third man before passing out around 9 p.m., according to arrest reports. He said when he woke up, it was dark and he walked to get some cigarettes with Johnson. He told investigators that he hadn't been to the treehouse, where he knew some of the occupants, in more than a month.
Tucker told Oxygen.com there's no physical evidence or DNA that places him at the scene of the crime and said a witness can support his alibi that he was asleep in the room he had been staying in that night.
Prosecutors and investigators declined to comment on what, if any, physical evidence linked Tucker to the crime.
Tucker also "unequivocally" denied Walker's claims that she saw him changing out of black clothes that night and that he threatened her or her unborn baby.
"Both claims are completely not true," he told Oxygen.com, adding that if he had needed to change clothes he would have done it in his own room, not a storage area.
Tucker acknowledged he and Walker didn't like each other but said he never threatened her and had even tried to help her in the past get supplies during a hurricane.
He further alleged that Walker only implicated him during official questioning after lead investigator Capt. Penny Phelps suggested he might have been involved.
Jenai and Tucker said that there was nothing to suggest that Tucker was involved until Phelps interviewed Wilson, Walker and Johson and believe she continued to present Tucker as the "bad guy." Many of the interrogation interviews are available on a YouTube channel set up by the couple called Free Franklin Tucker.
His attorneys have reiterated claims of misconduct in both the sheriff's office and state attorney's office during the investigation.
Phelps was later pulled from the case after an audio tape surfaced of her instructing an officer to pull Wilson over like the officer was a “neo-Nazi cop” or “white supremacist" in an effort to get information from him, according to The Miami Herald.
She was later fired from the sheriff's office after an investigation into the incident, the paper reports.
“Several issues concerning the tree house murder case have been brought to my attention,” Monroe Sheriff Rick Ramsay said in a statement in December 2019 according to The Miami Herald. “I immediately turned them over to my Internal Affairs Division and directed that an investigation be initiated. At this point, I am prohibited by law from discussing the details of the investigation until it's concluded.”
Adam Linhardt, director of media relations for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, declined to answer any of Oxygen.com's questions about the case because it was a “pending matter before the State’s Attorney’s Office.”
Tucker’s defense team also has argued that there's been prosecutorial misconduct in the case and alleged in court documents that former Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne lied to the court, withheld evidence, encouraged law enforcement to perjure themselves and allowed discreditable testimony to be used against Tucker.
The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office later pulled Dunne from the case after receiving complaints from the defense, the local paper reports.
Larry Kahn, a spokesperson for the Monroe County State’s Attorney’s office told Oxygen.com that while there was a motion to disqualify submitted, there was no hearing on the merits of the motion and the prosecutor was removed from the case “due to an unrelated matter.”
Kahn said the cases against all three men remain ongoing.
Reconnecting After Years Apart
Jenai heard about Tucker’s arrest from a friend on Facebook.
“He said, ‘He’s been arrested for murder,’ and like my stomach sunk and I was just like ‘What the hell? This doesn’t make sense.' Ty’s not anybody that you would think would be in this situation,” she said.
Jenai said she wanted to make sure he had somebody who could advocate for him, so she wrote him a letter, gave him her phone number and sent a small amount of money so he could call her back.
Tucker said he had been disoriented after his arrest and “couldn’t believe that all of a sudden, you know, I went from life, right, to all of a sudden I am sitting in jail.” The experience was made even more disorienting after he had been placed in solitary confinement.
“Literally, they were doing like the whole Hannibal Lecter routine. Everything short of a face mask. I had to have two guards with me everywhere I went,” he said. “I could only come out of the cell an hour a day and I had to be myself, had to be shackled to the shower, you know, I mean my head was spinning.”
Then, he got the letter from Jenai, who was the first person to contact him.
“It was totally unexpected,” he said.
The first time the pair talked, Jenai offered to help him get a lawyer, but Tucker said he initially turned down the offer.
“I’ve always been the kind of person, you know, I handle my own thing,” Tucker said. “I am kind of stubborn that way.”
Tucker believed authorities would realize the arrest had been a “mistake” and release him.
But Jenai wouldn’t be dissuaded and set out to get him legal representation.
The pair also continued to talk – every few weeks at first, but soon the calls began to happen every day.
Jenai, in her mid-40s at the time and a single mom, had accepted the fact that she might just be single for the rest of her life. But as the two talked, she was struck by Tucker’s intelligence and sense of humor.
“I just found myself feeling like a teenage girl when he called,” she said. “I would get butterflies and I got stupid talking with him.”
Tucker began to have feelings for Jenai too and found that he completely trusted her, but was also “scared to tell her” how he felt because he didn’t want to ruin their friendship.
Jenai made the first move—professing her love for Tucker in a letter.
Once he read the letter, Tucker said “the flood gates opened up” and the two began a romantic relationship that played out over video conferencing, phone calls and letters.
When the pair started to talk, Jenai said that, although she never believed Tucker was capable of murder, she also believed it was possible he had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I did go into this thing with an open mind. I don’t blindly believe anybody is innocent,” she said. “(But) as I looked at the case and everything, I could not figure out why he was in jail and that stands to this day and the more I learned, the weirder it got.”
Her belief in his innocence came “very, very, very early on,” she said, after reading information about the case she had access to through the discovery process.
The First Embrace
As the romance between Jenai and Tucker continued to grow, the pair decided they wanted to get married and initially planned to wed while Tucker was behind bars, as he had been unable to get bond.
Tucker said they were “a day away” from tying the knot in a jailhouse ceremony when they received word that the state had agreed to a bond term of $2 million.
Tucker had been waiting inside the Florida detention center for two years when the agreement was finally reached, Page Six reports.
Jenai put up the $2 million bond to secure Tucker’s release and instead of a jailhouse wedding, the pair got to share their first embrace in front of friends and family—and television news cameras.
“I am glad it was memorialized on video because it was actually pretty cute,” Jenai said. “All my friends are like ‘Oh my god Lauren, you looked so happy.’”
Tucker described the turn of events as “completely shocking” because he had not expected to get out on bond.
‘The day that they did the bond, I mean, I literally was out within a few hours. You know, I barely had time to go back to the cell from the courthouse and pack up my stuff and next thing I know I am outside,” he said.
The presence of the television cameras made the experience of seeing Jenai in person for the first time in decades a bit surreal, but Tucker said the cameras were not at the forefront of his mind at the time.
“I just wanted to put Lauren in my arms. I just wanted to hold her. I just, you know, it’s hard to describe how much I love her, but I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Settling In To A Life Together
The pair eventually returned to Jenai’s Oregon home, where Tucker remains on house arrest as the trial looms.
They’ve settled into a life together and are “extremely happy,” Tucker said.
The couple has had their fair share of critics who’ve made rude comments—including the parents of some of her children’s friends—but Jenai has not let the opinions of others get to her.
“At the end of the day those are all people who don’t know the situation, and so not to discount them and their opinion, but at the same time I am not affected by their opinion and their thoughts,” she told Oxygen.com. “They come from a place of not knowing and I do get that being a woman who has money and a man who has been in jail, there’s a stereotypical thing there, but this is not that. I know it’s different and everybody who knows me knows it’s different and anybody who knows about the case knows it’s different.”
For Tucker, one of the most challenging things has been “the whole presumption of guilt” from others.
“People think that just because you get arrested, then you must be guilty and that’s kind of what goes into people’s heads,” he said. “We like to say innocent until proven guilty, but that’s not really the way it works for human beings. Human beings like to think that you are guilty.”
Even if Tucker is eventually cleared, he said there will still be those who feel he committed the crime.
“The state could come out tomorrow and tell everybody that I am innocent, put commercials on TV, put billboards up on Route 1 saying ‘Ty’s innocent’ [and] you know what, there’s still going to be those out there that say ‘No, no, no, he was guilty. He just got away with it,’” he said. “There’s always going to be those people and there’s nothing really that we can do about that.”
The couple has chosen to focus their energy instead on preparing for his case and planning their upcoming wedding.
“Who knows how long we will all be restricted due to the COVID-19. Ty's case has been on somewhat of a standstill due to courts being closed. But, we realized that these uncertainties do not have to keep us from moving forward with our lives,” Jenai said. “Ty and I love each other and will be life partners no matter what the future brings. In the meantime, will continue to work for Ty's exoneration as husband and wife.”
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