Former assistant principal charged with murder of Miami Norland High educator

When a Norland High educator went missing under suspicious circumstances, Miami Gardens police detectives received several anonymous tips that an assistant principal, Ernest Joseph Roberts, was involved.

But it was a handwritten note to a school janitor — in what appears to be a frantic attempt to dispose of the woman’s car — that cracked the mysterious murder case wide open, sparking an exhaustive investigation that turned up DNA blood evidence, surveillance footage and phone records, according to an arrest warrant released on Friday.

Roberts, 39, was booked into a Miami-Dade jail on Friday afternoon to face a first-degree murder charge as authorities revealed they had recovered Kameela Russell’s car, her keys and the note, hidden by Roberts in a school file cabinet five days after the killing.

“Do you know anyone that can chop up a car? If so or make it ‘disappear’ take these keys,” Roberts’ note read, according to the warrant. “Its behind the speedway racetrack on 441 by County line. Friends are gone and need it to disappear. If not leave it + I’ll work it out later. THROW THIS NOTE AWAY!”

The janitor did not. Instead, he called Miami Gardens police detectives. He also told them that Roberts, soon after the murder, had asked for advice on how to clean blood from a floor, claiming he had killed an intruder with a baseball bat.

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Ernest Roberts - Miami-Dade Corrections

The details, disclosed in the warrant and at a State Attorney’s and police press conference, offered a damning circumstantial case against Roberts, a former Norland High assistant principal who had most recently been transferred to Linda Lentin K-8 Center in North Miami.

So far, the evidence has not revealed a motive — and sources told the Herald that Roberts, after he was arrested, denied killing Russell.

“There’s more work for us to do,” State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told reporters. “We all want to know what led to this.”

Roberts was denied bond on Saturday and remained silent as he faced a judge during his first appearance.

His arrest Friday followed weeks of rumors in the Norland community, where students and staffers alike had shared a range of theories about what may have happened between the two employees.

Russell, a popular test proctor at the Northwest Miami-Dade high school, was last seen alive May 15. More than a week later, a teenager found her body washed up on the banks of a canal squeezed between Florida’s Turnpike and a gated neighborhood called Andover. The canal is around the corner from Roberts’ house.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Russell died of blunt force trauma.

Investigators immediately honed in on Roberts, the ex-assistant principal at Norland who worked alongside Russell at the school. The two had known each other since childhood — he was even the godfather of her two children.

Roberts, once a probation officer, was hired as a teacher by Miami-Dade County Public Schools in August 2004, according to the school district. He began teaching at Norland in December 2012, and became an assistant principal at the school in August 2017.

In February, he was transferred to Linda Lentin K-8 Center in North Miami.

The school district, in a statement about the transfer, referenced a School Board policy that says administrators may not supervise relatives. Police say Roberts had been staying at a home in Broward County that, according to school district records, is the listed address of another teacher at Norland. Reached Friday, that teacher hung up on a reporter. Roberts, according to Miami-Dade court records, had been divorced in May 2018.

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Kameela Russell.

Russell’s mother initially told the Miami Herald that she did not believe Roberts had anything to do with her disappearance. Through a relative, she declined a phone interview Friday.

“That would surprise me because I’ve never seen anything that would warrant all of that,” Linda Russell said two weeks ago.

But detectives on Friday briefed Linda Russell, who later appeared alongside Fernandez Rundle, Miami Gardens Police Chief Delma Noel-Pratt and Mayor Oliver Gilbert at the press conference. She declined to speak to reporters.

Gilbert, himself a graduate of Norland, spoke glowingly of Kameela Russell. “I knew Kameela. When I visited Norland all the time she was the sweetest,” he said. “Her loss is a loss for everybody.”

Russell had attended Norland Middle and was a gifted musician who went on to graduate from Florida State University in just two years. She also worked as a state probation officer before she began teaching at Walter C. Young Middle in Broward County. She later earned a master’s degree and landed at Norland Senior High to serve as the testing coordinator. Russell’s daughter was a freshman at the school, while her younger daughter just finished first grade.

It’s unclear to investigators why Russell went to Roberts’ home. Her plan that day on May 15, as usual, was to pick up her daughter at her aunt’s home and take her to a 6:30 p.m gymnastics class. But Russell’s car, a black Audi, abruptly left the aunt’s driveway and drove off. She then vanished, prompting a missing persons search and a widespread hunt publicized by the media.

Five days later, on Monday, May 20, Roberts entered Lentin K-8 early in the morning, before he was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., to chaperone a student field trip, according to the warrant.

Then, he called the janitor at Lentin and “directed [him] to go to a specific file cabinet inside of conference room 908,” according to the warrant. Inside was a set of car keys and the handwritten note. The alarmed employee called Miami Gardens police officers. He told them that Roberts had also called him and said: “I did something crazy,” according to the warrant.

Roberts claimed an intruder broke into his home and he “hit the person with a baseball bat.” In person, Roberts later told the employee, he killed the supposed intruder, wrapped him in a tarp and “dragged the body through the house leaving blood stains,” the warrant said.

Roberts even asked the man “how to get rid of the blood stains.” The employee thought Roberts was kidding but suggested Clorox bleach. The employee later called Roberts — as detectives secretly recorded — and Roberts acknowledged the Audi “referenced in the handwritten note,” the warrant said.

Police immediately found the black Audi exactly where the note said it would be.

With mounting evidence, Miami Gardens police on May 20 did an initial search of Roberts’ home, 1525 NW 203rd St. They found that the master bedroom had been cleaned with bleach. But an Amazon box had traces of blood spatter, according to the warrant, and a pair of bloody sandals was also found in the bedroom. A mop, presumably used to clean the wood floors, also was discovered in the house.

Less than a week later, Russell’s body was found floating in the canal nearby, confirming the Russell family’s worst fears.

Miami Gardens police officers at the home of assistant principal Ernest Joseph Roberts on June 14, 2019. He is accused of murdering a fellow educator, Kameela Russell. - Handout

Detectives quickly built a stronger case. Tests showed the blood in the house matched Russell’s DNA. They found an extensive closed-circuit video surveillance security system inside his home had been shut off just before Russell arrived at his home, police said. And cameras from a neighbor’s house showed Russell pulling up to his house that night, shortly after she left her aunt’s home, the warrant said. She walked into the home — but was never seen leaving.

Instead, the surveillance showed, Roberts backed her Audi up to the front door. Investigators believe he put her dead body into the car’s trunk. The footage showed he drove the Audi away, then returned home on foot later that night, according to the warrant prepared by Miami Gardens Detective Pedro Valdes and prosecutor Kevin Betancourt.

As detectives worked furiously to compile the evidence, Roberts had been staying in Broward County. He did not know that Miami Gardens Police’s Street Crimes Unit was tailing him. Detectives stopped him Friday morning after he dropped off his stepdaughter at a home.

Roberts was whisked to the Miami Gardens police station. During questioning, he denied killing Russell, according to sources.

On Friday, a schools spokeswoman said the district “is appalled and saddened” after learning of the arrest. She noted that he had been “immediately removed” after police quietly revealed to officials that he was a “person of interest.”

The district is now moving to fire him, spokeswoman Jackie Calzadilla said in a statement. He has no prior disciplinary records.

Said Calzadilla: “Our prayers and thoughts continue to be with Ms. Russell’s family.”