Judge orders trial, upgrades some charges in downtown Lawrence triple murder case
Prosecutors assembled a multi-piece puzzle to implicate three young men from Topeka in the Oct. 1 shootings that left three people dead and two others injured in downtown Lawrence.
Eyewitness accounts from numerous of those men’s friends, and foes. Surveillance videos showing the shootings unfold, the directions of muzzle flashes and the locations of victims falling to the pavement. Testimony by the coroner and doctors about where bullets entered and exited the victims’ bodies. Shell casings of two types that fell in separate clusters at the northwest corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets. Police video of a traffic stop right after the shootings, showing each defendant in clothing police said matched figures in video of the scene.
That evidence was enough, a judge ruled Friday at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, to bind over all three men for trial — including one man charged with murder in all three deaths and attempted murder in one of the other shootings.
Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny also approved upgrading some of the men’s original charges. That ruling changed one of defendant Anthony L. Roberts Jr.’s second-degree murder charges to a first-degree murder charge. Co-defendant Ahmad M. Rayton now faces an additional attempted second-degree murder charge.
District Attorney Charles Branson, who is prosecuting the case along with Chief Assistant District Attorney David Melton, said his office would now turn toward preparing for a trial.
“We’re pleased with the court’s bind-over on all the charges, including the amended charges,” Branson said after the ruling.
The judge scheduled a two-week joint jury trial for all three defendants to begin May 14.
However, defense attorneys said they want the trial severed, so each defendant would face a jury alone. The judge will consider the joint trial matter at a hearing on March 27.
A fistfight, then a flurry of close to 20 gunshots broke out on the northwest corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets about 1:40 a.m. Oct. 1, as what was estimated as hundreds of bystanders were outside around bar-closing time.
Previous sessions of the preliminary hearing — on Jan. 11, Jan. 19 and Thursday — revealed that the fight and ensuing gunfire involved more than a dozen young men from Topeka who knew each other, some of whom had histories stemming from past violence and social or family connections in Topeka.
All the defendants and victims were connected in some way, either by acquaintance or blood, except 22-year-old Leah Brown of Shawnee, who by all accounts was an uninvolved bystander struck by a stray bullet.
Also killed were Colwin Lynn Henderson, 20, and Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, both of Topeka. Two other Topeka men were shot but survived.
All three defendants are from Topeka and were arrested in the weeks following the killings. According to updated charges:
• Roberts, 20, is charged with one count of first-degree felony murder, for allegedly killing Brown while trying to kill Henderson; one count of first-degree felony murder for allegedly killing Dean-Rayton while trying to kill Henderson; one count of second-degree murder for allegedly intentionally killing Henderson; and one count of attempted second-degree murder for allegedly shooting Tahzay Rayton twice.
Roberts remains jailed on $1 million bond, and his attorney is Jennifer Chaffee.
• Ahmad Rayton, 22, is charged with one count of attempted second-degree murder for allegedly firing at Robert Wheeler; one count of attempted second-degree murder for allegedly shooting Royelle Hunt in the leg; and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Rayton is jailed on $1 million bond. His appointed attorney is Michael Clarke.
• Dominique J. McMillon, 19, is charged with one count of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening Wheeler with a gun. McMillon also is charged with one misdemeanor, battery, for allegedly hitting Wheeler in the fight.
McMillon is being held on $25,000 bond. His appointed attorney is J.C. Gilroy.
On Friday, Melton summarized testimony and evidence from the preliminary hearing that he said pointed to the defendants:
Earlier that evening, a friend of the defendants met them in Topeka and told them he’d just been beaten up in Lawrence. He thought the people responsible were associates of Wheeler and Henderson, and wanted the defendants to return to Lawrence with him to get revenge.
“Right there is motive for coming to Lawrence and doing harm to Mr. Wheeler and his friends, which included Mr. Henderson,” Melton said. “There was bad blood between them.”
The defendants, the beat-up friend and another friend headed for Lawrence, and all three defendants purportedly brought guns.
Public surveillance video — from multiple angles in the area — shows a black Kia Sportage with a distinctive crooked license tag and defective brake light parking in the Vermont Towers lot about 1:10 a.m. and several men getting out and walking to the corner in front of the Watkins Museum of History.
Video shows muzzle flashes coming from the south side of the museum, then a figure who appears to be shooting from the front of the museum, and victims falling in spots consistent with the timing and the directions the shooters were firing.
Shell casings also factored in.
“The evidence has shown that there were two shooters that night,” Melton said. “One was firing a 9 mm handgun, based on shell casings that were found on the south side of Watkins Museum. One was firing a 40-caliber Smith and Wesson based on the shell casings that were found on the east side.”
Evidence — including eyewitness testimony and figures in the video wearing similar-colored clothing — shows the person who fired an initial string of bullets was Roberts and the person who fired a second cluster of bullets was Ahmad Rayton, Melton said.
Surveillance and police videos show men matching the suspects’ clothing description running back toward Vermont Towers and the SUV with the crooked tag driving away.
Up-close dashcam video from about 10 minutes later at the west edge of town shows police pulling over the SUV, for what officers testified was an invalid tag.
All three defendants and a friend riding with them — who testified, reluctantly and fearfully, about what happened on Massachusetts Street — were identified and searched.
Officers inspected and cleared a 9 mm gun Roberts had on his hip, and returned it to him before letting the group go, as they did not have “reasonable suspicion” to detain them further at that time.
All three defendants entered pleas of not guilty on Friday.
They appeared more somber than at most times during previous hearings, and in one case even angry, after the judge’s ruling.
Roberts sighed, leaned back in his chair and repeatedly shook his head, or bowed it. He said he wanted to go back to his cell.
Rayton, as he was being escorted out of the courtroom, yelled profanities apparently directed to the side of the room where prosecutors and relatives of the people killed were seated.
“(Expletive) you, I didn’t shoot nobody, (expletive),” Rayton said.
The men’s attorneys had argued that evidence was too sketchy to show probable cause that they committed the charged crimes.
In particular, they attacked video of the shootings, which was dark with involved figures small and difficult to see.
“You would not be able to — absent some superpowers — to sit there and watch that video and conclude who was doing what,” Rayton’s attorney, Clarke, said. “Despite the state’s assertion to the contrary, you can’t tell.”
Attorneys also attacked the testimony of some eyewitnesses, especially Wheeler, who they said was biased because he’s an adversary of the defendants and unreliable because his description of the events was inconsistent, even farfetched.
“His memory of the evening is suspect,” Roberts’ attorney, Chaffee, said. “He had many inconsistencies.”
The judge emphasized that her role at a preliminary hearing was to determine whether probable cause for the charges existed. Unlike a jury trial, Pokorny said, the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is not beyond a reasonable doubt.
Pokorny cited the chain of evidence presented by the state in her ruling.