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Day 5: The murder of Onzie Branch
If they'd kept their mouths shut, Damon McCray would've gotten away with murder.
But as we learned in Day 5 of the Citizen's Police Academy, people, even when it means selling out their lovers and friends, talk.
Lawrence Police Sgt. Mike Pattrick walked us through the investigation of the August 1996 murder of Onzie Branch, a Topeka gang member.
Branch was shot when he was outside what is now the Magic Lounge, which back then was Langston's nightclub. It's the bar that's tucked behind the McDonald's on 23rd Street.
With hundreds of witnesses coming out of the club at closing time, someone peered out from behind a van and shot Branch, striking him in the head. Branch bled out on his way to the hospital.
The two other gang members riding with Branch that day, however, were not cooperative, and Pattrick said it took police five hours to positively identify the two, who initially gave police aliases. Stuck with uncooperative victims, police had to resort to a variety of investigative tactics, including staking out Branch's Topeka funeral.
The break in the case came when a confidential informant strapped on a wire for police, and headed straight into gang headquarters. "That one made me nervous," Pattrick said.
But the informant came back with a name, Damon McCray, and from there, police interviewed McCray's girlfriend, Shanee Blue, who eventually told police McCray confessed to her and asked her to lie about where he was the night of the murder.
One of McCray's friends, who drove McCray away shortly after the shooting, also said McCray admitted to the murder. Add in a fingerprint police found on the van where McCray braced himself before shooting Branch, and it was enough to convict him of murder.
But had everyone just kept silent, there would've been no conviction, Patrrick said.
The case was eventually overturned on appeal, but McCray was charged again and later pleaded guilty to lesser charges. He was released from prison in 2010, but soon went back for a drug crime. He's currently on parole and living in McPherson County.
Several times throughout the academy so far, police and even Chief Tarik Khatib have spoken with pride about their 100 percent homicide clearance rate.
Records prior to the 1980s are a little spotty, but every murder in Lawrence in the past several decades has been solved, though the family of one victim argues that's not the case in a murder from the late 1970s.
Knocking on wood, Lawrence has been fortunate in the past few years, with no recorded homicides in the city since the 2008. As a crime buff, I've taken particular interest in murders in Lawrence, and in 2010, we compiled the list of murders in the past decade. Since 2000, the city has seen 19 murders, all of which have led to convictions.
804 W. 24th St. in the spotlight again
It struck me as ironic that this past weekend, there was another gun-related arrest at 804 W. 24th St. Though the location has changed hands numerous times over the years (anyone remember NiteOwls, the failed "clothing optional" club from the early 1990s?), crime has been a constant at that spot, which was most recently Taste Lounge, before switching to Magic Lounge last year.
On Sunday, police were patrolling the Magic parking lot and spotted a gun partially hidden under the seat of a car, waited for the owner to come out of the club, and arrested convicted felon Dion M. Jones.
For a fun read, and to get a better sense of how police were able to arrest Jones, check out the federal indictment here.
• Day Four: robbery, homicide and crimes against children
• Day Three: Gangs, gun and peyote
• Day Two: Reports from the field
• Training Day