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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.

Damon McCray

Damon McCray by Shaun Hittle

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.

About murder

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

Reply 7 comments from Notwhatyouthink Hipper_than_hip Jimmyjoebob Shaun Hittle Keith Benjamin Roberts

Day three: Gangs, gun and peyote

Last night, my fellow Citizen's Academy attendees were able to visit a place very few people ever step foot in: the Lawrence Police Department's evidence room, tucked away above the county's courtrooms.

It wasn't what we saw that initially caught our attention. The second you enter, the pungent smell of marijuana hits the nose, a by-product of all the drugs confiscated and later stored by local law enforcement.

As the LPD's two evidence room officers talked to us, we were sandwiched between old rifles, nefarious-looking duffle bags and huge flat screen televisions. By necessity, the officers have gotten a little creative with the 55,000 square feet they have, which used to be a basketball court when the building housed the jail. Plywood planks littered the rafters, stacked with old evidence that officers just can't yet dispose of, in case of appeals.

I'd love to show you, but sorry, no photos allowed in the evidence room.

The rest of the night we were treated to presentations about drugs and street gangs.

Some of the more interesting tidbits we picked up:
• The Kansas Drug Tax Stamp: For forward-thinking drug dealers, Kansas offers drug tax stamps, allowing those who profit from the illegal drug trade to pay taxes on their sales. It sounds a little bizarre that someone would stop by a state office, admit to being a drug dealer, and then agree to pay taxes on their criminal enterprise. Here's a little explainer from the Kansas Department of Revenue.

A Kansas Drug Tax Stamp.

A Kansas Drug Tax Stamp. by Shaun Hittle



• Buyer beware: Aided by its white, powdery appearance, it's not uncommon for drug dealers to dilute cocaine before distribution. It's referred to as "stepping on it," and basically includes drug dealers adding in other substances to cocaine to add weight and make the most of the substance, sales-wise. One common ingredient? Niacin, which has a similar appearance as powdered cocaine. The internet is filled with formulas for how this is done. Officers told us that this is often done at various stages, leaving the buyer with a watered-down substance, or "stepped on" product.

• Funniest quote from Officer Shannon Riggs, who's been involved in the LPD's drug unit: When discussing "tips" police receive about illegal drugs, offered that they come from a variety of sources, "including angry spouses."

• While it's not like Kansas City, or even Topeka, police do see gang activity in Lawrence. Police monitor such activity in a variety of ways, such as spotting and identifying gang graffiti. Though a few years ago, one prominent example, highlighted by veteran LPD Det. Mike McAtee, was the 1997 killing of David Eugene Walker by Lafayette Cosby, a case McAtee worked. Searching the LJWorld archives also found this 1996 gang-related shooting in Lawrence.

Kansas prison photo of Lafayette Cosby.

Kansas prison photo of Lafayette Cosby. by Shaun Hittle

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