‘Bullets whistling past my head’: Eyewitness testifies he saw triple murder defendant, second man shooting on Mass. Street

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Anthony L. Roberts Jr. appears in Douglas County District Court during his murder trial on Friday, June 14, 2019. He is next to one of his attorneys, Joshua Seiden.

Updated story

June 25 — Jury finds Topeka man guilty of 3 downtown Lawrence murders

Updated at 6:13 p.m. Friday, June 14:

Robert Wheeler was squarely at the center of the brawl that escalated to deadly gunfire on Massachusetts Street.

The Topeka resident then helped police load his fatally injured cousin into a patrol car to be rushed to the hospital. He briefly talked to an officer at the hospital. But he didn’t tell police what he knew and saw until several days later, when investigators reached out to him.

Why not? prosecutors asked him Friday.

“I was afraid of my life if I’d said something right then and there,” Wheeler said. “I was afraid somebody was going to retaliate on me.”

Wheeler was the first of several surviving victims of the Oct. 1, 2017, violence to testify at the triple murder trial of Anthony L. Roberts Jr., 22, of Topeka.

Roberts is charged in Douglas County District Court with two counts of first-degree felony murder, one count of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder in the incident.

Killed that night were Leah Brown, 22, of Shawnee; Colwin Lynn Henderson III, 20, of Topeka; and Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, of Topeka. Two other Topeka men, Royelle Hunt and Tahzay Rayton, were shot but survived.

photo by: Contributed photos

From left, Leah Elizabeth Brown, 22, of Shawnee; Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, of Topeka; and Colwin Lynn Henderson III, 20, of Topeka.

The physical fight started when Wheeler got punched by Roberts’ friend Dominique J. McMillon, who struck a plea deal and was convicted of misdemeanor battery.

Wheeler then was shot at — but was missed — by Roberts’ friend Ahmad M. Rayton, who also has pleaded and was convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter, a felony.

Roberts’ defense team, in their opening arguments, contended that Wheeler and his friends were actually the instigators. Outnumbered and seeing his friends getting “pummeled,” they said, Roberts fired his gun in defense, though they also said there’s no proof the fatal bullets came from him.

More coverage from trial

• June 24 — Jury deliberating intentional murder versus self-defense

• June 21 — Defendant says he fired wildly in fear, ‘wasn’t thinking at all’

• June 20 — Defendant: ‘I been shot twice’ in Topeka, came to Lawrence to party without fear of violence

• June 19 — 15 shell casings from scene all fired from defendant’s gun, authorities testify

• June 18 — Witness says defendant told her, ‘I shot Colwin’

• June 17 — Shooting survivor, friend of defendant testify reluctantly

• June 13 — Witnesses at trial describe immediate aftermath of triple homicide

• June 12 — Prosecutors say defendant came to ‘settle a score’ and murdered 3 in melee; he argues he fired in self-defense

Wheeler testified Thursday and Friday that he’d just left a concert at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts St., with Henderson — his cousin — and some other friends from Topeka. He said none of them had guns because they weren’t allowed in the Granada.

On his way across Massachusetts, Wheeler spotted Roberts and his group, whom he knew from Topeka but wasn’t friends with.

On the northwest corner of the intersection, Roberts came toward them repeating “What’s poppin’?” in an “adversarial” way, Wheeler said. He said Roberts had a black gun with an extended magazine in his right hand and was waving it next to his hip.

Wheeler said Henderson started to react to Roberts but that he told his younger cousin to keep walking, not fight.

They did.

But a few minutes later Wheeler ended up back on the same corner. He said he was about to throw up from drinking on an empty stomach, so he sat down by Roberts’ group.

He told them he didn’t want to start anything, he said.

Then Wheeler got punched in the temple.

He said McMillon punched him a second time, then pulled a gun. Wheeler said he then punched McMillon back, hard enough to knock the gun out of his hand.

Then Rayton jumped into the fight, Wheeler said.

Wheeler said that as he was fighting Rayton he saw Roberts start “recklessly shooting” toward the intersection while running the other direction. He said he saw multiple shooting victims fall at that time. He pointed out himself and other figures on a police dashcam video from one of the patrol cars parked across the street.

Wheeler said Rayton also pulled a gun and he then shoved Rayton. Wheeler said he took off as Rayton fired at him.

“As I was running I heard bullets whistling past my head,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he ran for the car he’d come to Lawrence in but then got a call from another friend telling him Henderson had been shot. That’s when, he said, he ran back to the intersection.

Roberts’ attorney Shaye Downing picked apart Wheeler’s story detail by detail.

Particularly, she confronted Wheeler about inconsistencies between what he said on the stand and what he initially told police.

She also pointed out that before his police interviews, Wheeler had days to talk to family members and at least one of his friends who was there that night, which Wheeler said he did.

Roberts’ trial is scheduled to last through next week. Also on Friday:

• Jurors saw video of Roberts’ interview with Lawrence police detectives, after Roberts was arrested in Kansas City, Mo., a few weeks after the incident.

In the video, Roberts initially tells police that “swear to God” he is “2,000 percent” sure he was never in downtown Lawrence the night of the shootings. He says that night he and his friends were at his aunt’s house in another part of town celebrating her birthday.

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Video played Friday, June 14, 2019, in Douglas County District Court shows Lawrence police detective M.T. Brown, right, interviewing murder defendant Anthony L. Roberts Jr. after his arrest in October 2017.

Detectives tell him they have proof from downtown that’s not true. (The aunt herself testified Friday that it wasn’t her birthday and none of them were at her house.)

In the video, detectives press for more details about his movements that night that Roberts is unable to answer, including an approximate location of a gas station he said he stopped at on the way out of town.

Detective M.T. Brown, using what he testified was an interview technique, suggests to Roberts that he come clean about why he shot the people on Massachusetts Street — maybe he didn’t mean to kill anyone, or maybe he was in fear of the people he was shooting at? Brown also confronts Roberts about one of the shooting victims.

“There’s a young lady by the name of Leah Brown that had nothing to do with any of this that was caught by a stray bullet and is dead,” the detective said. “(Her parents) are going to want to know … why their baby girl didn’t come home that night.”

At this point Roberts leans forward and lays his head on the interview table, then gets angry and begins yelling profanities. The remainder of the video was not shown to the jury.

• Lawrence police officer Ian McCann and former officer Narissa Dunn testified about conducting a car stop at the west edge of town, shortly after the shootings.

Inside the westbound black Kia Sportage — which had a license plate hanging by one screw that came back as cancelled, McCann said — were Roberts, Rayton, McMillon and a fourth friend, Marvel Miller. Rayton had no shirt on and was “sweating profusely” despite temperatures in the 60s, McCann said.

McCann said Roberts had a handgun in a holster on his hip, a Glock 26 9-millimeter the officers inspected and registered the serial number of to confirm it was not stolen. The men cooperated as the officers took their IDs and frisked them.

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Lawrence police officer Ian McCann testifies in front of dashcam video from his patrol car during the murder trial of Anthony L. Roberts Jr. on Friday, June 14, 2019, in Douglas County District Court. Roberts and one of his attorneys are in the foreground.

The men denied being downtown that night and said they were at the aunt’s house, though police couldn’t immediately reach her by phone to confirm or deny that. Officers said they didn’t see anything in plain view in the car that would prompt a search. Also, no one in the car matched the sole, vague suspect description they had from the chaotic scene downtown at that moment: a black man in a green shirt that two other officers saw shooting and running from the scene.

Without probable cause to search the car or detain the men further, the officers said, they let them go on their way.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd

Previous coverage: Downtown Lawrence triple murder trial

• June 11 — Jury selection will continue for third day in Massachusetts Street murder trial

• June 10 — Massachusetts Street triple murder trial begins in Lawrence

• May 31 — Witness, evidence issues addressed at pretrial hearing in Massachusetts Street triple murder case

• May 13 — After plea deals in downtown Lawrence triple-murder case, DA wants co-defendants to testify against friend

• May 8 — Topeka man sentenced to 10 years in prison for role in Massachusetts Street shootings

• April 3 — Second co-defendant convicted following plea deal in Massachusetts Street murder case

• March 8 — Judge rejects Lawrence triple-murder defendant’s self-defense claim

• March 5 — One co-defendant in downtown Lawrence triple murder case now free after pleading to misdemeanor

• Jan. 11 — Massachusetts Street triple murder trial pushed back until June

• Dec. 4 — After attorney drama in Lawrence triple murder trial, new defense team ready to move forward

• Nov. 20 — Citing ‘incompetence,’ judge kicks attorney off downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• Nov. 16 — Defense attorney tainted jury pool, causing mistrial in downtown Lawrence triple murder case, transcript reveals

• Nov. 15 — Judge: Defense attorney’s demand to disqualify DA from triple murder trial was ‘totally misplaced’

• Nov. 9 — Each defendant in downtown triple murder case will now have his own trial; family of shooting victim ‘devastated’

• Nov. 8 — Mass. Street triple murder trial called off: Judge declares mistrial before jury is picked

• Nov. 7 — Still no jury after 3 days of jury selection for downtown Lawrence triple murder trial

• Nov. 6 — Jury selection spills into third day for Massachusetts Street triple murder trial; media coverage of high-profile case factors into questioning

• Nov. 5 — About 170 potential jurors fill courthouse to begin selection process for downtown Lawrence triple murder trial

• Nov. 1 — Murder defendant’s attorney, DAs clash in ‘cringeworthy’ final hearing before Mass. Street trial

• Oct. 31 — In last-minute filing, Mass. Street triple murder defendant wants DA disqualified from upcoming trial

• Oct. 19 — Lawyer says Massachusetts Street triple murder defendant plans to argue self-defense, slain men shouldn’t be called victims


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