Man accused of fatally shooting 3 on Mass. Street says he fired wildly in fear, ‘wasn’t thinking at all’

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Anthony L. Roberts Jr. describes for a jury the altercation that preceded his firing his gun on Massachusetts Street, during Roberts' murder trial Friday, June 21, 2019, in Douglas County District Court.

Updated story

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

Confronted by a group of foes from Topeka at the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets, Anthony L. Roberts Jr. pulled his gun with an extended magazine and started firing.

“When I got done shooting, everybody scattered,” the 22-year-old Topeka man told a jury Friday, during his murder trial in Douglas County District Court.

When he started shooting, Roberts said, he was afraid he was going to get shot.

He said he’d just gotten punched in the shoulder and saw one of the other men coming toward him with a gun in his hand, though he wasn’t pointing it at him. Others in the opposing group had just punched one of Roberts’ friends and were kicking him on the ground, he said.

“I start firing,” Roberts said. “I don’t have an intended target … I wasn’t thinking at all.”

Five people ended up shot in the melee, three of them fatally. Roberts is charged in four of those shootings, including with three counts of murder.

Testimony concluded Friday in Roberts’ trial, and attorneys are scheduled to present closing arguments Monday before turning the case over to the jury. Trial proceedings have taken two weeks so far.

Roberts’ attorneys said in opening arguments that Roberts reacted in self-defense. Prosecutors contend Roberts and his friends came to Lawrence to “settle a score” and also killed unintended targets in the process.

It was about 1:40 a.m. Oct. 1, 2017, when the fistfight, and then at least 21 gunshots, erupted from the corner. It was bar-closing time on a busy weekend night in downtown Lawrence, and hundreds of people were estimated to be outside nearby.

All the 9 mm shell casings left behind — 15 of them — were fired from Roberts’ Glock 26, forensic scientists testified. Also recovered were six .40-caliber casings fired from a gun that prosecutors say belonged to Roberts’ friend Ahmad M. Rayton, who has since pleaded and been convicted of attempted involuntary manslaughter.

Bystander Leah E. Brown, 22, of Shawnee, had just left a nearby bar with her best friend and was fatally shot as she crossed Massachusetts Street.

Colwin L. Henderson III, 20, and Tre’Mel D. Dean-Rayton, 24, both of Topeka, were fatally shot on the corner. Tahzay Rayton and Royelle Hunt 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.

Roberts is charged with second-degree murder, for allegedly intentionally killing Henderson; two counts of first-degree felony murder, for allegedly killing Brown and Dean-Rayton while targeting Henderson; and attempted second-degree murder in Tahzay Rayton’s shooting.

The one man Roberts claimed he saw holding a gun was Hunt.

Of the surviving victims named in criminal charges from the incident, Hunt is the only one who did not testify at the trial.

Other coverage from trial

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

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

• June 19 — Testimony: 15 shell casings from scene were all fired from defendant’s gun, 2 victims were shot in the back

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

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

• June 14 — Eyewitness testifies he saw triple murder defendant, second man shooting on Mass. Street

• 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

Other witnesses said they saw guns on Roberts and his friends but not anyone from the opposing group, many of whom had just left a concert at the Granada, where guns weren’t allowed.

Roberts denied coming to Lawrence for any reason other than to have a good time with his friends.

Roberts — 20 at the time of the incident, not old enough to carry concealed under Kansas law — said he legally openly carried his Glock, including with the extended magazine, for protection. Even though he considered downtown Lawrence safe, he said, he wore the gun and extended magazine downtown that night.

“I make no exceptions, never leave the house without it,” he testified.

After the shootings, Roberts said he ran back to his car. Three friends he came with jumped in, and they headed back to Topeka.

Roberts said at first he thought he fired maybe five times. He said it wasn’t until he had a friend count his remaining bullets in the car that he realized he’d actually fired off many more.

He testified that he didn’t know anyone was hit, or killed, until seeing reports on the news and social media later.

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson cross-examined Roberts.

Branson homed in on action after action that painted Roberts as guilty and dishonest.

Roberts admitted to driving to Lawrence in front of friends in a “blocker car” to keep police from noticing his burnt-out taillight or invalid tag and pulling him over.

On the way back to Topeka after the shootings, someone else he knew followed him in a “blocker car,” he also admitted.

While Roberts said he didn’t come to Lawrence looking for a fight, Branson reiterated Roberts’ testimony that he made his gun known to the other group on the corner by standing up, crossing his arms and nodding toward his hip.

Branson pointed out that when the fight broke out, Roberts didn’t try to get help from police, though he’d just seen officers roll by and more were across the street.

After the shootings, Roberts said he kept his gun on his hip but stashed his extended magazine in the glove box, sliding in the less conspicuous standard 10-round magazine instead.

Roberts didn’t go home that night, either.

He stayed elsewhere and told his wife and child to get out of their home in Topeka and stay somewhere else, too.

When Roberts was arrested a few weeks later in Kansas City, Mo., he lied to detectives.

“At that point you knew you were in trouble, and you’ve got a defense, but you wouldn’t tell them?” Branson said. “You’re charged with serious stuff.”

Detectives specifically suggested to Roberts that perhaps he acted in self-defense and that, if so, he should tell them about that, video of that interview showed.

Roberts instead continued to deny he’d even been in downtown Lawrence, saying he was “2,000%” sure he wasn’t there that night and hadn’t been there in two years.

Answering follow-up questions by one of his appointed attorneys, Shaye Downing, Roberts said he knew he’d already been charged with crimes and that he wasn’t going to leave that interview room freely.

He also reiterated that he doesn’t trust police.

“I almost knew for a 100% fact that what I would have told them, it would have been irrelevant to their investigation,” Roberts said. “They didn’t want to listen to my side of the story; they just wanted to catch me up in lies.”

photo by: Sara Shepherd

District Attorney Charles Branson finishes his cross-examination of Anthony L. Roberts Jr. during Roberts’ murder trial on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Douglas County District Court.

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Defense attorney Shaye Downing listens as District Attorney Charles Branson cross-examines her client Anthony L. Roberts Jr., during Roberts’ murder trial on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Douglas County District Court.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd

Previous coverage: Downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• 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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