Trial begins for man accused of attempted murder in 2019 shooting at Lawrence McDonald’s

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Howard Collins Levite is pictured at trial on Feb. 13, 2024, in Douglas County District Court. He is charged with attempted murder and attempted robbery in connection with a shooting at a Lawrence McDonald's in 2019.

At a trial on Tuesday in Douglas County District Court, a man described being shot in the stomach during a drug deal outside a Lawrence McDonald’s, and people who were at the restaurant recalled the chaotic scene as he tried to get help.

The trial is for Howard Collins Levite, 32, of Leavenworth, who is charged in Douglas County with one felony count of attempted murder and one felony count of attempted aggravated robbery, according to charging documents. The state, represented by Assistant District Attorney Samantha Foster, alleges that Levite shot then 51-year-old James Beltch at around 6 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2019, after attempting to rob him in the parking lot of the McDonalds, 1309 W. Sixth St. Levite’s attorney, Angelo Panas, is arguing that Levite was threatened by Beltch and shot in self-defense.

In Tuesday’s opening arguments, Panas said the drug deal was arranged by a woman named Jessica Tinder, who also drove Levite to the restaurant. Beltch testified that Tinder had connected him with drug dealers several times before, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary when he arranged to meet her at the McDonald’s and Levite, whom he had never met, got into his car to handle the deal.

When Levite got into the car, Beltch said, he immediately asked Beltch for the money, about $800 for between 50 and 100 pills. Beltch said that he asked to see the pills first, and that Levite produced a ball of foil that looked like a wadded-up hamburger wrapper.

Beltch testified that Levite refused to show him what was inside the foil, and that Levite then pulled a pistol and demanded the money.

Levite didn’t look like he knew how to handle the gun, Beltch testified. Beltch said he was able to push the gun away so it wasn’t pointed at him. He said Levite was “shocked,” and the two continued to argue. Then, Beltch testified, Levite began to get out of the car, pointed the gun at Beltch’s stomach and pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t fire; “it just clicked,” Beltch said.

Beltch testified that Levite continued exiting the vehicle, chambering a round in the gun as he did.

“As he was standing up, he pulled the trigger again,” Beltch said.

Beltch said the gun actually fired this time. He said that the bullet went through his stomach and then out the car door, and that Levite then ran away. Beltch said he then drove up to the line at McDonald’s yelling that he had been shot, and people in line began to help him.

Foster, in her opening remarks, argued that Levite had gone into the exchange looking to rob Beltch from the start. Tinder, who died in March of 2023, testified at a hearing in 2020 that she and Levite had planned to “rip off” Beltch, and when things went awry, Levite shot Beltch. Foster had that testimony read into the record on Tuesday.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Assistant District Attorney Samantha Foster delivers opening remarks during a trial on Feb. 13, 2024, in Douglas County District Court.

“This is a case that comes down to wants and desires,” Foster said. “He wanted to rob Beltch, and when that didn’t work, he wanted to kill Beltch.”

Panas, meanwhile, said that Levite was trying to defend himself from Beltch. He said Levite’s account was that neither man was happy with the deal once it began, and that when Levite tried to get out of Beltch’s car, Beltch pulled a knife and threatened to “gut” him. After that, Levite shot Beltch once in self-defense and then ran away, Panas said.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Attorney Angelo Panas with the Douglas County Public Defender’s Office delivers opening remarks during a trial on Feb. 13, 2024, in Douglas County District Court. His client, Howard Levite, is charged with attempted murder and attempted robbery in connection with a shooting in 2019.

While Beltch said he did carry a knife for work, he testified that he never pulled it on Levite.

Also on Tuesday, multiple women who were waiting in the drive-thru at McDonald’s took the stand. They each testified that they heard a “pop” and that a man then began trying to get people’s attention, yelling that he had been shot.

One woman said she was with her sister when she heard the pop and saw a man “half-run, half-walk” past her car. Then, she said, another man pulled up beside them, yelling, “He shot me, the son of a (expletive) shot me.” She said her sister got out to help the injured man and she drove her truck after the man who ran past. She said she saw the man dive into the back of a maroon sedan, and it drove away.

Another woman said she was in line with her kids when she heard the pop and noticed a car speed around the building, which she thought was odd. She said she got her food and left, only to see the same car weaving through traffic and an ambulance heading toward the McDonald’s; she then called 911 and followed the car into North Lawrence until it went onto Interstate 70.

Several Lawrence police detectives also testified on Tuesday.

Detective Robert Dean Brown said that in surveillance footage from the McDonald’s and adjacent building, Levite and Tinder arrived at the McDonald’s before Beltch, and then Levite could be seen running from the scene and diving into Tinder’s car.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Lawrence Police Detective Robert Dean Brown points to a map of McDonald’s at 1309 W 6th St. during a trial on Feb. 13, 2024, in Douglas County District Court.

Another detective, George Baker, gathered fingerprints from Beltch’s car, and a civilian investigator, Jana Ramsey, said she gathered fingerprints from the suspects’ vehicle after it had been impounded. Jay Wessel, a forensic scientist with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said he was then able to match a fingerprint found on Beltch’s passenger door to Levite’s print on the other vehicle.

And a now-retired Lawrence detective, Charles Cottengim, said he interviewed Tinder and that she identified Levite as the shooter; Cottengim said Levite later told him that Tinder was a liar and denied any involvement. Cottengim also said he confiscated Levite’s phone and was able to track Levite’s GPS data to the McDonald’s at the time of the shooting.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Retired Lawrence Police Detective Charles Cottengim reviews GPS data during a trial on Feb. 13, 2024, in Douglas County District Court.

The trial is expected to conclude Wednesday afternoon after Cottengim finishes his testimony and the defense presents its witnesses.

Levite is currently in custody in the federal prison system after he was convicted in 2021 in U.S. District Court in Missouri for intent to distribute Xanax and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to court records. He was sentenced to 68 months, or more than five years, in that case.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Howard Collins Levite, left, is pictured at trial on Feb. 13, 2024, in Douglas County District Court. He is charged with attempted murder and attempted robbery in connection with a shooting at a Lawrence McDonald’s in 2019.


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