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Judge orders trial, upgrades some charges in downtown Lawrence triple murder case

From left, defendants Anthony L. Roberts Jr., Ahmad M. Rayton and Dominique J. McMillon sit during a joint preliminary hearing, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, for charges related to a October 2017 triple homicide on Massachusetts Street.

Prosecutors assembled a multi-piece puzzle to implicate three young men from Topeka in the Oct. 1 shootings that left three people dead and two others injured in downtown Lawrence.

Eyewitness accounts from numerous of those men’s friends, and foes. Surveillance videos showing the shootings unfold, the directions of muzzle flashes and the locations of victims falling to the pavement. Testimony by the coroner and doctors about where bullets entered and exited the victims’ bodies. Shell casings of two types that fell in separate clusters at the northwest corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets. Police video of a traffic stop right after the shootings, showing each defendant in clothing police said matched figures in video of the scene.

That evidence was enough, a judge ruled Friday at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, to bind over all three men for trial — including one man charged with murder in all three deaths and attempted murder in one of the other shootings.

Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny also approved upgrading some of the men’s original charges. That ruling changed one of defendant Anthony L. Roberts Jr.’s second-degree murder charges to a first-degree murder charge. Co-defendant Ahmad M. Rayton now faces an additional attempted second-degree murder charge.

District Attorney Charles Branson, who is prosecuting the case along with Chief Assistant District Attorney David Melton, said his office would now turn toward preparing for a trial.

“We’re pleased with the court’s bind-over on all the charges, including the amended charges,” Branson said after the ruling.

The judge scheduled a two-week joint jury trial for all three defendants to begin May 14.

However, defense attorneys said they want the trial severed, so each defendant would face a jury alone. The judge will consider the joint trial matter at a hearing on March 27.

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Lawrence police investigate the scene of a shooting incident on Massachusetts Street between 10th and ...

A fistfight, then a flurry of close to 20 gunshots broke out on the northwest corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets about 1:40 a.m. Oct. 1, as what was estimated as hundreds of bystanders were outside around bar-closing time.

Previous sessions of the preliminary hearing — on Jan. 11, Jan. 19 and Thursday — revealed that the fight and ensuing gunfire involved more than a dozen young men from Topeka who knew each other, some of whom had histories stemming from past violence and social or family connections in Topeka.

All the defendants and victims were connected in some way, either by acquaintance or blood, except 22-year-old Leah Brown of Shawnee, who by all accounts was an uninvolved bystander struck by a stray bullet.

Also killed were Colwin Lynn Henderson, 20, and Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, both of Topeka. Two other Topeka men were shot but survived.

All three defendants are from Topeka and were arrested in the weeks following the killings. According to updated charges:

• Roberts, 20, is charged with one count of first-degree felony murder, for allegedly killing Brown while trying to kill Henderson; one count of first-degree felony murder for allegedly killing Dean-Rayton while trying to kill Henderson; one count of second-degree murder for allegedly intentionally killing Henderson; and one count of attempted second-degree murder for allegedly shooting Tahzay Rayton twice.

Roberts remains jailed on $1 million bond, and his attorney is Jennifer Chaffee.

• Ahmad Rayton, 22, is charged with one count of attempted second-degree murder for allegedly firing at Robert Wheeler; one count of attempted second-degree murder for allegedly shooting Royelle Hunt in the leg; and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Rayton is jailed on $1 million bond. His appointed attorney is Michael Clarke.

• Dominique J. McMillon, 19, is charged with one count of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening Wheeler with a gun. McMillon also is charged with one misdemeanor, battery, for allegedly hitting Wheeler in the fight.

McMillon is being held on $25,000 bond. His appointed attorney is J.C. Gilroy.

•••

On Friday, Melton summarized testimony and evidence from the preliminary hearing that he said pointed to the defendants:

Earlier that evening, a friend of the defendants met them in Topeka and told them he’d just been beaten up in Lawrence. He thought the people responsible were associates of Wheeler and Henderson, and wanted the defendants to return to Lawrence with him to get revenge.

“Right there is motive for coming to Lawrence and doing harm to Mr. Wheeler and his friends, which included Mr. Henderson,” Melton said. “There was bad blood between them.”

The defendants, the beat-up friend and another friend headed for Lawrence, and all three defendants purportedly brought guns.

Public surveillance video — from multiple angles in the area — shows a black Kia Sportage with a distinctive crooked license tag and defective brake light parking in the Vermont Towers lot about 1:10 a.m. and several men getting out and walking to the corner in front of the Watkins Museum of History.

Video shows muzzle flashes coming from the south side of the museum, then a figure who appears to be shooting from the front of the museum, and victims falling in spots consistent with the timing and the directions the shooters were firing.

Shell casings also factored in.

“The evidence has shown that there were two shooters that night,” Melton said. “One was firing a 9 mm handgun, based on shell casings that were found on the south side of Watkins Museum. One was firing a 40-caliber Smith and Wesson based on the shell casings that were found on the east side.”

Evidence — including eyewitness testimony and figures in the video wearing similar-colored clothing — shows the person who fired an initial string of bullets was Roberts and the person who fired a second cluster of bullets was Ahmad Rayton, Melton said.

Surveillance and police videos show men matching the suspects’ clothing description running back toward Vermont Towers and the SUV with the crooked tag driving away.

Up-close dashcam video from about 10 minutes later at the west edge of town shows police pulling over the SUV, for what officers testified was an invalid tag.

All three defendants and a friend riding with them — who testified, reluctantly and fearfully, about what happened on Massachusetts Street — were identified and searched.

Officers inspected and cleared a 9 mm gun Roberts had on his hip, and returned it to him before letting the group go, as they did not have “reasonable suspicion” to detain them further at that time.

•••

All three defendants entered pleas of not guilty on Friday.

They appeared more somber than at most times during previous hearings, and in one case even angry, after the judge’s ruling.

Roberts sighed, leaned back in his chair and repeatedly shook his head, or bowed it. He said he wanted to go back to his cell.

Rayton, as he was being escorted out of the courtroom, yelled profanities apparently directed to the side of the room where prosecutors and relatives of the people killed were seated.

“(Expletive) you, I didn’t shoot nobody, (expletive),” Rayton said.

The men’s attorneys had argued that evidence was too sketchy to show probable cause that they committed the charged crimes.

In particular, they attacked video of the shootings, which was dark with involved figures small and difficult to see.

“You would not be able to — absent some superpowers — to sit there and watch that video and conclude who was doing what,” Rayton’s attorney, Clarke, said. “Despite the state’s assertion to the contrary, you can’t tell.”

Attorneys also attacked the testimony of some eyewitnesses, especially Wheeler, who they said was biased because he’s an adversary of the defendants and unreliable because his description of the events was inconsistent, even farfetched.

“His memory of the evening is suspect,” Roberts’ attorney, Chaffee, said. “He had many inconsistencies.”

The judge emphasized that her role at a preliminary hearing was to determine whether probable cause for the charges existed. Unlike a jury trial, Pokorny said, the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is not beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pokorny cited the chain of evidence presented by the state in her ruling.

Coverage of Massachusetts Street triple homicide

• Feb. 9, 2018 — Judge orders trial, upgrades some charges in downtown Lawrence triple murder case

• Feb. 8, 2018 — Footage played at preliminary hearing shows triple homicide unfold on Massachusetts Street

• Jan. 19 — Officers testify about chaos, life-saving measures in aftermath of downtown Lawrence shooting

• Jan. 11 — Court testimony: Topeka feud led to ‘mayhem’ that left 3 dead on Massachusetts Street

• Jan. 10, 2018 — Hearing expected to reveal details of triple homicide on Massachusetts Street

• Dec. 4 — Preliminary hearing for downtown Lawrence triple murder case pushed back a month

• Nov. 8 — Joint preliminary hearing set for 3 defendants in Massachusetts Street triple murder case

• Nov. 1 — Triple murder defendant still has no attorney; his and companion cases progressing together

• Oct. 31 — Judge seals affidavits in Mass. Street murder case, citing ongoing investigation and potential danger to witnesses

• Oct. 29 — How do Lawrence police patrol downtown? In wake of Mass Street killings, department has stepped up patrols; no permanently designated officers

• Oct. 25 — Massachusetts Street triple murder suspect appears in court alongside 2 other defendants

• Oct. 24 — Triple murder suspect arrives in Lawrence from Kansas City jail

• Oct. 19 — Charges begin to fill in details on triple homicide on Mass Street; murder suspect waives extradition

• Oct. 18 — Topeka man arrested on suspicion of killing 3 people in downtown Lawrence

• Oct. 18 — Hearings for downtown Lawrence shooting defendants pushed back a week

• Oct. 17 — After 2 arrests, Lawrence police still searching for killer or killers in downtown shooting

• Oct. 13 — No arrests in downtown triple homicide; Lawrence police say investigation is active and ‘progressing’

• Oct. 4 — Funerals set for two young Topeka men killed in downtown Lawrence shootings

• Oct. 3 — Services set for woman, 22, killed in downtown Lawrence shootings; Leah Brown described as loving, ‘vibrant’

• Oct. 2 — Police: Shooting on Massachusetts Street that killed 3 was not a random act; 1 injured survivor released from hospital; other in stable condition

• Oct. 1 — Lawrence has had 5 homicides since Sept. 1 and city leaders are searching for answers

• Oct. 1, 2017 — 5 people shot in downtown Lawrence; 3 dead

Contact public safety reporter Sara Shepherd

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Comments

Tim Hjersted

Ya'll with no compassion (which I'm seeing in the Facebook comments)... On one hand, I get it. The triple loss of life is a tragedy that cannot be described in words (the frequency of tragedies like this should never allow us to become apathetic).

But also remember: we as the adults of this society failed these young boys, or whoever was ultimately responsible.

We failed as policymakers, as educators, as media creators, as citizens whose duty it is to create a society that does not do violence to its children.

No child is born with an intention to kill. All children who grow up to commit violence did so because of a toxic culture, a culture without enough guides, without enough safety and security, without enough positive environmental influences, without meaningful rites of passage to guide our youth into adulthood. We failed them. It is true that we are also the product of the wisdom and foolishness of our elders, and what they transmitted to us wasn't enough to prevent more tragedies like this. But somehow, we must resolve to do better.

We must live and care as if every child is our own.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Bob Summers

Your are the best Tim.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Clara Westphal

We didn't fail them. Their families did. Millions of dollars spent and many people try to help these 'children' but the families often undermine what others are trying to do to help them.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Scott Kaiser

Tim, you fail to mention, in all of your blame shifting to everyone else, the real individuals responsible for the failing of these defendants reaching adulthood: Their parents.
If, as a member of society, as you so state, one was to show discipline to these men as a child when they erred, one would be subject to the penalties of the law and the disdain of others as a "meddler."
Once, several years ago, if an adult, such as a neighbor, an educator, etc were to encounter a juvenile acting in a behavior that was unacceptable to society, a swat to the bottom and contacting the parents would have assured a correction to the negative behavior. However, in our society now, that option is no longer feasible. Therefore, more responsibility must be assumed by the parent. Unfortunately, there is a growing lack of parental responsibility for various reasons that I will not go into because we all know of those reasons.
So, I agree that violence should never be done to children, but, the bulk of responsibility to correct adverse behavior lies primarily with the parents, not society as a whole.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Tim Hjersted

And yet, their parents also grew up in this society, and they too were failed by the generation before us. Society, policymakers, citizens - did not allocate resources to alleviate poverty, to properly fund all schools, to provide access to maternity leave, to fund more non-profit educational media, to provide livable wages so that parents don't have to work multiple jobs and be gone so much from their children, to address the imbalances in opportunity that are ingrained in our society due to centuries of accumulated disparity. These are just a number of the inherited problems that parents must face. We cannot isolate parents from their environment. We are inseparable from it. Yes, all parents are responsible for their children, but parents are a product of their environment, and the environment is a product of society as a whole.

Our task is to break the transmission of suffering from one generation to the next - to each do what we can to improve the material conditions of people's lives, and we can do that through policy, education, business, media, the arts, and our own volunteer work with non-profit organizations.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Steve Jacob

And some children are failed by society because their parents get gunned down on a public street.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Deb Engstrom

Society has failed these young men, but also their parents and generations before. Every single person has the responsibility to do something to keep kids like this from being "written off" at a young age.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Devin Eagan

Are you f*cking stupid? you're saying giving them a spanking as children would have stopped this? In life we have choices. And we make those choices alone. its no ones fault but their own.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Steve King

Jeez for once I agree with Mr. Summers. I knew you were astute. Just too far right...

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Clara Westphal

Tim, what is your profession? Are you in a position to help correct the wrongs you mention.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Chris Condren

Break the cycle by imposing lengthy sentences on these three if they are found guilty.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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Deb Engstrom

I agree that they need to do prison time, but I fail to understand how that will break the cycle. They will come out (if they do), better criminals.

3 months, 2 weeks ago

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