During testimony Monday in a robbery and murder trial, a night manager at Columbus’ Milgen Road Winn-Dixie described the fear of facing armed, masked robbers who burst into the store’s back office late on April 11, 2012.
Pier Rivera said it was about 10:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the store was to close, when he heard a scream just before three men in dark clothing came into the office yelling, “Open the safe!”
They were in the wrong place, Rivera testified: The safe was in the front cash office, not the back office he was working in. But the robbers wouldn’t listen to him, and kept pulling open cabinets looking for a safe. If he tried to stand up, they pushed him back down, he said.
Then a fourth, taller robber with an automatic rifle came in to see what was taking so long, demanding, “Where is the m----r f-----g money!” When Rivera told him they were in the wrong office, the taller gunman fired the rifle over Rivera’s head and ordered the others to get him up and move to the front office.
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Prosecutors claim the taller robber was Michael Jerome “Big Smoove” Johnson, on trial this week for three armed robberies, one of which involved the 2011 homicide of Gold & Silver Trading Center manager Steve Toms.
A codefendant, Dimitrius Gordon, is on trial with Johnson for the other two robberies. The Winn-Dixie is one of them.
Rivera told the court the robbers pushed him to the front of the store, striking him in the head with the butt of a gun. They forced him to open the front office door, then pushed him to the floor with the barrel of a gun to his head.
“You move and I’ll shoot you,” he was told.
The safe already was open, and a cash tray was out on a desk, so the robbers grabbed what they could and ran, Rivera said. Another worker, Justin Glass, was already in the cash office when Rivera came in with the gunmen. He testified that he had been counting the day’s receipts, and estimated the robbers got about $9,000.
Neither he nor Rivera could identify any of the robbers because of the disguises.
Rivera was called to the stand Monday afternoon, after attorneys spent most of the morning delving further into the other robbery with which both Johnson and Gordon are charged, the May 5, 2012, armed robbery of the Diamond Exchange at 4227 Victory Drive. Defense attorneys focused on other possible suspects in that robbery, particularly two men who later that same day were caught with a stolen car police believe the robbers used.
Those two men were Daequavian Solomon and Dacorious Young, who that day had been in the company of Kelsie Hixson, who was 16 at the time. Hixson testified the two came by in a cab to pick him up from his mother’s Forest Avenue home and take him to Phenix City’s Colonial Inn at 905 280 Bypass, where Solomon got an adult friend to rent them a room for a motel party.
Later, Solomon and Young got a second cab to take them to Columbus, where Solomon got a car from Johnson, his cousin, at Johnson’s 3390 N. Lumpkin Road apartment. With Solomon driving, they took the car back to the inn to continue their party, which two girls came to.
Hixson said his mother came by about 10 or 10:30 p.m. to take him home. Later Solomon, who had a gun, got into a confrontation with another male who was interested in Solomon’s girlfriend and fired his pistol in the air. Phenix City police were called, and an officer was on his way when Solomon, leaving the motel, ran a red light, officers testified.
A chase ensued, and Solomon wrecked the stolen car in the bypass median. Young, a passenger, got out, ran and got away. Officers discovered Solomon was driving a stolen black Lincoln LS, the same sort of car used in the Diamond Exchange robbery. He also had a stolen handgun.
Columbus Police Sgt. Andrew Tyner said he’s convinced the Lincoln was the car Johnson and Gordon used to rob the Victory Drive jewelry store. But he did not believe Solomon or Young were involved in the robbery.
Defense attorneys hammered on the possibility Solomon and Young made better robbery suspects than Johnson and Gordon, but Tyner said no evidence other than the car connected them to the robbery, and they got the car from Johnson.
The trial continues this morning at 9 in Judge William Rumer’s Government Center courtroom.
Only Johnson is charged in the Nov. 15, 2011, armed robbery of the 3717 Gentian Blvd. Gold & Silver Trading Center where Toms was killed. No evidence in that case has been presented yet.