Columbus crime: Police say passenger had gun cocked, loaded in lap before driver was fatally shot

Derrick Lamar Johnson told Columbus police he had a loaded .357 Magnum cocked in his lap in the back seat of a 1995 Ford Taurus Tuesday night when he dropped the gun and it went off, fatally shooting the driver in the back.

That’s what police Sgt. Tom Plock told Recorder’s Court Judge Michael Joyner Wednesday as Johnson, 20, faced a murder charge in the death of the driver, 17-year-old Eric Demetries Maxwell.

Plock said a witness in the 2400 block of Second Avenue reported hearing the gunshot and seeing the Taurus swerve, slow and pull to the roadside, where one man jumped out and ran, and a second got out and wiped the car off with his shirt sleeve, as if to erase fingerprints.

Police arriving about 9 p.m. found Maxwell and summoned the coroner, who pronounced the youth dead at 9:38 p.m. Still at the scene was the front-seat passenger who had been wiping down the car. Later identified as Tray Thomas, 18, police charged him with possessing cocaine with intent to distribute when they saw two bags of crack at the car’s front ashtray, Plock said. One bag had nine hunks of crack and the other had three, each piece individually wrapped, Plock said.

The sergeant said Thomas, who’s in the county jail on $10,000 bond, never gave investigators a statement, and Johnson surrendered at police headquarters before Thomas was questioned.

Johnson told detectives the three men previously had been fired upon while in the Wilson public housing complex off Veterans Parkway, and he had bought the handgun for $80 on the street, intending to return to Wilson to find their assailants, said Plock. He said Johnson claimed the shooting was accidental.

Johnson told officers that after the gun went off, he ran from into the woods and threw away the weapon, which has not been found, Plock said.

Besides murder, Johnson faces charges of possessing a firearm while committing a crime and, like Thomas, possessing cocaine with intent to distribute. Johnson pleaded not guilty and did not testify.

Positing that the shooting was an accident, Johnson’s attorney, public defender Charles Lykins, asked Joyner to reduce the murder charge to involuntary manslaughter.

Joyner refused, noting one section of the state law defining the crime says, “A person also commits the offense of murder when, in the commission of a felony, he causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice.”Testimony showed not only that crack cocaine packaged to be sold was found in the car, but that its occupants were “en route to commit a felony” by shooting at others, said Joyner. Those factors were enough to establish probable cause to let the murder charge stand and send the case to Superior Court, the judge said.

Johnson will remain jailed without bond on the murder charge. Joyner set a bond of $10,000 on the firearms charge and $20,000 on the drug charge.

Outside the court, Maxwell’s grandmother, Carolyn Burnham, said she believed the shooting was accidental, but had begun to doubt that during the hearing.

“He wasn’t remorseful for what he did,” she said of Johnson. “He was just trying to figure out a way to get out of this.”She thought it odd that only Johnson had a gun, though he claimed they were going to battle others in Wilson Homes. She said her grandson was not the kind to get into a gunfight. “He’ll walk away,” she said. “He’s not a fighter.”

Maxwell, Johnson and Thomas grew up together in Chase Homes off Second Avenue in Columbus, she said. Maxwell had lived there with his mother, who died two years ago. “They were close,” she said.