Prosecutor describes fatal shooting at 5 Corner Lotto store in opening statement
Jurors in the trial of two men charged with murder in a failed robbery at Columbus’ 5 Corner Lotto store saw video Tuesday of the store owner and son being shot outside the Linwood Boulevard business.
One of those shots went through a gallon of milk the 56-year-old store owner was holding in a bag, and entered his abdomen, Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly told jurors in the trial of Jalontaye Clay Cleveland and Courtney Trumaine Williams.
“You see the milk start spilling everywhere,” Kelly said.
Another bullet hit the store owner’s son, 23-year-old Vastal Patel, in the upper back, severing his spine and killing him, Kelly said.
But the jury will have to see a lot more evidence to reach verdicts in the multiple robberies and assaults for which Cleveland and Williams are being tried in Muscogee Superior Court.
Besides the attempted robbery that killed Patel at 5 Corner Lotto on Nov. 6, 2016, Cleveland and Williams are charged in five other store robberies between Oct. 10, 2016 and Jan. 18, 2017.
Three suspects who were indicted with them are to testify in the trial that’s expected to last weeks. They are Dominique Collins, Joshua Tucker and Kimberly Huffman.
Kelly tried to summarize all the evidence Tuesday in his opening statement.
He said surveillance video from 5 Corner Lotto shows that as the father and son were locking the door of the 1231 Linwood Blvd. business shortly before 10 p.m., three masked men in hooded jackets came around a corner of the building, two of them with guns and one on a cell phone.
Cleveland put a .380 pistol in the father’s face, and the father tried to swat it away, Kelly said. That’s when Cleveland started firing and backing away, before the masked men ran down Linwood Boulevard and turned onto Dudley Avenue, where a dark GMC Denali turned up the avenue after them, the prosecutor said.
Earlier recordings revealed that same vehicle had been cruising through the area before the shooting, Kelly said: Seven minutes before the attempted robbery, it dropped three man off behind a nearby business called Walt’s Jewelry. And it stopped at 5 Corner Lotto 2½ hours before the shooting, to let Collins go in and buy a Gatorade, paying for it with a food-assistance card, the prosecutor said.
Police started looking for the Denali, and trying to trace the card Collins used. Both led them to Huffman, who was Williams’ girlfriend at the time.
They questioned her on Nov. 21, 2016, learning she owned a dark 2004 GMC Denali, and the card Collins used belonged to her, Kelly said. Searching the Denali, police found Williams’ state-issued identification card, a pair of men’s shorts, and a phone registered to Williams, the prosecutor said.
Police started looking for Williams, but could not find him for months.
Noting the store video showed one suspect on a cell phone, police checked calls that went through the nearest cell tower, and identified numbers matching a call from the time of the shooting.
One number they traced to Williams, and another to Collins, Kelly said. Collins had moved to Kentucky, where he was arrested Feb. 17, 2017, and extradited to Columbus.
On the drive back, he gave detectives this account, Kelly said:
Collins said he was the would-be 5 Corner Lotto robber on the phone, as he was in touch with Williams, who was in the Denali watching the front of the store to tell the others when the father and son came outside. Along with Collins and Cleveland was Tucker, who like Cleveland had a handgun, but did not fire it, Collins told police.
The information Collins gave investigators tied the 5 Corner Lotto case to armed robberies involving the same suspects, Kelly said.
Collins told officers Cleveland bragged of having robbed a UR Choice store that was off Warm Springs Road at Hilton Avenue. A man in a blue hoodie entered the business on Oct. 10, 2016, put a gun to the head of the woman working there and took cash from the register and from a metal box behind the counter.
Collins said Cleveland boasted also of robbing the Weems Road Food Mart on Oct. 15, 2016, when he fired three shots at the owner who ducked behind the counter to get a gun. The owner was wounded in the leg. Wearing the same blue hoodie from the UR Choice robbery, the gunman took the store owner’s .40-caliber pistol.
Collins also told police about an Oct. 22, 2016 armed robbery and kidnapping at the M&P store on St. Marys Road, where the worker closing the business called a cab to go home. Collins, Cleveland and Williams followed the cab in Huffman’s Denali, abducted the worker, got the store keys and alarm code and sent Collins back to the business to take more than $5,000 in cash, Kelly said.
On Jan. 13, 2017, Cleveland and Williams robbed an ABC food mart that was on South Lumpkin Road, where Cleveland used a distinctive pistol with a noticeably long barrel, Kelly said.
On the following Jan. 18, Cleveland again robbed the UR Choice store off Warm Springs Road, using the same long-barreled handgun he had five days earlier, the prosecutor said.
Cleveland was arrested in early February 2017, when police found the pistol on his bed, Kelly said: It was a Ruger .22-caliber target pistol with a barrel 5½ inches long.
Police arrested Tucker on March 4, 2017. He told detectives he was at the 5 Corner Lotto shooting, but never fired a gun, the prosecutor said.
On March 16, 2017, police arrested both Williams and Huffman on Forrest Road in Columbus, and seized the .40-caliber pistol that was taken in the Oct. 15, 2016, Weems Road store robbery, Kelly said. That’s the gun Tucker had at the 5 Corner Lotto shooting, the prosecutor said.
Collins, Tucker and Huffman are not on trial with Cleveland and Williams because Huffman’s case is being handled separately, and Collins, 20, and Tucker, 19, have pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
So, jurors this week have to sort through the evidence against Cleveland, 20, and Williams, 28, to reach verdicts on these charges:
▪ Murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated assault in the 5 Corner Lotto case.
▪ Armed robbery in the Oct. 10, 2016, UR Choice case.
▪ Armed robbery and aggravated assault in the Oct. 15, 2016, Weems Road case.
▪ Armed robbery and kidnapping in the Oct. 22, 2016, M&P Food Mart case.
▪ Armed robbery in the Jan. 13, 2017, ABC Food Mart case.
▪ Armed robbery in the second UR Choice case from Jan. 18, 2017.
The jury also must decide whether Williams is guilty of making terroristic threats to police Sgt. Anthony Locey on March 15, 2017. Locey was the lead investigator in the 5 Corner Lotto case.
After Kelly’s long recitation of evidence against the defendants Tuesday, two defense attorneys spoke to the jury.
Representing Williams along with attorneys William Kendrick and Anthony Johnson, Adam Deaver told jurors they can’t convict his client strictly on the testimony of a co-defendant. He urged them to weigh each incident separately, and look for gaps in the evidence. “There are so many holes in this case,” he said. “It’s not so clear.”
Representing Cleveland along with co-counsel Barry Debrow, Jennifer Curry said what happened to the victims was an ordeal no one should have to endure, but the victims can’t identify the suspects who robbed or assaulted them. “They’ll never forget it, and they shouldn’t,” she said. “But they can’t tell you who did it, and that’s why we’re here.”
The trial resumes Wednesday in Judge Bobby Peters’ Government Center courtroom.