Tommy was enjoying his birthday at his favorite hangout spot until someone opened fire in the parking lot.
Tommy, who ran a bootleg booze stand across the street from the East Street nightclub named Hell, testified Monday about the shooting, which left two men dead.
“I’ll never forget that night for the rest of my life,” said Tommy.
The shooter was one of his customers, he said.
Tommy was the main civilian witness on Monday, at the fourth day of a double-murder trial of 35-year-old Markease Hill.
Hill faces life in prison for the murders of Ensley Myrick and Joey Reed, who were gunned down on June 11, 2008, in a parking lot next to club Hell (pictured) and the adjoining strip club, Catwalk. Click here, here and here to read about days one, two and three of the trial before Judge Joan Alexander in Connecticut Superior Court on Church Street.
Tommy’s testimony Monday gave a window into a late-night, industrial-zone hangout scene with which many New Haveners are unfamiliar. It also highlighted the challenges in getting witnesses to come forward in a murder case—especially when the suspect is a convicted shooter with reported gang ties.
Tommy, who’s 46, was the third witness in the trial to name Hill as the lone triggerman in the killings. He fit a pattern of witnesses who were reluctant at first to come forward, and did so only after getting in trouble with the law themselves.
Tommy is currently serving a suspended sentence, with one year’s conditional discharge, for a misdemeanor charge stemming from a domestic violence arrest on May 2, 2009.
After staying quiet about the night of the Catwalk killings for nearly two years, Tommy came forward in February and told police he saw Hill fire the gun. His testimony, under subpoena, did not appear to be part of a formal deal with law enforcement.
Compared to other witnesses in this case, Tommy presented a genial demeanor and a cleaner criminal record: He has no felonies. He wore a white T-shirt and a blue track-suit top to court. In a voice that carried the lilt of his native North Carolina, he told the jury about the night of the crime.
Here’s what he said happened:
June 10, 2008 was Tommy’s 45th birthday. He spent it at his favorite hangout spot.
For Tommy, a long-time employee at the former Simkins paper recycling plant, East Street was familiar turf. By day, he would run the forklift at the plant’s warehouse. By night, he’d cut across the parking lot to the adjacent brick building. Inside, he’d get drinks at club Hell and watch the dancing at the Catwalk.
When he wasn’t drinking in Hell, Tommy ran a bootleg business in the street. Every night, he’d stash his white Chevrolet Monte Carlo with liquor and drive it to the bar. He’d park in the same spot, across from the Hell/Catwalk parking lot. During bar hours and after-hours, he’d run a makeshift package store from the trunk of his car. Customers would pull up and buy shots of Gray Goose vodka and Petrón tequila, he said. He sold bottles, too.
On June 10, 2008, he planned to take the night off from selling booze to celebrate his birthday. He got to the spot late, around 12:30 a.m. on June 11. He went into Hell with his girlfriend and drank three beers—Guinness. Around 1 p.m., all the regular patrons were kicked out. Tommy got to stay a few more minutes—“I got a V.I.P. over there,” he explained. He said he was the bar’s “first customer.” He planted the hedges that line the nearby parking lot.
Around 1:15 p.m., he went outside and stood in the doorway of Hell. He saw his girlfriend talking to three white guys, he said. His girlfriend had told the strangers it was Tommy’s birthday. The white men shook his hand and issued birthday wishes. Then Tommy went back to his trunk to make a few sales.
When he came out of the club, he saw a Ford parked on East Street in front of his Monte Carlo. The car contained three of his regular customers—Hill, whom he’d known for six months, and Thaddeus and Jaime, whom he’d known for two years. Thad and Jaime were two of his best customers, Tommy said. “I made good money with them.”
Tommy also testified that he’d seen Hill carrying a .45 caliber gun—the same type of gun that fired the fatal bullets, according to police—two weeks before the crime. Hill let him hold it, he said.
“Pow, Pow, Pow”
Tommy said he remained positioned by his Monte Carlo—facing the parking lot, watching to see if the cops came by—when the shootings took place around 1:30 a.m.
Hill, whom Tommy knows only by his street name, Keedy B, crossed the street to talk to his sister. Keedy B came back to the car, crossed the street again, took out a gun, and shot two of the white men down, Tommy testified.
“I seen two guys fall,” he said. “I seen the fire before the gun.” Keedy B fired six to seven shots in quick succession—“pow, pow, pow!”—he said.
“I was shocked,” Tommy said, “like I couldn’t believe this just happened.”
An errant bullet hit a building and set off an alarm. The lot became chaotic: “Everybody screaming, running, hollering.”
Tommy said he didn’t run—he stayed by his car. He watched Keedy B come across the street, carrying a gun in his hand. He saw Keedy B get in the Ford. They “jetted,” with Jaime behind the wheel, he testified. No one else in the lot except Keedy B had a weapon, he said.
While two other witnesses testified that Hill shot the men because they called him the N-word, Tommy didn’t name a motive for the shooting.
Tommy said he looped around the block in his car and watched the scene from Grand Avenue for 40 minutes. Cops would soon pronounce two white males, Myrick and Reed, dead.
Tommy didn’t come forward that night when cops approached him. He didn’t give a taped statement about the incident until late February of this year.
“Fearful of Retaliation”
In cross-examination, the witness had to answer to defense attorney Tom Farver about how he fleshed out his story through a series of interviews.
The questioning fit a pattern: None of the four main civilian witnesses in this case called police after the crime. At first, they denied seeing anything. After getting picked up on new criminal charges—or in Jaime’s case, being promised he could have a sentencing date pushed back a week so he could enjoy July 4th—they became more forthcoming with cops, and helped prosecutors with the murder trial.
Tommy first denied any direct knowledge of the crime. He told cops he didn’t see the shootings because his open car trunk obstructed his view.
After cops tracked him down at a club, Tommy agreed to a second interview. He became a bit more forthcoming. In a brief meeting at Cody’s Diner on June 19, 2008, he told Sgt. Rose Turney who had been in the getaway car that night—three men named Thad, Jaime and Keedy B. He picked Keedy B out of a photo board and told her he heard Keedy B was the shooter. But he denied witnessing the shooting himself, and refused to give a taped statement.
Why didn’t Tommy tell the full story, if he indeed witnessed more?
Tommy said he was concerned about “revenge.”
At the time of the Catwalk killings, Hill (pictured) had just finished serving 16 years in prison for shooting two men at a Fair Haven barber shop in 1991. Law enforcement identified him as a gang member.
Judge Alexander has barred talk of Hill’s gang affiliation during this trial, because it would prejudice the jury. Before Tommy took the stand, she told the him not to talk about any membership with any “groups or organizations”—“do you know what I mean?”
Sgt. Turney, who initially handled the murder case, didn’t make mention of gangs when she testified later Monday during the trial. She did say that Tommy was “fearful of retaliation” for himself and his family and was “fairly adamant” that he not give any sworn statements.
Tommy did not give solid evidence for the police’s case until later in the investigation. In another meeting on June 25, 2008, Turney showed him a photo board of possible suspects, and he failed to pick out the man he knew as Keedy B. Tommy said Monday that he was rushed because his 8-year-old son was waiting in the car, and he had trouble recognizing the defendant because he had grown facial hair.
Tommy remained mum about witnessing the shooting until after he picked up a domestic violence charge, Farver pointed out. It’s unclear if Tommy made any deal in return for testimony.
As recently as Feb. 6 of this year, Tommy still maintained to police that he didn’t see the shooting.
He remained reluctant to say much until Feb. 19, when he gave his first taped statement. For the first time, he claimed that he saw “Keedy B” shoot the two men.
What inspired him to come forward? prosecutor Kevin Doyle asked.
“I just felt sorry for the family,” he said.
Farver tried to use the changing story to cast doubt over the witness’s tale. He passed around photos of Hill—one that Tommy identified as Keedy B, and one inside a photo board, where Tommy failed to identify the defendant.
Hill, wearing a bright white long-sleeve shirt, swiveled his chair to face the jury. He watched their faces as the 15 jurors passed the photos around.
Farver also highlighted places where Tommy’ account clashed with other witnesses’ stories. For example, Tommy said the victims never got into their Mercedes. But another witness said Myrick got in and out of the car several times. The Mercedes was found running, with one window down, after the crime, according to a cop.
Perhaps in an effort to make the witness more sympathetic to the jury, prosecutor Doyle asked Tommy at one point how his booze business is today. The defense objected to the question on grounds of relevance, and the judge agreed.
Tommy answered the question at a different time. His business, like many others’ in this economic slump, appears to be suffering, too.
Before the incident, Tommy had “a lot of customers.”
Now, he said, “they don’t come around no more.”
Court resumes Wednesday at 10 a.m.