Nicholas Boger was trying to stop two men from stealing his car in east Charlotte when he was shot in the face and run over. Police found him dead beneath the vehicle.
Daimeon Johnson was gunned down on a Sunday afternoon in a residential neighborhood three miles north of uptown.
And Ajaewan Jones was unarmed when he was shot to death at a convenience store near Beatties Ford Road.
The victims had something in common: All three might have been alive today if those accused in their killings had been convicted on previous gun charges.
The Observer examined the criminal records of nearly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg County since 2015. More than half were charged previously with weapons crimes in Mecklenburg — about 700 charges in all.
For 28 of those murder suspects, a conviction on an earlier charge — rather than a dismissal — would have put them behind bars at the time of the killing.
In five cases since 2015, Mecklenburg prosecutors dropped a previous murder charge and police arrested the same suspect for another homicide.
“We are teaching (criminals) that there are no consequences to what they do,” said Cheryl Jones, a board member of CharMeck Court Watch, a group that tracks repeat offenders.
Mecklenburg’s prosecutors say they work hard to get people who commit weapons crimes off the street. But they say cases are often hampered by poor evidence and by witnesses who can’t be found, can’t be trusted or refuse to testify.
Asked why so many gun charges are dismissed, Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said his prosecutors do what is right, deciding each case based on the available evidence.
“If the decision to dismiss that case was based on the facts and the law, there’s nothing anybody can do about changing that circumstance,” he said.
In fiscal year 2018-19, less than 1 percent of criminal cases in Mecklenburg went to trial, state data show. Almost all the rest were plea-bargained or dismissed.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Det. Sue Martin, who investigates violent crimes in northwest Charlotte, keeps a mental list of people arrested for using guns who she thinks may one day kill somebody.
“This person is going to be next. He’s going to be killed or kill somebody. He keeps getting off,” she says.
Police have reason to worry. Eighty-seven people were victims of homicide in Charlotte in 2017, making it the city’s deadliest year in more than two decades. And 2019 is on pace to be even deadlier.
Did Johnson, Boger and Jones have to die?
Here are the stories of those charged in their killings:
9 gun charges, 9 dismissals
In September 2017, Sanchez Massey opened the front door and handed a cellphone to two strangers who asked to make a call. Then the men barged into the apartment and pointed pistols at him.
They ordered Massey and a female friend to the ground, and did the same to a second woman found hiding in a bedroom closet, according to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police report.
Then the gunmen — one wearing a black jacket and the other wearing a hoodie and red bandana around his face — ransacked the southwest Charlotte apartment, according to the 2017 report.
They stole a Sony PlayStation, a watch, a laptop, car keys, two pairs of shoes and three cellphones. One gunman fired a shot near Massey’s leg, police said.
The three victims said one of the suspects was Anthony Qashawn Walker, according to court documents.
One victim attended West Charlotte High School with him. All three found photos of Walker on CMPD’s website and identified him by his previous mugshots, records state.
Walker, the victims said, was wearing the bandana. But the handkerchief kept falling down, “so the victims were able to clearly see his face during the incident,” according to court records.
A week after the armed robbery, on Sept. 25, 2017, police arrested Walker, charging him with three counts of armed robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
In May 2018, Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed the charges.
It wasn’t the first time. From 2012 through 2018, police charged Walker with nine weapons crimes, stemming from four incidents. Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed them all, the Observer found.
In the 2017 armed robbery, investigators couldn’t find Walker’s fingerprints inside the home, and they couldn’t rely solely on the victims’ statements, court records say.
“The identification of the defendant by the victim is not enough to proceed without further evidence of the defendant’s guilt,” a prosecutor wrote in a court document explaining the reason for the dismissal. “Without more the State cannot succeed at trial.”
In court records, Walker’s defense attorney noted that one witness previously misidentified Walker in a Facebook photo.
But the witnesses were believable, an officer with knowledge of the case told the Observer. The officer asked that he not be named because he wasn’t given permission to talk about the case.
“I thought they would have done well on the stand,” he said.
Less than two years after the armed robbery, police charged Walker again — this time with murder.
Police said Walker, 27, shot and killed Daimeon Johnson on April 28 in Charlotte’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood. Walker is awaiting trial in the case.
Johnson, 40, had a 19-year-old daughter and a granddaughter. He had worked as a professional mover and as a handyman.
He didn’t joke around much, and wasted little time getting to the point, said his younger brother, Nikolas Wright. But when family members needed help, Wright said, Johnson was there.
“He never let anybody down,” Wright said. “He was a great protector of his family.”
Wright said Walker lived in the same neighborhood as his brother, near the intersection of LaSalle Street and Beatties Ford Road. Why his brother was killed is still a mystery, he said.
Johnson had experienced his own run-ins with the law. In his earlier years, he’d been convicted of common law robbery, possession of a firearm by a felon and other charges.
Wright acknowledged that his brother had “rough edges,” and said he believes some who are charged with crimes deserve a second chance. But after learning that prosecutors dismissed Walker’s nine previous gun charges, Wright questioned why.
Johnson’s aunt, Philistia Stewart, also wonders why court officials gave Walker so many chances.
“I can see one time, two times. But nine times? Come on,” Stewart said. “Our family’s life is changed forever.”
Peter Nicholson, the assistant public defender who is representing Walker, said he cannot discuss his murder case or past criminal charges because the case is still pending. Mecklenburg prosecutors told the Observer that they don’t discuss the criminal histories of people with pending murder charges, either.
Man shot as car theft turns deadly
Sergio Coello-Perez and two other men were accused of following a 21-year-old man to his apartment near Central Avenue late one night in November 2017, according to court documents.
Two of the men rushed toward the victim, court records state. One pointed a black handgun at the man while the other rifled through the victim’s pockets, taking $600 and a cellphone. The third man stayed in the car.
Two days later, police found the phone — and Coello-Perez — at a house in Matthews.
Coello-Perez first told officers that a friend gave him the phone, court records state. During another police interview, he said someone sold him the phone on the street for $5 and marijuana.
In December 2017, John Benitez, a co-defendant in the case, told police that Coello-Perez helped with the hold-up, according to a court document. Benitez was charged with 21 weapons crimes — arising from two incidents — in 2017. He was convicted of three charges, including the November robbery.
A month later, police charged Coello-Perez with armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
But prosecutors dismissed the charges against him, stating in a court document: “The only thing tying this D (defendant) to the crime is that he was in possession of a stolen phone multiple days after the robbery occurred. D (defendant) was not ID’d as a perpetrator of the robbery.”
The dismissal document did not mention Benitez’s claim that Coello-Perez was involved.
Months later, in May 2018, Coello-Perez and Jonathan Castillo were accused of trying to steal a car near Independence Boulevard.
Nicholas Boger, the car’s owner, confronted the pair. Boger was shot in the face and run over, court records state. He was found dead at the scene.
Five days after the homicide, police arrested Castillo.
According to court documents, police identified Coello-Perez as the second suspect through witness statements and surveillance video.
Prosecutors would not discuss the prior charges against Coello-Perez because he is currently charged with murder.
Coello-Perez did not respond to letters that the Observer sent to him in jail.
Prosecutors need proof beyond a reasonable doubt
By early 2014, Deshawn McDowell had been charged with more than a dozen weapons crimes.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said he shot a gun in the city, fired into occupied property, possessed a stolen firearm, twice assaulted someone with the intent to kill and committed five armed robberies.
Mecklenburg County prosecutors dismissed all 15 of McDowell’s weapons charges, records state. They said the only evidence tying McDowell to some of the charges were the uncorroborated claims of a co-defendant.
Christina Walters was one of McDowell’s victims, police said.
Walters remembers the night in November 2013 that she was followed home and robbed. She had just pulled into the parking lot of her west Charlotte apartment complex when a man sprinted to the front of her 2002 Volvo and pointed a gun at her.
“Put your bag on the car,” she recalled the man yelling.
Then he pointed the gun at Walters’ 8-year-old son, who sat in the backseat.
Walters stretched her arm out of the window and slung her purse onto the car’s hood. The gunman grabbed it and ran as his accomplices left in a car.
Walters told the Observer that she could not identify her attacker because his face was covered.
Walters was one of four victims in a string of armed robberies that day, court records show.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested four suspects.
Two of the four were convicted of robbery, and a third was convicted of a lesser charge. But Mecklenburg County prosecutors dropped all of McDowell’s charges — discharging a weapon into occupied property, robbing four people and conspiring to rob four people.
The only evidence prosecutors had against McDowell were the statements of a co-defendant, said Deputy District Attorney Bruce Lillie.
“I have to prove all these cases beyond a reasonable doubt,” Lillie said. “And the fact that one self-interested co-defendant says something occurred is generally not going to be enough to convince anyone beyond a reasonable doubt, not to mention 12 different people.”
In all, the four men accused of robbing Walters have been charged with 41 gun crimes in recent years. Prosecutors dismissed 36 of them, the Observer found. One is serving a federal sentence.
Following the robbery, Walters bought a gun for protection. She later moved out of state, partly because she didn’t feel safe in Charlotte, she said.
“To me, they (prosecutors) are dropping the ball, and it’s giving these guys the OK to continue this type of behavior,” Walters said.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we reported the story
In 2017, Charlotte witnessed a dramatic spike in homicides, along with a rise in gun crimes. Observer reporters wanted to know what was driving the violence. In early 2018, we began examining data on weapons charges across North Carolina. As we looked at how the justice system handled those charges, one fact stood out: Prosecutors in Mecklenburg County were dismissing almost seven of every 10 weapons charges — more than any other urban county in the state.
Why does this matter? It’s important, experts say, because people who repeatedly avoid punishment for gun charges often go on to commit worse crimes. When we examined the criminal records of more than 12,000 suspects, we found that Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed charges involving weapons 68 percent of the time.
We began by examining data — compiled by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts — on 58 charges that typically involve weapons. These charges include carrying a concealed gun, armed robbery and murder. Two-thirds of the charges were felonies.
In all, reporters reviewed 195,000 weapons charges that state courts resolved over the past five years.
We also found that police were charging some suspects with gun charges again and again. In fact, we found that more than 120 people in Mecklenburg County have been charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes over the past five years.
Then we examined the full criminal records of the nearly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg County since 2015. We found that more than half of the murder suspects had prior weapons charges. Twenty-eight of the suspects would have been in prison and not free on the day of the murder they were charged with — if those charges had ended in convictions rather than dismissals.
We found patterns in the demographics of people charged with murder and those repeatedly charged with weapons crimes.
For example, of the 126 people who were charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes in recent years, 88 percent were black, 9 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were white. And 97 percent of those 126 people were male.
To fully understand the records of many suspects, we also examined thousands of pages of court documents.
We interviewed more than 100 people, including police officers, prosecutors, experts, lawyers and victims. We also interviewed some of the criminals themselves.
In May 2014, six months after Walters was robbed, McDowell was in a west Charlotte parking lot, aiming his .40-caliber handgun at 18-year-old Ajaewan Jones.
A police officer who happened to be nearby saw the two men standing about eight feet apart, according to court documents.
Then a shot rang out.
Jones was pronounced dead shortly before 6 p.m. that evening, with a gunshot wound to his pelvis. It was three days before his 19th birthday.
Shortly before he died, Jones told an officer that McDowell had shot him, according to the court transcript. “He thought I was going to shoot him,” Jones said.
McDowell, now 24, did not respond to letters from the Observer. But he told police that he felt threatened because Jones had started reaching around his waistband.
“It was him or me,” he told police, according to the transcript.
No gun was found on or near Jones.
Prosecutors dropped the murder charge against McDowell and allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter.
He is scheduled to be released from prison next year.