A former government prosecutor says the gang murders of Doug and Debbie London showed an unprecedented level of “contempt” in Charlotte for the rule of law.
This week, the law strikes back.
On Tuesday, the two Charlotte gang members who planned and carried out the Oct. 23, 2014 killings will be sentenced to life in federal prison without parole. The punishments for Jamell “Murda Mel” Cureton and Malcolm “Bloody Silent” Hartley were preordained in September when the pair pleaded guilty in the case to avoid a death-penalty trial.
But the crime – the Londons were killed to stop Doug London from testifying against the United Blood Nation members who tried to rob him – shattered the notion that gang violence in Charlotte was confined to urban neighborhoods. To many, the city and its bedroom communities suddenly felt a lot less safe.
“I can’t remember another example of that level of contempt for the law,” says Anne Tompkins, who was U.S. Attorney when the Londons were gunned down in their Lake Wylie, S.C., home. “It took violence to a level I had not seen before, and it was startling. ... It made me very frightened for a lot of people.”
Cureton and Hartley pleaded guilty to a total of 15 federal charges, from murder and racketeering to firearms violations and assault. In all, a dozen member of Charlotte’s chapter of the “Valentine Bloods” face charges for their roles in the killings. Most already have pleaded guilty.
United Blood Nation is the East Coast offshoot of the better-known Bloods. The gang spread south out of the New York prisons and now boasts hundreds of members in separate cells across North Carolina, including Charlotte.
The criminal conspiracy to silence the Londons, which was directed by Cureton from his Mecklenburg jail cell, is spelled out in harrowing detail through hundreds of pages of FBI and other court filings. Those documents reveal gang members, most of them in their teens or early 20s, willing to use violence to protect themselves and their operations, and to respond to any real or imagined sign of disrespect.
That response included threats toward legal officials and the media, documents show. In 2015, armed guards were assigned to two judges and the Charlotte city attorney after their names were found on a list of possible targets in Cureton’s cell.
The London investigation also helped the FBI solve the 2013 execution-style slaying of Kwamne Clyburn, a homeless teenager whose bullet-ridden body was found in Pressley Road Park. His crime: “false claiming” to be a UBN member. Cureton has pleaded guilty to Clyburn’s murder. Two others are charged.
“For the average citizen, the most frightening aspect of an organized gang like the UBN is that no one is safe, no matter where you live,” says current U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose, who announced the 2015 indictments against the gang following months of investigation by the FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and other law enforcement groups.
“The Londons were murdered in their home, a place they felt safe. Why? Because the UBN wanted a critical witness against one of their gang leaders eliminated.”
This new chapter in the city’s criminal history opened in May 2014 when Cureton and two other UBN members tried to rob the Londons’ Mattress Warehouse store in Pineville. Doug London shot Cureton. All three gang members were arrested. According to Daniel London, his parents made a point of attending all the gang members’ preliminary court hearings out of a sense of civic duty and a fear that the charges would be dropped or pleaded down.
Their presence did not go unnoticed by the gang. Meanwhile, the Londons’ concerns for their safety grew, particularly after a confrontation with a Cureton relative at the courthouse.
According to Charlotte gun shop owner Larry Hyatt, Doug London bought additional weapons for himself and his home, and talked about how he and Debbie were being watched and followed during their trips to court.
Court documents described the growing anger by Cureton and other gang members at the Londons’ appearances, and how the gang believed the robbery charges would disappear if there were no witnesses to testify.
“I need you guys to g-- d--- carry that s---, bro,” Cureton told Hartley during a phone call, some two weeks before the murders, according to court records. “I didn’t want it to come to that, but that s--- done got out of hand.”
Hartley, who was carrying a jailhouse letter from Cureton with the Londons’ address at the time, rang the couple’s doorbell on the night of Oct. 23, 2015. Debbie London was shot and killed as she opened the door.
Doug London fired off one shot before his gun jammed. Hartley shot him, then fled to a waiting car. He stopped when he heard Doug London sobbing. Prosecutors say Hartley returned to the home, saw London crying over his wife’s body and shot him again. Court documents say the gang celebrated the killings that night.
Daniel London, who was living with his parents at the time, says his father was still alive when he got to his side.
“The last breaths he took, he was lying next to (my mother), with his arm around her, mourning her loss,” London told the Observer, in one of his first public comments since his parents’ death. “I don’t want to be too graphic. But seeing my parents in that condition ... well, it’s probably the hardest image to get out of your mind.”
On Tuesday, Hartley’s mother is expected to speak at the sentencing and tell U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn that the killings were out of character for her son.
Daniel London will not be there to hear the mother’s words. He says being in the courtroom with the killers “would cause me more anger than healing.”
A spokesman for Kwamne Clyburn’s family said the family is aware of Tuesday’s sentencing but will not be attending. “Kwamne was a very smart young man,” said the spokesman, who did not wish to be named out of safety concerns. “He had many goals he wanted in life. He did not deserve to die the way he did at a very young age.”
The families of all three victims appear to support the decision to give Cureton and Hartley life sentences, largely because a death penalty would bring years of appeals, Daniel London says.
“I just want some closure for my family and myself,” he said. “There’s a part of me that wants to harbor hate, but justice is being served. They’re going to have a long time to think about what they’ve done.
“Honestly, I hope they change. I hope they realize the truth about some of the stuff they’ve done in their lives. I hope they turn into different people. But if they don’t, then that’s their decision.”
Daniel London declined to be photographed for this story, and he has asked that his location remain unpublished. He says he still doesn’t feel completely safe.