Crime & Courts

Murder trial opens in 2012 mistaken identity case

Justin Dixon is charged with the 2012 killing of Michael Crawley.
Justin Dixon is charged with the 2012 killing of Michael Crawley.

Prosecutors said Monday that friends Michael Crawley and Dion Ruff were “in the wrong place at the wrong time” just over two years ago when Crawley was killed and Ruff seriously wounded by a drive-by gunman in a silver van.

Now, the attorney for Justin Dixon argues, the wrong man has gone on trial.

Dixon, 24, faces first-degree murder and assault charges in connection with the Nov. 15, 2012, double shooting northwest of uptown. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The first day of testimony swung back and forth between widely differing interpretations of the same events. Prosecutors Anna Greene and Erik Lindahl say a fatal case of mistaken identity led Dixon to open fire on Crawley and Ruff.

Dixon’s attorney, Desmond McCallum, said the evidence points to another man inside the van that night and that his client lacked both the nature and the motive to kill.

The evening had begun as a pleasant one at two homes on small streets in the city’s Greenville neighborhood.

Crawley, 61, and Ruff, 47, were close friends who belonged to the same Jehovah’s Witness congregation, liked to fish and did volunteer work together. They spent the evening at Crawley’s home on Rembert Court.

A few blocks away on Fontana Avenue, Dixon was doting on his 2-year-old son, moving from room to room with the boy in his arms at the home of the grandmother of his former girlfriend, Whitney Stitt.

Stitt testified that while she and Dixon were no longer romantically involved, the pair were raising their child together and that he was a familiar figure at her family gatherings. This night, she told the jury, Dixon had been drinking. He also brought two friends along, Phillip Henderson and Cedrick Mobley.

The tone of the night began to change when Henderson tucked a handgun into his belt and tried to enter the house. Stitt said she and her brother told him he couldn’t bring the weapon inside with a 2-year-old nearby. Henderson then handed the gun to Mobley, Stitt said, who took it back to his silver van.

Stitt and her best friend, Nicole Rivera, planned to go dancing at nearby Club 935. Dixon, whom she had broken up with two years ago, wanted her to stay home, she testified.

At about 11:30 p.m., prosecutors said an argument broke out in front of the house. As the two women walked to Rivera’s car, Stitt said she heard her friend tell Dixon that she was about to call some people who could drive over and “f---k you up.”

Dixon, she said, “just laughed.”

Stitt and Rivera set off for the 10-minute drive to the club. She said she saw Dixon climb into the front passenger seat of the van. A short distance down the road, Stitt said she watched the vehicle U-turn and head back toward her grandmother’s house.

Over at Rembert Court, two friends were calling it a night, and Crawley prepared to give Ruff a ride home.

Not long before midnight, Crawley’s white sedan pulled out of his cul-de-sac. A pair of headlights approached.

Prosecutors say the three occupants of a silver van were on the lookout for the men Rivera had threatened to call.

‘Something’s up with that van’

Ruff noticed it first.

“Something’s up with that van,” he said to Crawley, Lindahl told the jury.

Ruff told his friend to stop his car.

The van, though, pulled up alongside. Someone on the front passenger’s side was standing on the floor board and leaning out of the vehicle, Lindahl said. He was aiming a gun.

He fired down into the sedan as Crawley and Ruff ducked and leaned away from the bullets, Lindahl said. Ruff was hit in his abdomen. Crawley was struck near his heart. Their car rolled down Fontana before coming to rest in a yard. When police arrived, the two men were still in the car. The abandoned van was found about 500 feet away.

A few minutes later, Stitt said she got a call in the parking lot of the club. She needed to come home, she said she was told. By the time she and Rivera reached Fontana Avenue, ambulances and police cars blocked their way, she said.

Crawley died early the next morning at Carolinas Medical Center. Ruff is expected to testify this week at Dixon’s trial. Lindahl said Ruff identified Dixon as the shooter from a police photograph.

Mobley has already pleaded guilty to related charges and is expected to testify against Dixon. Henderson awaits trial.

‘Not my client’

McCallum, a former assistant district attorney, called the shootings “a tragedy.” But he pointed the blame toward Henderson and Mobley, two men Dixon “mistakenly thought of as friends.”

He said Ruff initially told police that the shooting happened too quickly for him to get a clear look at the gunman. By the time Ruff had picked out Dixon from a photographic lineup, McCallum said, four months had passed.

“What motive does a 21-year-old who was visiting his child have to do something like this?” McCallum asked the 12 jurors.

Under cross-examination from McCallum, Stitt said she didn’t hear any real anger between Rivera and Dixon “who were always cracking jokes on each other.”

She said emphatically that Dixon was “not a hothead,” and that she had never seen him with a gun. When Henderson “got loud” about being snubbed by Rivera, Stitt said Dixon interceded. “Let it go,” she said her former boyfriend told the other man.

At lunch, Stitt left the courthouse with Dixon’s mother and others of his friends and family members. Mary Crawley, the dead man’s widow, listened to testimony across the aisle with a family friend who is the mother of a murdered child.

Under an agreement with the court, neither side mentioned that Crawley and Ruff were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Followers of the teachings believe that secular society is heavily influenced by Satan and morally corrupt. As such, Jehovah’s Witnesses must limit their social interactions with nonbelievers.

In a fifth-floor courtroom on Monday, those rules seemed prescient. Just over two years ago, a man died and another had his life “changed forever” when they climbed into a car and drove down a familiar neighborhood street, Lindahl said.

“For no better reason than they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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