When the friends saw the van and the slender man riding on the back bumper with a gun in his right hand, Michael Crawley tried to back his car away from the intersection. Dion Ruff fumbled with the unfamiliar keys of his new Blackberry to tap out a call to 911.
The car never made it to reverse. The message for help was never sent.
Ruff remembered the sound, pow, pow, pow, glass breaking, pow, pow, pow, as if the gunman, who was firing across the hood of the van from no farther than 20 feet away, wouldn’t stop shooting until he ran out of bullets.
By the time the volley eased off, Crawley was mortally wounded, and Ruff was scrambling out the front passenger door of the damaged car. He said he thought about running. Instead, he said he raised his arms and shouted a question toward the van.
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“Why are you shooting us?” he said.
The response from the slender man with the gun was as cold as the night air. Ruff said the gunman yelled a racial epithet at Ruff, and told him to shut up.
Then Ruff heard another gunshot, an instant before he felt a burning pain in his side.
Ruff, 49, survived the shooting on the night of Nov. 15, 2012.
On Tuesday, he testified in the first-degree murder trial of Justin Dixon, who authorities say opened fire on two innocent men based on the mistaken belief that they had come to the Greenville community in northwest Charlotte to harm Dixon and his two friends.
Instead, Ruff and Crawley had done what they did most days – enjoy each other’s company. They had met a year earlier at a church cookout and become close friends, Ruff told the jury. They saw each other almost daily, and called each other by their last names.
On the night of the shooting, Ruff said, they ate dinner at Ruff’s home, then attended a meeting at their Jehovah’s Witness worship hall. Afterward, Ruff went to Crawley’s place on Rembert Court to cut his friend’s hair.
As midnight approached, the pair walked to Crawley’s white sedan for the five-minute drive to Ruff’s home. Ruff testified that it was the first cold night of the year, and the two sat for about five minutes as the idling Nissan warmed up. Then Crawley backed down his driveway, turned the wheel, and made the short drive to the stop sign on Fontana Avenue.
Within seconds, both men were shot and the bullet-ridden car, still in neutral after Crawley failed to get it in reverse, rolled down Fontana before coming to rest against a small tree.
Ruff said he pressed his hand onto the bullet wound in his belly, then struggled to several nearby homes to knock for help. No one answered – Ruff says the occupants were too scared to open their doors. He said he heard a voice tell him police were on the way. He then returned to the car, sitting on the passenger side floor board to see about his friend.
By then Ruff had reached 911. During a recording of his call played in the courtroom Tuesday, Ruff can be heard repeatedly asking for the medics to hurry and for his friend to hang on.
“It’s over for me, Ruff,” Ruff said Crawley, 61, told him, an instant before he slumped over in his seat. Crawley died early the next morning at Carolinas Medical Center.
Ruff cried in court when he saw the morgue photo of his friend. Later he pointed across the courtroom to identify Dixon as Crawley’s killer.
Defense attorney Desmond McCallum, who is expected to cross-examine Ruff on Wednesday, said in his opening argument that Dixon, 24, lacked the motive and the violent nature to fire the shots. He also raised doubts about the credibility of Ruff’s first identification of his client – picking out Dixon from some police photos almost four months after the midnight incident.
The two other men in the van that night, Phillip Henderson and Cedrick Mobley, also were charged in connection with the shootings. Mobley has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against Dixon; Henderson awaits his murder trial. McCallum, in his opening remarks to the jury, singled out Mobley as the killer.
Ruff, though, told Assistant District Attorney Anna Greene that he had a clear view of all three occupants in the van because the vehicle was so close, and its dome light was on.
He said the passenger in the back “looked terrified” and wore dreadlocks, which witnesses say Henderson wore that night. The driver, believed to be Mobley, gripped the wheel and looked straight ahead, Ruff said.
The shooter, clean-shaven – as Dixon is in his arrest photo – held the gun sideways while he fired repeatedly into Michael Crawley’s car.
Ruff said he had “madness” in his face.
Early the next morning, Ruff was wheeled directly into surgery at Presbyterian Hospital. Three days later when he could speak, he asked his mother about Crawley. He said she didn’t reply.
“Go ahead and tell me,” Ruff said he told her, “’cause I know he is gone.”