Trial to start for 2nd man accused in 2007 killings

Trial to start for 2nd man accused in 2007 killings

DANVILLE — Nearly seven years and a month after her 21-year-old granddaughter and two other Danville residents were gunned down in an attempt by a dealer to recover his drugs, Bonne Derrickson-Beecher says she's ready to face one of the accused killers.

Jerome Harris, 29, of Danville will be the second person to stand trial in the 2007 shooting deaths of Derrickson-Beecher's grandaughter Ta'Breyon McCullough, 21; Madisen Leverenz, 19; and Rodney Pepper, 30.

"This trial will rekindle old hurt," said Derrickson-Beecher, of Indianapolis. "Yet, it also offers the possibility of some truths being told."

Harris faces 15 counts of first-degree murder in Vermilion County Circuit Court in connection with all three deaths.

State's attorney Randy Brinegar would not comment on Harris' direct involvement in the murders, only saying "he's charged in different ways under the statute in participating in causing the deaths of all three." He said specific details will come out during the trial.

Jury selection is expected to get underway at the Vermilion County Courthouse today. Brinegar said the trial could run into the middle of next week.

Harris is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the Stateville Correctional Center for multiple drug convictions, including possession of cocaine with intent to deliver.

If he is convicted of murder, he would face a mandatory life sentence, Brinegar said.

Mid-morning on March 25, 2007, motorists found the body of Mr. Pepper lying in the middle of East Main Street, in front of an apartment building at 1707 E. Main St. A short time later, police discovered the bodies of Ms. McCullough and Ms. Leverenz on the back porch of one of the apartments.

Autopsies showed that all three died of gunshot wounds.

Four years later, a Vermilion County grand jury indicted Harris and a co-defendant — David L. Moore, then 36, of Chicago — on first-degree murder in all three deaths. However, on Oct. 31, 2011, Brinegar dropped all charges against Moore, saying he was an accomplice but not directly involved in the shooting deaths.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury indicted Freddell L. "Freddy Moe" Bryant, then 33, of Chicago, on three counts of using a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime and causing the deaths of all three victims.

According to federal prosecutors, Bryant — a longtime drug dealer and "general" in the Black P. Stones gang — and others conspired to sell cocaine and crack in Vermilion County from October 2003 through March 2007. They used other people to sell drugs and rent apartments to store and distribute the drugs, firearms, cash and other tools of the trade.

According to the indictment, Bryant discovered that about 2 kilograms of cocaine had been stolen from him, and he "intentionally killed" Mr. Pepper, Ms. McCullough and Ms. Leverenz in an attempt to recover the drugs.

During Bryant's trial in U.S. District Court in Urbana in December 2012, prosecutors played a video. In it, Bryant confessed that on the night before the shootings, Ms. McCullough told him that Shane "Sugar Shane" Savage and Ms. Leverenz, Savage's girlfriend, took $50,000 in cocaine and money. So, he and his brother, who has since died, began looking for them.

When they located Ms. Leverenz at the Main Street apartment, Bryant went there with Ms. McCullough and a man named Mike, who worked for his brother. When Ms. McCullough knocked on the back door, Ms. Leverenz opened it and was holding a gun. Bryant took it from her and gave it to Mike. He and Ms. McCullough entered the apartment, but Mike stayed outside.

At some point, Mr. Pepper — who lived in the apartment with his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter — arrived. Bryant began questioning Ms. Leverenz and Mr. Pepper as to where his drugs and money were. Pepper ran from the back porch. Mike shot at him with the gun that had been taken from Ms. Leverenz, but it jammed.

Then Bryant, who was carrying two .45-caliber guns, chased Mr. Pepper through the house and shot at him after he ran though a plate glass window and out into Main Street. Later, he went back to the porch, where the two women were sitting, and shot them.

At the trial, police said they suspected another man was involved, but not much else was said about him.

Bryant was convicted on all charges and sentenced in January 2013. He is serving three life sentences without the possibility of parole in a federal prison in Florida.

Derrickson-Beecher recalled how difficult it was for her; her daughter, Monica McCullough, Ms. McCullough's mother; and other relatives to sit through the trial, face Bryant, hear details of the slayings and see crime-scene photographs. Friends and relatives of Ms. Leverenz and Mr. Pepper also were there.

"I have survived the federal trial and conviction of Harris' co-conspirator, Freddell Bryant, and I look forward to a similar outcome for Harris," Derrickson-Beecher said. "What happened on that morning of March 25 has forever altered the fabric of my family. We have lost and suffered so much at what we believe to be the cold and cowardly act of Jerome Harris."

While Derrickson-Beecher said she hopes the case put on by the state "will adequately reflect the participation Harris had in the murders," she added she doesn't have the level of confidence in them that she had in Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller, who prosecuted Bryant.

Miller "kept the families informed as to what to expect and that aspect from Vermilion County prosecutors has been woefully lacking. I can only hope that (the) office has a winning strategy," she said, adding that's been frustrating.

Brinegar said assistant state's attorneys Sandy Lawlyes and Chuck Mockbee have more than 20 potential witnesses who are ready to testify — including law enforcement, the medical examiner and forensic scientists and a number of citizens — but not all of them may be called. He would not say whether Bryant is one of them.

While he believes it's a strong case, he admitted it's also been the most challenging of any with which he's been involved, given the length of time that's elapsed since the murders.

"After the initial processing of the crime scene, any suspects that may have been developed scatter and disappear," Brinegar said. "Leads grow cold the longer it goes on. People who may have had information ... may not be around anymore. It becomes more difficult to track them down and follow up on those leads.

"But I do believe we have a strong case. But I can't speak on how a jury will interpret the evidence."

Derrickson-Beecher said she and her family remain hopeful for another conviction.

"We have managed to stick together through the pain and remain somewhat intact," she said. "We will continue to come alongside the Leverenz and Pepper families as we seek justice (for our loved ones) and peace for the surviving family members of all parties."

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