Triple-murder trial opens with graphic display
Two victims' moms testify
DANVILLE — Relatives of two young women who were shot to death in a 2007 triple homicide in Danville wept when crime-scene photographs — including several of the victims' bodies — were shown at one of the accused killers' murder trial on Wednesday.
Prosecutors presented more than 100 photos taken by crime-scene technicians on the first day of testimony at Jerome Harris' jury trial in Vermilion County Circuit Court.
Harris, 29, of Danville, faces 15 counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Rodney Pepper, 30; Ta'Breyon "TuTu" McCullough, 21; and Madisen Leverenz, 19, all of Danville.
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 women's bodies on the back porch of one of the units.
In December 2012, Freddell L. "Freddy Moe" Bryant, of Chicago, was convicted in U.S. District Court in Urbana of three counts of using a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime and causing the death of all three victims. He is serving three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole in a federal prison in Florida.
Harris is serving 25 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections on multiple drug convictions. If convicted of the murders, he could receive a mandatory life sentence.
The trial is expected to last about a week.
During his opening statement, Assistant State's Attorney Chuck Mockbee told the jury of three men and nine women that Harris murdered the three victims "all because of stolen drugs."
Mockbee said Ms. McCullough was in a relationship with Bryant, "a pretty big drug dealer" and leader in the Black P. Stone Nation gang. Ms. Leverenz, a friend of Ms. McCullough's, was in a relationship with Shane Savage, who sold drugs with Mr. Pepper.
Earlier that weekend, Mockbee said, Bryant asked Ms. McCullough to hold drugs for him at the home where she lived with her mother and older sister. When Savage, Mr. Pepper and Ms. Leverenz learned of the drugs, they went to the house and took them.
"The theft was serious ... dangerous, and it was soon to be deadly," Mockbee said.
The prosecutor said Bryant, Harris and another person went to Mr. Pepper's East Main Street apartment to recover the drugs, and there was a confrontation. Mr. Pepper ran through the apartment and was shot as he was trying to flee from the front, and the girls were shot on the back porch.
Prosecutors will introduce DNA evidence found on Ms. Leverenz's wrist that puts Harris at the scene, Mockbee said. He also said several witnesses will testify about the defendant's involvement, including one who said Harris "basically admitted the crimes to him."
But Public Defender Jacqueline Lacy told jurors they won't hear any evidence of Harris' guilt. She said her evidence will show that her client couldn't have been involved because at the time of the murders, he was doing a drug deal.
"He was down the street with Deborah Plummer ... selling her crack cocaine in exchange for a car radio and some cash," she said.
Lacy said police didn't recover any fingerprints or other forensic evidence that puts Harris at the scene. She also disputed the idea that the DNA evidence found on Ms. Leverenz was, in fact, Harris', and said an expert's testimony will support that.
Also at the trial, the mothers of Ms. Leverenz and Ms. McCullough recounted seeing their daughters for the last time.
Monica McCullough testified that when she saw her daughter on the afternoon before her murder, she had a look of fear in her eyes.
McCullough, who now lives in Arizona, said she attended a basketball game on March 24, 2007, then returned home to rest before going to work. When she got home, both daughters who lived with her and another woman were preparing to leave.
Monica McCullough said she didn't have a chance to speak to her late daughter, who was on the phone at the time.
"She was yelling and screaming and cussing as if I weren't there," McCullough recalled, adding her daughter had a strange look in her eye.
"It was fear," she said.
McCullough said police searched her house the following Tuesday and found in a back bedroom scales and some cocaine, which she didn't know were there. Under questioning by Lacy, she said she wasn't aware her daughter was in a relationship with anyone until Bryant's 2012 trial.
Candace Leverenz said Ms. Leverenz and her 1-year-old daughter lived with her and her husband at the time. She described how the teen had been distraught because her daughter's father went to prison, and she had to raise her child alone.
Leverenz said her daughter started seeing Savage about four weeks before she died. When she noticed Savage had spent the night, she told her daughter he would have to leave, but they defied her for a couple more nights.
During Savage's brief stay, Leverenz said she saw a large stack of money, which he claimed he won by rolling dice. Then, her husband found "a big round ball of a white substance," which they believed to be drugs. While she wanted to throw it away, they didn't at the time because they didn't know Savage and were afraid he might get violent.
Leverenz said she was home alone the night of March 24, 2007, when her daughter, who'd been taking a break from caring for her own child full-time, came by to change clothes.
She told Ms. Leverenz that they needed to talk.
"She said, 'I gotta go, mom. But I promise we'll talk tomorrow," Leverenz recalled Wednesday, her voice choked with emotion. She said that was the last time she saw her daughter alive.
Murder trial timeline
March 25, 2007
Motorists find the body of 30-year-old Rodney Pepper, of Danville, lying in the middle of East Main Street in front of an apartment building at 1707 E. Main St., Danville.
Police discovered the bodies of 21-year-old Ta'Breyon "Tutu" McCullough and 19-year-old Madisen Leverenz inside of one of the apartments.
March 24, 2011
A Vermilion County grand jury indicts Jerome J. Harris, then 26, of Danville, and David L. Moore, then 36, of Chicago, each on 15 counts of first-degree murder in all three deaths, and warrants are issued for their arrests.
March 25, 2011
Harris is arrested on drug charges in Danville and is held at the Vermilion County Jail.
April 4, 2011
Moore is arrested on a murder warrant in Chicago by U.S. marshals.
April 18, 2011
Harris and Moore plead not guilty to the murder charges at their initial hearing in Vermilion County Circuit Court. Their jury trials are set for June 20, 2011.
June 20, 2011
A federal grand jury indicts 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 Mr. Pepper, Ms. McCullough and Ms. Leverenz.
Bryant was serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison for distributing crack cocaine and possessing crack cocaine with the intent to distribute it in Vermilion County from October 2003 to March 2007.
Aug. 1, 2011
Bryant appears in U.S. District Court in Urbana on the firearms charges in connection with the 2007 triple homicide.
Oct. 31, 2011
Vermilion County State's Attorney drops all charges against Moore, saying he was an accomplice but not directly involved in the shooting deaths. Moore is released from jail.
Dec. 3, 2012
Bryant's trial gets underway at the federal courthouse in Urbana.
Dec. 10, 2012
After deliberating for three hours, a jury convicts Bryant of all charges.
March 14, 2013
U.S. District Judge Michael P. McCuskey sentences Bryant to the maximum sentence of three consecutive life terms in prison for the 2007 murders.
April 22, 2014
Harris' murder trial gets underway at the Vermilion County Courthouse in Danville.