Slain teen's twin testifies
On the night he was killed last summer, 15-year-old Jermel Brown went for a ride with a man who was angry over a drug debt Jermel's twin brother had neglected to pay. Jermel never returned from that trip, according to court testimony Monday.
That testimony came on the opening day of the murder trial of Rafael Horlbeck, one of three men charged in Jermel's fatal shooting in Charleston. Horlbeck's co-defendants -- his brother, Leon Horlbeck, and a friend, Shawn Smalls -- are expected to testify for the prosecution today, authorities said.
Jermel, a student at Daniel Jenkins Academy in North Charleston, was known as a good teen who stayed out of trouble. His slaying stunned the community and prompted tearful pleas for help from grim-faced family members and local leaders.
The Horlbecks, both habitual offenders, were arrested about a week after Jermel was found shot multiple times June 30 beneath Interstate 26 near Huger Street. Rafael Horlbeck, 23, had recently escaped a murder charge in another shooting and was free on bail in connection with the rape of an 8-year-old at the time Jermel was slain, authorities said.
Prosecutors contend that Horlbeck killed Jermel over the unpaid drug debt. Defense attorneys maintain he is being framed by his co-defendants in an effort to shift blame and escape punishment.
Jermaine Brown, Jermel's twin, testified that a month before the killing, Horlbeck gave him $300 worth of marijuana to sell with the expectation that
he would pay Horlbeck $200 of the profits and keep $100 for himself. Jermaine said he stashed the weed in a bush so his mother wouldn't find it but he returned hours later to find it had been stolen.
Jermaine said he told Horlbeck a week or two later what had happened and Horlbeck demanded his money back, accusing Jermaine of lying. Horlbeck grew angrier as days passed and the debt remained unsettled, he said.
"He told me 'You better get me my money,' " Jermaine testified.
Bryan Bennett, a friend of the twins, testified that he was standing with Jermel Brown at the corner of America and Johnson streets on June 29 when the Horlbecks and Smalls pulled up in a red sport utility vehicle. Rafael Horlbeck told Jermel to go get his brother. When Jermel returned a few minutes later without Jermaine, Horlbeck asked Jermel to take a ride with him, Bennett testified.
Bennett said he felt uneasy about the situation and shook his head toward his friend as Jermel climbed into the back seat with Horlbeck. Jermel closed the door and the vehicle sped off, he said.
On cross-examination, Rodney Davis, Horlbeck's attorney, hammered away at inconsistent statements Bennett had provided to police and prosecutors.
Bennett acknowledged that he initially told police July 2 that he had only seen Jermel in passing that night. When police threatened him with an obstruction of justice charge July 7, Bennett shared the story about the SUV ride. He later recanted this version in a meeting with prosecutors April 12. But he changed his story again after landing in jail on outstanding warrants after that meeting, he acknowledged.
Bennett said he lied because he didn't want to get involved in the case and didn't want to be labeled a snitch. He insisted he was telling the truth when he said he saw Jermel go for a ride with the Horlbecks and Smalls that night.
Edward Jones, a youth sports coach in Charleston, testified that Bennett told him that same version of events the day Jermel's body was found. Bennett told Jones he didn't want to get involved because he feared retaliation, Jones said.
The trial resumes this morning.