Early on June 16, 2012, Julius Perrell Brown and his friends were determined to “hit a lick.”
As the 33-year-old explained during court testimony Tuesday, the street slang refers to a lucrative robbery.
Their efforts so far that evening hadn’t produced any cash, so they scoped out Famous Joe’s Bar and Grill on Savannah Highway in West Ashley.
Brown said Ryan P. Deleston, 32, had been talking about robbing the place for a while. The crew wanted to plunder workers of cash as they left with the day’s proceeds.
But as 17-year-old Marley Lion prepared to sleep in his SUV outside the bar, their plans changed.
Hiding behind a nearby fence, Deleston grabbed a pistol from Bryan Latrell Rivers, 29, according to Brown, and walked up to Lion’s SUV. Instead of opening the door for the would-be robber, Lion hit a panic button that sounded the Nissan’s alarm, Brown testified.
After Deleston ran back to the fence, Brown said he ordered Deleston to bust the SUV’s window. But Deleston must have misheard, Brown said. He instead returned to the SUV and shot Lion five times, Brown testified.
Brown’s testimony in Deleston’s murder trial offered the first public explanation for a crime widely deemed by police officials as senseless. But it also hinted at credibility issues for witnesses like Brown, a drug dealer who was charged with murder in Lion’s death but took a plea deal to avoid a lifetime in prison.
Deleston’s public defender, Ashley Pennington, also laid the groundwork during the first day of testimony for an alternate theory that Rivers was the triggerman. Like Brown, Rivers pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Rivers had been implicated in earlier robberies, including one in which he and his accomplices reportedly stole $1,300 from Leroy “Chopper” Townsend, a suspected drug dealer, two weeks before Lion’s death. Pennington said Rivers shot Townsend as an “after thought,” much like the tack employed by Lion’s killer. The same gun was used in both shootings.
“To get to that (plea deal),” Pennington told 12 jurors during his opening statement, “they needed a scapegoat who they could say did the shooting.”
George Ellis Brown, 28, who was said during the trial to be Julius Brown’s cousin, also faces charges of being an accessory before and after the shooting.
He drove the crew of robbers around downtown Charleston on the morning of Lion’s death, according to Julius Brown’s testimony. For two hours, they rode or walked in search of a ripe victim, he said.
They found that in a young couple walking on a residential street near the Crosstown Expressway, Brown testified.
Rivers and Deleston got out of Brown’s GMC Suburban. Rivers used George Brown’s Sig Sauer pistol to rob them, Julius Brown said, as Deleston walked to a nearby McDonald’s.
The crew scored some credit cards in the robbery but no cash, Julius Brown said. That’s why Julius Brown said they started talking about robbing Famous Joe’s.
The crew first rode through the bar’s parking lot. Later, Rivers, Deleston and Julius Brown returned on foot. Brown said he walked near Lion’s SUV and tried to see if anyone else was inside. He couldn’t.
At first, Deleston and Rivers couldn’t decide who should rob Lion, but Deleston soon took charge, according to Julius Brown. He walked toward to the SUV as Rivers and Julius Brown hid behind a fence paralleling nearby Yew Street.
After Deleston fired as a result of a miscommunication, according to the testimony, the trio heard Lion yelling in pain. They knew he had been shot, Julius Brown testified.
They ran to Deleston’s house on Cashew Street, where the crew had been smoking marijuana and drinking earlier that night. Julius Brown said he instructed Deleston to wash his hands with bleach to destroy any gunshot residue on his skin. Deleston also later burned his clothes, the witness said.
The rest of the crew derided Deleston as a “stupid (expletive)” who shot Lion for no reason, Julius Brown said.
But Deleston, according to the witness, soon realized that he had left a red hat in the area where the crew had been hiding out. Julius Brown said he was worried that the police would find it and use it against them as evidence.
So he and Deleston fetched some bicycles, returned to the scene and grabbed the hat. They never ran into the police as Lion lay on the pavement outside his SUV.
Authorities arrived minutes later. Officer Robert Deal of the Charleston Police Department saw little blood around Lion, who said he had been robbed by two men. Lion was in and out of consciousness.
After paramedics arrived 15 minutes later, Deal snapped photos of Lion, two of which were shown to the jury on a big-screen TV. They showed bruises on Lion’s abdomen. In one, Lion’s eyes are open.
Deal figured that Lion had suffered internal injuries. He later died at a hospital.
“It really could have been anywhere. It could have been anyone,” Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said during her opening statement Tuesday. “But on that day, it wasn’t just anyone. It was a 17-year-old kid.”
As the morning waned, Lion’s mother grew more worried.
Elizabeth Paige, 42, who also testified Tuesday, said she had talked with her son about 6 p.m. the day before. He said he was going to visit a friend in West Ashley.
But he instead picked up a girl he once dated and went to a party, where he drank.
He missed his midnight curfew, Paige said, and didn’t respond to any text messages. She didn’t know that he had stopped at Famous Joe’s to sleep off his drunkenness.
Around 11 that morning, Paige prayed that she would hear from her son. About five minutes later, she heard a knock on the door of her Johns Island home.
It was a police detective and a representative from the coroner’s office.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.