Charleston police knew one way to solve the case of who killed 17-year-old Marley Lion was to find the murder weapon.
So they bought it off the streets.
The undercover operation served as the catalyst for what city officials now consider a crowning achievement for Charleston’s police force.
Days after the sting two weeks ago, which had suffered several failed attempts, investigators matched the pistol to the five 9 mm bullets that killed Lion in mid-June.
It was an investigation that consumed hundreds of hours of manpower through police surveillance and surreptitious deals with some of West Ashley’s felons. Most units of the Charleston Police Department were involved. They fielded about 30 anonymous tips from the Crime Stoppers hot line.
Those efforts culminated this week with around-the-clock surveillance of three main suspects in Lion’s death and raids on White Oak Drive in the Ardmore neighborhood that included 80 police officers and federal agents.
The voice of Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen quavered Tuesday, which would have been Lion’s 18th birthday, as he announced that the homicide had been solved. Four people were under arrest, including the man authorities said shot Lion and sold his 9 mm Sig Sauer to the police a month later.
“Everyone involved in this case displayed a sense of urgency and an all-in mentality from the beginning,” Mullen said. “When a young person is brutally murdered, it touches a nerve in all of us.”
City officials, prosecutors and court documents portrayed the events that led to the arrests of 30-year-old Ryan Deleston, of Cashew Street in Ardmore, the suspected shooter, as well as Bryan Rivers, 27, and Julius Brown, 32, both of White Oak Drive, all of whom face murder and attempted armed robbery charges.
George Brown, 27, whose address wasn’t immediately known, faces a charge of accessory after the fact. Police released no details about his involvement.
Before the shooting June 16, Deleston said he passed the would-be murder weapon back and forth with Rivers as they prepared to rob Lion, according to arrest affidavits. The recent Academic Magnet High graduate was sleeping in his car parked at 1662 Savannah Highway, apparently too intoxicated to drive home after a house party in West Ashley.
Affidavits say a man “matching the physical likeness” of Julius Brown was seen in a surveillance video walking near Lion’s sport utility vehicle.
The video later shows another man prying at the SUV’s rear side window. When the car alarm sounds, the man briefly retreats but returns and shoots repeatedly through the window.
In the hour before he died, Lion told officers, “They tried to rob me,” according to affidavits.
Officers, who were canvassing the Ardmore community after the incident, spotted Deleston two blocks from the scene, in the parking lot of Famous Joe’s Bar and Grill.
Julius Brown later told detectives that they were in the community when they heard the gunshots. But Brown’s story, which provided Deleston an alibi, was a lie, according to affidavits.
After viewing the video, which the Secret Service helped to clear up, a witness identified Deleston as the shooter because of the unique way Lion’s killer held the pistol. It matched how Deleston typically carried out robberies, the witness told detectives.
About a week later, police said they gathered on-street intelligence that Deleston was looking to sell a pistol and that he had mentioned to community members six times that he had a 9 mm handgun.
Mullen said undercover officers and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were able to purchase the gun on July 15. Days later, ballistic testing determined that it was the murder weapon.
Mullen said tips helped investigators develop the suspects. Officials wouldn’t discuss the sources of information that led to Deleston, but public tips were crucial, he said.
A $13,000 reward in the case has not been paid, according to Cpl. Fred Bowie, who coordinates the local Crime Stoppers hot line. But he added that the case had “unraveled quickly” on Monday.
Periodically throughout July, police watched the three and subjected them to undercover stings. On July 17, Rivers sold 0.28 grams of imitation cocaine to a undercover police officer, according to affidavits.
All three were placed under constant surveillance starting Sunday afternoon.
Deleston was arrested Monday morning as he stepped off a bus on Market Street in downtown Charleston. The other three were taken into custody later in the day, when police officers and U.S. marshals raided the three houses in Ardmore.
Mayor Joe Riley said the investigation rivaled some of the greatest successes of storied agencies worldwide, including the CIA, Secret Service and Interpol, and that “there is not a finer” police department.
Riley has been outspoken about violence in the city since three people, including Lion, were slain in June. After the deadly month, he announced “Stand Up Charleston,” an effort urging residents to help the authorities prevent and solve crimes.
He credited the people of Ardmore with coming forward in Lion’s death, but his most poignant message Tuesday was for criminals.
“Your crime might be in the darkest of night with seemingly no one around, but we will catch you, and you will go to jail,” Riley said. “There is no place to hide” in Charleston.
Mullen said it was “not a surprise” that those arrested have criminal records.
The three thought to have direct involvement with the shooting have several drug convictions, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Deleston has the least-violent arrest history of the three, with only misdemeanor simple assault and resisting arrest charges from 2004.
Rivers has convictions for assault with intent to kill in 2003 and strong-arm robbery in 2004.
Julius Brown, a registered sex offender, has convictions from the late 1990s for assaulting a police officer, criminal sexual conduct and unlawfully carrying a pistol. He has tattoos that say, “Thug,” “PCP” and “Thug life.”
After a bond hearing Tuesday, a woman who identified herself as Julius Brown’s mother said her son has a “beautiful wife” and five children, including a newborn. The woman railed against the Charleston police for raiding her Ardmore house and arresting her son.
“Find the right murderer,” she screamed in the parking lot as tears streamed down her cheeks. “They’re putting innocent people in jail for no reason.”
Liz and Robert Paige of Johns Island, Lion’s mother and stepfather, declined to comment about the arrests after the hearing.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson commended the police for not acting “like a bunch of cowboys” during the investigation and Monday’s operations. She said the result is a solid case that has coveted evidence — the surveillance video, which is increasingly expected by juries because of TV shows that romanticize crime-scene investigations, she said.
The key now, she added, will be to get tipsters and witnesses to stay the course. Too often the people who provide information leading to arrests decide not to cooperate with prosecutors, she said.
“Their testimony is going to be very important in the future,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be hard for them to come forward and testify in court.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.