Enraged and flashing a razor, Rafael Horlbeck tugged at Jermel Brown as the frightened teen screamed for help, dangling from the window of a vehicle carrying him to his death, witnesses testified Tuesday.
Horlbeck's older brother, Leon, and former friend Shawn Smalls told a Charleston County jury the June 29 ride ended with Rafael gunning down 15-year-old Jermel beneath an Interstate 26 overpass near Huger Street.
All three men are charged with murder in the teen's death, but Rafael Horlbeck, 23, is the first to go to trial. His brother and Smalls agreed to testify against him in hopes of limiting their punishment for a crime they blame solely on him.
Fidgeting in the witness stand as his brother glared from the defense table, Leon Horlbeck testified that he had no idea Rafael planned to hurt Jermel when they met up with the teen at Johnson and America streets on that June night.
Jermel suddenly climbed into the backseat of a red Ford Explorer they were riding in and Rafael Horlbeck slid in beside him, Leon Horlbeck said. After Smalls drove them to an apartment complex on Huger Street, Jermel screamed from the back seat, he said.
Leon Horlbeck, 33, said his brother had pulled out a box cutter and was angrily demanding money. Other witnesses have testified that Jermel's twin brother, Jermaine, owed Rafael Horlbeck $200 for marijuana that had been given to him to sell.
Rafael ordered Smalls to drive off as Jermel desperately tried to climb out the SUV's window, screaming for help as Rafael tried to haul him back in, Leon Horlbeck said. They ended up on a small path under the I-26 overpass, he said.
Jermel was hanging from the window, his foot caught inside, as Rafael Horlbeck jumped out and circled the vehicle, said Leon Horlbeck, who had mixed a pint of gin with Ecstasy that night. Gunshots sounded and Jermel didn't return, he said.
When Rafael climbed back into the car, his brother said, he offered these words: "I'm not playing no more."
Smalls told a similar tale, both men testifying that they had seen Rafael with a pistol in his hand just before the gunshots sounded. Smalls said at least four shots were fired.
When the three men returned to an apartment they were sharing in North Charleston, Smalls said he told Rafael Horlbeck he didn't want anything to do with him anymore and wanted him to leave. Rafael warned him not talk to the police or he would pay him a visit, Smalls said.
A few days later, Smalls said he arrived home to find some bullets on the ground and Rafael inside the apartment. When Smalls asked what he was doing there, Rafael just looked at him strangely. Smalls said he made an excuse to leave and took off.
Outside the presence of the jury, Smalls told Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson that Rafael Horlbeck caught up with him July 6 in North Charleston and forced him to go on a ride. When they stopped at an apartment building, Rafael pulled out a revolver and shot him in the head, he said. The bullet is still lodged in Smalls' skull, behind his right ear.
Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant argued that Smalls should be able to tell that story to a jury because Rafael Horlbeck was clearly trying to silence a key witness in the case. Defense attorneys argued the allegation was unduly prejudicial. After much consideration, Jefferson ruled against allowing details of Smalls' shooting into evidence.
Public defenders Rodney Davis and Cassandra Winslow tried their best to discredit Leon Horlbeck and Smalls, pointing to inconsistencies and lies in the stories they initially told to police and prosecutors. They drew admissions from both men that they hoped to help improve their own chances of avoiding prison time by helping the prosecution.
Dressed in an oversized blue dress shirt and dark slacks, Rafael Horlbeck listened impassively, as he has throughout the trial. He simply glared at the witness stand, his head cocked to one side, with a thumb under his jaw and an index finger resting against his temple.
Prosecutors had Leon Horlbeck read a letter he wrote to a Charleston police detective from jail offering to do whatever he could to help authorities stop his brother.
"He is a killer and he don't care about nobody but himself," he stated. "I will do anything to help bring him down. He needs to stay off the streets or more innocent people will die or get hurt."
Chandaly Riley, the mother of Leon's Horlbeck's son, testified that she didn't initially believe Leon when he told her his brother had killed a man. Then she saw a side window on her Explorer pushed out and a smudged handprint on the glass. The day after the killing, she said, she twice overheard Rafael talking about a man who owed him money who was now dead.
"He said he wanted his $200 and he couldn't eat being sweet," she said.