The three men accused of killing a Lincoln woman in a home-invasion robbery July 31 looking for her boyfriend’s stash of cash and drugs were caught on video — without masks — casing the place the day before, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
“Essentially what we have here is an attempted robbery of a drug dealer,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Woods said after laying out the government’s case against Tawhyne Patterson Sr., Damon Williams and his brother Dante Williams.
The three men are accused of use of a firearm resulting in Jessica Brandon’s murder during a crime of violence in criminal complaints unsealed last week in U.S. District Court.
At a preliminary hearing Thursday, Woods argued it was clear from calls Dante Williams made from jail that’s exactly what they were trying to do that night.
"It’s also clear that they got overwhelmed with the situation inside, potentially even with the fact that they had just shot someone who was dying in front of them,” she said. "And they panicked, and they got out of the house.”
Woods didn’t say who investigators believe shot 36-year-old Brandon in the shoulder in her Belmont home that night. But all three in on the robbery attempt knew they were going in armed and that it was a foreseeable outcome, making them all guilty of felony murder, she alleged.
In the nearly hourlong hearing, FBI Special Agent Brandon Day testified about evidence that he said tied them to the killing, including Dante Williams’ DNA found on duct tape used to bind one of the four women in the house that night and cellphone records that put his phone in the area of the home his brother shared with Patterson as well as Brandon’s home.
Day said Dante Williams also was identified from video taken at the door of them going inside. He was the only one not wearing a mask the night of the robbery. Day said identification of the other two men came from footage a night earlier, when they and a fourth man, who wasn't identified in court, cased the house with a gun and baseball bat but no masks.
No DNA evidence tied Patterson to the crime scene, Day said, but police found research on the type of zip ties used in the robbery on his cellphone. And he was seen wearing a distinctive coat with patches in the July 30 video, without a mask, and matched the build and stature of the man who wore a mask and the same coat as he entered the home wielding a gun the next day.
Law enforcement also recovered a Husker sweatshirt, which appeared to be the same one worn by the smaller masked suspect seen leaving the house holding a gun, with Damon Williams, as well as his DNA on gloves in a trash can when he was arrested in Texas in August, Day said.
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Both men were believed to have their cellphones off at the time of the attempted robbery, he said.
In the end, Woods argued that it was enough to provide probable cause that Patterson, Damon and Dante Williams had tried to rob Brandon’s boyfriend, Michael Robertson, and that Brandon was killed in the process.
Woods argues that under case law, robbing a drug dealer can affect interstate commerce, satisfying the Hobbs Act, the federal law under which the case is charged.
But the attorneys representing the three asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart for time to write briefs on the issue.
“The evidence is clear nothing was taken,” defense attorney, Chad Wythers, argued.
Outside the courtroom, he said the only issue right now is why the case is in federal court. It shouldn’t be, Wythers said.
The men originally faced first-degree murder charges in state court, until Friday, when the federal charges were unsealed and the state cases were dismissed.
At their first court appearances last week, Woods told them the penalty range on the charge goes up to life sentences, but it's also an offense that's eligible for the death penalty. She said the government hasn’t decided yet if they’ll seek it in the case.
In a phone call later, Mike Norris, chief of the general crimes unit at the Nebraska U.S. Attorney's Office, said they federally indicted the men after consulting with the Lancaster County Attorney's Office and the law enforcement agencies involved.
Norris said he couldn't get into specifics, but in general they were looking for the forum with the clearest evidentiary laws.
"And it was decided in this particular case this would be the more optimal place," he said, referring to federal court.