Witness to Tauris Johnson's slaying is killed

February 15, 1994|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer Staff writer Jay Apperson contributed to this article.

City police said yesterday that a woman slain execution-style in East Baltimore would have been a witness in the trial of a New York man charged with killing Tauris Johnson, the 10-year-old boy cut down by a stray bullet fired by warring drug dealers.

The witness, Latisha Regina Murphy, 34, was shot twice in the face at point-blank range about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, moments after leaving her home in the 1700 block of Crystal Ave. to buy cigarettes, police said.

Investigators said yesterday that Ms. Murphy had witnessed Tauris' death on Nov. 4 and that she was scheduled to testify against the child's alleged killer, Nathaniel Dawson, 24, of New York City.

Ms. Murphy and another man ran a "stash house" for Dawson's alleged supply of drugs, and she also worked for him as a lookout on the street, investigators said. Police said she told detectives that she was standing in the 1700 block of E. Oliver St. when Dawson fired the bullet -- intended for rival drug dealers -- that fatally wounded Tauris while he was playing football.

"She didn't realize the magnitude of what she had become involved in. These are ruthless people. Someone put the pistol to her head and fired twice. My intuition tells me that's a hit," said a close friend of Ms. Murphy's, Melvin Scott of Baltimore.

Dawson, a paroled drug dealer who police claim was running a large cocaine- and heroin-distribution network in East Baltimore, has been held by U.S. marshals at an unidentified location since his arrest Dec. 8.

Police are investigating the possibility that Ms. Murphy was silenced to prevent her from testifying in Dawson's trial. There are no suspects, and the motive isn't known.

"It's certainly something [retaliation] we have to examine as a motive," said Police Agent Doug Price, a city police spokesman. "The possibility cannot be excluded. But right now, we can't make any presumption as to what extent, if any, that her murder is connected to the fact that she was a material witness."

The spokesman stressed that Ms. Murphy's death will not derail the case against Dawson.

"The death of Latisha Murphy does not in any way foreclose the future criminal prosecution of Dawson," Agent Price said. "Although her testimony would have clearly been relevant to the case, it by no means stood alone."

Court charging papers mention two eyewitnesses -- neither of whom were identified -- who came forward and identified Dawson. A detective familiar with the case said last night that the other eyewitness has been placed in an undisclosed location for protection.

Dawson's attorney, Alan L. Cohen, said he had never heard Ms. Murphy's name until he was contacted by a reporter yesterday. "I have no idea who any of the witnesses are," he said.

The search for a suspect in the Johnson boy's death took 4 1/2 weeks, during which detectives and city elected officials -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- made pleas for citizens to come forward with tips. Many residents in Tauris' neighborhood said they were fearful of retaliation because of the viciousness of local drug gangs.

Efforts to reach the mayor last night were unsuccessful. Clint Coleman, the mayor's press secretary, said he was unable to reach Mr. Schmoke because the mayor was in Annapolis meeting with members of the city legislative delegation.

Asked about the slaying of Ms. Murphy, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke last night said she did not believe it would deter other city residents from stepping forward as witnesses.

"My experience is that people have been coming forward all over the city for years now. I've always listened to these pleas for help with my own knowledge of how courageous people can be," Mrs. Clarke said, adding, "We have to protect people who have that courage to come forward."

Police said Ms. Murphy cooperated in the investigation after her home was raided two days after Tauris was killed. Investigators found drug paraphernalia in the home and arrested both Ms. Murphy and her boyfriend, police said.

But Ms. Murphy was later released after agreeing to provide information about Dawson, who she claimed paid her money and drugs to maintain a safe house for his narcotics.

Police said Dawson was operating the drug network under an alias, Jack Steele.

Police and federal agents tracked down Dawson a month later at his Bronx apartment, where they seized three pounds each of cocaine and marijuana, as well as an arsenal of weapons -- including 11 handguns, a sawed-off shotgun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition.

Mr. Scott, who described himself as a good friend of Ms. Murphy's for more than 10 years, said she cooperated with police because she wanted to stay out of jail.

"I spoke to her, and it was clear she never realized what she was getting herself into," he said.

Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said his office and the city sheriff's department offer a witness protection program for those who fear retribution of accused criminals.

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