Federal jury convicts father and son in slayings of 10-year-old boy, witness Crimes focused attention on city's drug violence

November 10, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Tanya Jones contributed to this article.

In a case symbolic of the violence drug gangs have brought to Baltimore's neighborhoods, a father and son were convicted yesterday for their roles in the sidewalk slaying of 10-year-old Tauris Johnson and a woman who testified that she witnessed the crime.

Tauris Johnson's death a year ago galvanized a city struggling against the grip of drug gangs. Just after dusk last Nov. 4, a gunfight broke out as Tauris played football with friends near Regester at Oliver streets in East Baltimore.

The shooting, and ensuing public furor, spurred passage of a curfew for children under 17 and also was cited by legislators statewide in passing tougher gun laws.

Latisha Murphy, 34, testified before a federal grand jury in January about Tauris' slaying. When she was killed execution-style as she left her East Baltimore house Feb. 12, the investigation by city police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents intensified.

As the five-week trial in U.S. District Court ended earlier this week, prosecutors appealed to jurors to "stop the arrogance" of the gang by delivering guilty verdicts on a string of federal drug and murder charges.

After 6 1/2 hours of deliberation that began Tuesday, the jury convicted four defendants on all charges early yesterday afternoon.

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia and the two prosecutors who tried the case said they were gratified by the verdicts. They also said they hoped that the convictions would reassure the community and be a signal to other drug dealers.

"This sends a message to the community that, with their help, we can bring people responsible for violent crimes like these to justice," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian.

Convicted was Nathaniel Dawson Jr., 25, of New York City, whose gang was defending its East Baltimore turf against rival dealers when Tauris was gunned down. He also was convicted of conspiring with his father, Nathaniel Dawson Sr., 55, who was convicted as the gunman in Mrs. Murphy's killing.

Also found guilty were Seth Webb, 25, a drug lieutenant who identified Mrs. Murphy for the elder Dawson before her murder; and Beverly Brown, 29, a girlfriend of the younger Dawson, who aided the group in its drug dealings.

The three male defendants sat stone-faced as the foreman announced the verdicts. Only Brown, seated at the front table, showed emotion. She sobbed through the remainder of the hearing as her attorney patted her shoulder.

U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said he would set sentencing dates after speaking to defense lawyers today.

The Dawsons and Webb could be jailed for life on each of the murder convictions, as well as face sentences of up to life for drug conspiracy. Brown, who has a prior drug felony conviction, could receive more than 10 years in prison.

Juanita Belle, who helped raise Tauris, greeted the verdict with satisfaction. "I'm very pleased that he [Dawson Jr.] will never see the streets again to do it to somebody else's child," she said.

Davon Franklin, 11, who was playing football with Tauris when the shooting began, said yesterday that the breakup of the gang had made the neighborhood safer.

"We can stay out late without them shooting," he said.

According to prosecutors and trial testimony, the Dawson drug gang had been in business for more than four years when Tauris was killed.

Based in East Baltimore, the younger Dawson funneled money and drugs between there and his home in New York. He hired locals as lookouts and managers, and brought bodyguards with him from New York when he visited.

He armed his workers with semiautomatic pistols to ward off anyone who attempted to invade his turf.

On the evening Tauris was shot, members of the Dawson gang were on the street working, as was their practice, a noon-to-midnight shift.

The trouble began when a car, apparently containing members of a rival drug gang, pulled up and the occupants exchanged words with the younger Dawson. As he and one of his gang members drew their guns, the rival gang fired shots, and the Dawson crew shot back.

The young football players scattered. But a stray bullet, which investigators later determined was fired by a member of the Dawson gang, hit Tauris, killing him.

Initially, police had few clues in the case. But a month later, investigators got a break when they learned that the younger Dawson's alias was Jack Steele and that he was from New York. A paroled drug dealer, he was arrested Dec. 9 at his Bronx apartment, where police seized an array of weapons -- 11 handguns, a sawed-off shotgun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition -- and more than $100,000 worth of cocaine and heroin. The younger Dawson had boasted that he would never be caught, prosecutors said.

"They took their guns and drugs to New York and thought we wouldn't find them," Assistant U.S. Attorney Katharine J. Armentrout said yesterday. "We did, and we will."

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