Murder trial starts for Fresno pair accused of killing a man hit by ricochet bullet

Lachance Larue Thomas, left, and Shawn Lamont Brown
Lachance Larue Thomas, left, and Shawn Lamont Brown FRESNO POLICE DEPARTMENT

The victim was killed by a ricochet bullet and may not have even been the intended target, prosecutor William Lacy said in a murder trial that began Monday in Fresno County Superior Court.

But Lacy said it was clear from the evidence – witnesses and ballistic testing – that Shawn Lamont Brown and Lachance Larue Thomas killed Von Randell Correia Jr. at an east-central Fresno apartment complex two years ago and were guilty of murder, either in the first-degree or second-degree.

The trial in Judge Arlan Harrell’s courtroom is expected to take two to three weeks. If convicted of murder, Brown, 21, faces at least 40 years to life in prison, while Thomas, also 21, faces at least 15 years to life in prison.

In opening statements of the trial, lawyers agreed that Correia was shot in the back by a ricochet bullet. The bullet pierced the victim’s heart and left lung, killing him.

But lawyers for Brown and Thomas said no one saw them shoot Correia, 29, at the Ashwood Garden apartments on Shields Avenue near Maple Avenue just after midnight on July 28, 2015.

Lacy told the jury that Brown fired six rounds at Correia. Thomas assisted in the killing by arranging it, he said.

Do you have any trees?

Residents heard someone say before gunfire

Though a motive for the killing was not revealed, Lacy said, residents of the apartment complex heard someone say: “Do you have any trees?” right before the victim was shot. In street talk, “trees” means marijuana, according to police Detective Bartlett Ledbetter, who testified in the pair’s preliminary hearing in January 2016 and will testify in the trial.

Lacy said two women and a 13-year-old girl saw Brown and Thomas in the apartment’s courtyard right before gunfire erupted. The three witnesses later identified Brown and Thomas for police, he said.

But Fresno lawyers Amy Guerra, who is defending Brown, and Mark Asami, who is defending Thomas, said the witnesses also told police they never saw Brown or Thomas with a gun in the courtyard and never saw them shoot the victim.

Lacy’s case relies on circumstantial evidence, they said. Asami told the jury it will be difficult to “connect the dots.”

Lacy told the jury that fast police work led to the pair’s arrest and the recovery of key evidence.

Prosecutor told the jury that fast police work led to the pair’s arrest.

Officer Dominique Comeyne was patroling near Shields and Maple avenues when a silver Dodge Charger darted out of the Ashwood Gardens around 12:15 a.m. Lacy said residents told the officer to “follow that car.” Comeyne activated her patrol car’s lights and siren and started chasing the car.

The car headed west on Shields Avenue toward Highway 168. Once the car got onto the freeway onramp, Comeyne pulled the car over, Lacy said.

While Comeyne detained Thomas and Brown and the female driver, another officer found a black semi-automatic pistol on the ground near the beginning of the onramp, Lacy said. Ballistic testing later revealed that the six shell casings found at the apartment complex had been fired from the gun, Lacy said. The bullet that killed the victim also was fired from the gun, he said.

Investigators also tested a pair of gloves found in the back seat where Brown was sitting, Lacy said. The gloves had gunshot residue, he said.

Lacy said Thomas assisted in the killing by telling the female driver to take them to the apartment complex. Sitting in the front passenger seat, Thomas ordered the woman to back into a parking stall and stay in the car to facilitate a fast getaway, Lacy said.

The female driver was not charged because she feared Thomas, who has a reputation for hitting women, the prosecutor said.

After the killing, Brown and Thomas were booked into the Fresno County Jail on a murder charge, but were later released because the investigation was not completed. Once the bullet in Correia’s body was matched to a pistol that was thrown onto the roadway, warrants were issued for the pair’s arrest, court records say.

Thomas was arrested in August 2015. Brown was arrested in October 2015 in Las Vegas.

Thomas was arrested in August 2015. Brown was arrested in October 2015 in Las Vegas after he was tied to an officer-involved shooting in Sunnyvale in August of that year.

Brown’s name came up when a Sunnyvale police officer killed an armed man at a Motel 6 on Aug. 15, 2015. Police in the Bay Area city said the deadly incident took place after officers were investigating suspicious activity, possibly involving prostitution and a minor, when they approached occupants of a Jaguar.

Police said Allen Matthew Baker III, 23, of San Diego, dropped a high-capacity magazine as he ran toward a commercial complex. An officer pursued Baker and saw him holding a handgun. When Baker ignored repeated commands to drop the weapon, the officer fired nine times, killing him, police said. Baker was sought on a robbery warrant at the time of his death.

The other suspect, whom police believed to be Brown, eluded officers despite a six-hour search. Las Vegas Metro police said Brown was arrested in October 2015 during an operation by a fugitive task force.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts