Woman gives 'smoking gun' testimony


Mary Alicia Personeus was not on the street the day 10-year-old Tauris Johnson died in a cross-fire between two drug gangs. And she never heard the shots that killed Latisha Murphy, a witness to Tauris' shooting who was later executed to protect the gang.

But as the girlfriend of an alleged gang lieutenant, Ms. Personeus was privy to details of both crimes. Yesterday she offered what even one defense lawyer characterized as the "smoking gun" testimony against the four defendants, including Nathaniel Dawson Jr., the alleged leader of the drug gang, and his father, Nathaniel Dawson Sr., who is accused as the trigger man in Ms. Murphy's killing.

After discovering late Wednesday that she would testify, her boyfriend, Seth Webb -- also a defendant in the case -- telephoned her from jail as he has every day, she said.

"He asked how could I do that," Ms. Personeus told the jury. "I said I don't want to hurt him. I'm not going to jail for no one. I told him I loved him. Then the phone hung up."

By the end of yesterday's testimony, she had recounted Mr. Webb's description of the Nov. 4 shootout that killed Tauris Johnson, and told how gang members had come to her house the next day to hide guns and empty drug vials for safekeeping.

A few weeks later, after the drug business picked up again, the elder Mr. Dawson showed up at her house. Her boyfriend later told her that Mr. Dawson had a list of witnesses to the shooting and planned to kill anyone who might implicate his son, she testified.

After Latisha Murphy's murder in February, Mr. Webb described how he had accompanied Mr. Dawson to the woman's neighborhood, identified Ms. Murphy as the witness, then watched Mr. Dawson shoot her in the face, she said.

Ms. Personeus' appearance seemed to rattle the defendants, whose lawyers fought unsuccessfully to block the testimony. And it made for a bizarre day in court.

In the minutes before Ms. Personeus entered the courtroom, an agitated Mr. Webb interrupted the proceedings with an outburst asking Judge William M. Nickerson for permission to speak -- a request that was denied. And the grumblings of the elder Mr. Dawson -- who insisted that a Drug Enforcement Administration agent was prompting Ms. Personeus -- became so loud that a court reporter had to ask for quiet.

At one point, Ms. Personeus spotted a man in the rear of the court who she felt posed a threat. The lawyers huddled for a private discussion with the judge, the jury was dismissed from the courtroom, and the man was ushered outside by a federal agent. He turned out to be a mental health counselor from Union Memorial Hospital and was allowed to return to the courtroom.

"It was my day off and I was bored -- it's a high-publicity case," said Leon Henry. "Luckily I had my wallet with me."

As that problem was being dealt with, the Dawsons and Mr. Webb began to shout that Ms. Personeus had just uttered a death threat from the witness box. It prompted one of several recesses.

At times, Ms. Personeus shielded her eyes to block the two tables of defendants and their lawyers from her view.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Katharine J. Armentrout, the 22-year-old Baltimore woman told of her three-year relationship with Mr. Webb and his involvement in selling drugs with the Dawsons. Prosecutors granted her immunity in exchange for her testimony.

She said she met Nathaniel Dawson Jr. -- whom she knew as Jack Steele -- in late 1991 because he supplied the drugs and picked up the money.

As the drug business in East Baltimore continued, Mr. Dawson's girlfriend, Beverly Brown, sometimes accompanied him to her rented home in the first block of South Washington Street.

Ms. Personeus said that by 1993, she and Mr. Webb had reached an agreement.

"If something happened to him, I would know nothing, nothing about his business. Nothing that I'm sitting here talking with you about today," she testified.

She told jurors that Mr. Webb was visibly upset the night Tauris Johnson died and that he had described what began as a drive-by shooting.

"He said everyone was shooting from all directions," she testified. "He said Jack [the younger Mr. Dawson] was shooting. At the time he said he ran and caught a cab home."

The next day, Ms. Brown delivered a large green duffel bag and a suitcase to her house. They contained seven or eight guns and a large quantity of empty drug vials.

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