A man four gunmen allegedly abducted before killing five women in a rowhouse in 1999 testified yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, giving his first public account of what happened before the women were fatally shot.
Alvin Eugene Thomas' testimony contradicted what police told reporters for months about the mass murder -- that the victims were not involved with drugs and were killed to send a message to rival dealers related to the women.
Thomas, 29, told the jury he was robbed and abducted at gunpoint Dec. 5, 1999, by acquaintances Travon McCoy, 22, Robert Bryant, 24, Tariq A. Malik, 21, and Malik's brother, Ismael Malik Wilson, 28. Wilson, McCoy and Bryant are on trial; Malik is scheduled to be tried in September.
While he was held in a car outside 3535 Elmley Ave. in Northeast Baltimore, the men killed his mother, sister and niece and two other women, Thomas said.
"I understood what was going on, but I couldn't believe who was doing it, because he was supposed to be my best friend," Thomas said, looking at Wilson.
Thomas' testimony, delivered in a cool, steady voice, was broken by several emotional moments. When shown a picture of his dead mother, Mary Helen Collien, 56, Thomas' voice cracked, and he blinked back tears. A juror wept.
Twice, Bryant shouted as Thomas spoke.
"I can't stand this! He lying! This man's lying! You know what happened, man," Bryant said.
The trial, which began Monday and could last a month, rests largely on Thomas' story, because he is likely the only person who will place the men inside the rowhouse during the murders. Thomas' half-brother, Ronald McNeil, has said he witnessed the crimes, but he is unlikely to testify because of his criminal history.
Thomas said the crimes began at a mutual friend's house in the 1200 block of Gusryan St. in the O'Donnell Heights housing project, where his family and the defendants had had drug dealings. When he knocked on the door, Wilson pulled him inside, where the other three men were waiting. "He asked me, 'Where the money at, where's the [drugs] at?'"
They took his money and jewelry but wanted more, Thomas said, so he arranged to meet a friend at a McDonald's at Greenmount Avenue and 28th Street.
Bryant then asked Thomas about his sister, Mary "Lo" McNeil Matthews, 39. "I believe he had dealt with her before ... in terms of drugs," Thomas said, describing his sister as a dealer.
The defendants drove Thomas, at gunpoint, in his car to Matthews' home at 3535 Elmley Ave. His niece, Makisha Jenkins, 18, opened the door. "I tried to signal to her with my eyes, but she just looked at me and smiled," he said.
The men pushed their way inside and took Thomas, Jenkins and Ronald McNeil to the basement, where Lavanna Spearman, 23, was watching television. "She gets up off the bed and put her hands up. [Bryant] smacked her in the face and told her to get upstairs," Thomas said.
Upstairs, Bryant kicked in Matthews' locked second-floor bedroom door and began ransacking the room, Thomas said. Bryant then made Thomas call Matthews' cell phone to lure her home.
About 20 minutes later, Matthews arrived with her mother, Mary Helen Collien, and a friend, Trennell Alston, 26.
Bryant asked Matthews for drugs, Thomas said. When she said she didn't know what he was talking about, he threatened to kill Jenkins, who began to cry.
Matthews gave Bryant a wad of money, Thomas said. Then everyone was taken to the basement. Thomas recalled a conversation between Bryant and Matthews that suggested they had a previous dispute: "I didn't forget that s--- that happened," Bryant said. "It wasn't me," Matthews replied. "Yeah, it was you," said Bryant.
Wilson then brought Thomas out to the car, guarding him. Thomas said he heard four gunshots and then saw the three other defendants run out of the house.
As they drove to McDonald's to meet Thomas' friend, Bryant asked, "Who capped Lo? Who capped Lo?" Thomas said. McCoy replied, "I did, I did."
Thomas said he escaped at the McDonald's. His friend, frightened, had run into the restaurant with Wilson in pursuit, Thomas said. As Bryant and Thomas searched his friend's car trunk, he threw a garment on Bryant and ran. Bryant chased him and dropped his gun, and the two tussled on Greenmount Avenue. Bryant ran off when another man approached.
Prosecutors showed the jury the gun Thomas said Bryant dropped. Ballistics evidence ties the gun to the bullets that killed the women.
Prosecutor Lawrence C. Doan also told the jury of a diamond ring belonging to Matthews that Bryant allegedly gave to a girlfriend. The case against McCoy will include documents taken from his jail cell in which he appears to instruct his family to concoct an alibi for him, court records show.
Defense attorneys questioned Thomas for hours yesterday, pointing out discrepancies in three statements he gave police -- about the guns the men carried and the clothing they wore. They asked Thomas, who said he was right-handed, how he got gunshot residue on his left hand. "I tussled with Robert Bryant," he replied.