Trial for 2008 murder of Tracey Crews details alleged betrayal and botched robbery by best man

Tracey Crews scooped his sleeping daughter out of the back of his double-parked vehicle outside the Whittaker Avenue residence he shared with his new wife.

The couple was just starting off their life together. They had been married for a little more than a month and planned to move to a new apartment. Their world came crashing down late Sept. 12, 2008, when Crews was killed during an armed home invasion.

The murder remained unsolved for nearly three years until investigators cracked the case thanks to a dying declaration and DNA evidence linking one of the defendants on trial for Crews’ murder to a ski mask used in the crime.

Evidence is backed up by incriminating statements William Brown, 30, and Nigel Joseph Dawson, 31, made to inmates turned jailhouse informants while they were locked up in county jails the last three and a half years awaiting trial, Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Al Garcia said last week, in his opening statement to the jury.

But the suspects’ defense attorneys, pointing to holes and omissions in the state’s case, accused Garcia of writing a check his mouth can’t cash and boldly predicted their clients will be acquitted. Both are being tried together on counts of murder, felony murder, robbery and weapons offenses. They face life in prison if they’re convicted.

“Mr. Garcia made a lot of promises,” said Edward Hesketh, Dawson’s attorney. “At the end of the day, hold him to his promise because he’s not going to be able to carry the day. You’re going to hear the evidence, and you’re going to make a decision that Nigel Dawson is not guilty of any of these charges.”

“They like to call these kinds of cases, ‘Cold case solved,’” said attorney Steven Lember, who is representing Brown. “When this case is over, you’ll feel they have that half right. It was a cold case; it’s still a cold case unsolved.”

The scene

Crews and his wife returned home following a long day out shortly before midnight.

Crews cradled his then-2-year-old daughter in his arms, shielding her face from a light rain. Moments after he tucked the girl into bed in a second-story room, Crews was confronted in the kitchen by two masked men. One of them brandished a 9 mm handgun, supplied by Trayle Beasley, a convicted felon serving a 12-year sentence for gun trafficking.

Crews recognized one of their voices as Brown, a close friend and the best man at his wedding. Crews, a convicted drug dealer, was done in by the ultimate act of betrayal, Garcia said.

“He [Crews] would have recognized William Brown if he showed up in a cardboard box,” Garcia said. “They were there to take money; they were there to take property; and they ended up taking his life. It went from betrayal to robbery to murder.”

A crackle of gunfire erupted in the kitchen. Crews was shot twice, once in the chin, severing his carotid artery. He staggered out the front door, painting the inside of the apartment in blood, while the armed men fled out the back. He collapsed outside, in front of Whittaker Liquors, as his wife rushed to his side, frantically applying pressure to his neck.

Trenton Police officer Maurice Crosby was with his partner, patrolling the area near Whittaker Avenue around midnight. In his headlights, he could make out the faint silhouette of a woman clutching a man – her shrieking cries piercing the silence of the night.

Crosby shined his flashlight on them, revealing the blood-stained sidewalk. He called for an ambulance and asked the woman what happened. She told him someone shot her husband and could still be inside their residence. She told Crosby her child was also still inside the home.

Crosby called for backup, ordering responding officers to begin setting up a perimeter when they arrived. One police cruiser set up on Cove Street, near the back of the Whittaker Avenue residence. Officers were two minutes too late; the assailants were gone.

But they left behind a trail of evidence: muddy footprints, Crews’ cell phone and charger, a tan jacket turned inside out, a ski mask with DNA that was later matched to Brown; and a 9 mm handgun, stashed on top of a garage.

Lember doesn’t dispute it is his client’s DNA on the mask. He owned it, after all, Lember said. But he said the state cannot explain why DNA from a second unidentified person was also found on the mask, a fact prosecutors omitted when they presented the case to a grand jury.

Authorities never lifted fingerprints off 9 mm shell casings found inside Crews’ home, Lember said, instead pointing the finger at his client once they concluded there was no forced entrance at the home and someone with access to Crews’ residence had let themselves in that night.

Once roommates, Brown moved out after Crews got married. He left on good terms, his attorney said, even storing some of his personal belongings, including the mask, at the apartment. Brown would never “lift a finger against Stacey Crews,” Lember said.

Police response

Once they found out a murderer could be holed up inside the home, Crosby and his partner scoured the scene, gaining access to the rear of Crews’ apartment through a next-door neighbor. They noticed a pit bull tied up around back.

Crosby testified it was too risky to enter the apartment. So they waited until they were joined at the scene by officers with a body bunker.

They swept the first floor of the apartment, but found nothing. On the second floor, they encountered a locked door and banged on it but got no response.

Officers kicked in the door and found Crews’ daughter asleep. Crosby wrapped the still-sleeping toddler in a towel, carried her downstairs and handed her off to another officer.

Meanwhile, officers on Cove Street discovered footprints leading from the crime scene in a construction yard. A former Trenton police officer testified she found another set of footprints on a stone slab and placed garbage bins on top of them to ensure they weren’t washed away by the rain. Police couldn’t tell if there was one or two sets of footprints leading from the crime scene.

Street credibility

At the time of Crews’ death, authorities were convinced the murder was drug-related.

Crews was convicted of drug charges in 2005, according to court records. Previous reports indicate he served two years in state prison, but The Trentonian couldn’t independently confirm that because state records are available only for a year after an inmate is released.

Garcia indicated in his opening remarks that Crews, also known as “Looch,” “sold drugs for a living and he made a lot of money doing it.”

Brown, known on the streets as “Paper Boy,” also has a checkered past.

He is one of five men charged in the unrelated murder of U.S. Army veteran and Liberian immigrant Dardar Paye. Brown is identified as a Bloods gang member in previous published reports.

Lember said his client spent time in the hospital and was discharged on crutches after he was shot in the back in Ewing about a month before Crews’ murder.

Officials haven’t revealed if they believe there is any connection between the attempt on Brown’s life and Crews’ murder.

Jailhouse informants

Prosecutors plan to show a jury footage captured by a city resident’s surveillance system they say shows two men fleeing the murder scene shortly after Crews was shot. Garica said jurors won’t be able to clearly see Brown or Dawson’s faces.

“The video is not NFL-quality high-def that you see at home,” he said.

Even the science-backed evidence isn’t definitive, Lember said.

“If you’re looking for a CSI moment in this case, it’s not gonna happen,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest moment of the trial, which is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning, hinges on the word of four jailhouse informants expected to take the stand and testify against Brown and Dawson. They are Isaiah Franklin, Javon Barnes, Terrell Black and Raheem Hickmond.

Franklin and Barnes are co-defendants in the 2012 robbery of a city grocery store.

Prosecutors haven’t said what the men are getting in exchange for their testimony.

Franklin told investigators Brown told him that Dawson killed Crews and convinced a girlfriend to write an alibi saying the couple was shopping the night of the murder. Brown also reportedly admitted to Franklin that he set up the robbery.

Brown and Dawson’s attorneys have painted the jailhouse informants as self-interested parties who are hoping for “sweetheart deals” if they provide testimony that helps the state convict their clients. In particular, Lember objected to the testimony on grounds that it amounts to hearsay.

If prosecutors follow through and call Hickmond to the stand, they will be relying on the word of a man with a track record of making false statements.

While incarcerated on a drug charge in 2012, Hickmond allegedly asked another inmate to phone in a bomb threat to the Mount Holly courthouse where he was scheduled to appear for a hearing. The courthouse was evacuated for more than an hour while authorities searched the premises.

Hickmond was charged with making a false public alarm, conspiracy and making terroristic threats.

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