DAG heard shuffling behind city museum after Route 29 murder
Former Deputy Attorney General Ellen Balint testified Wednesday in the murder trial of two city men that while she was walking from the Hughes Justice Complex toward her car after getting out of work on the evening of Jan. 30, 2012 she was startled by the cackle of gunfire and screeching tires.
She didn’t know it at the time, but 23-year-old Daquan Dowling had just been shot in the head as he and a friend motored northbound in the slow lane of Route 29, in a callous drive-by execution that shut down the busy highway for hours, prosecutors said.
Dowling slumped over the car console, his bloodied head landing in the lap of his shell-shocked passenger.
Prosecutors showed photos of the blood-soaked interior of Dowling’s Ford Taurus. And a supervising sergeant from the Trenton Police department held up for jurors to inspect the apparent blood-spattered shirt and sweater of Dowling’s friend, who was riding shotgun when the horror unfolded.
Balint testified that she was initially confused when she heard a single loud pop around 6:30 p.m., right as the dark of winter settled on the capital city.
“I thought it was a blown tire,” she said.
That was followed by a succession of three more shots. Only then she realized, “That sounds more like a gun. You’re not gonna have that many blowouts at once.”
What followed, described by prosecutors’ in opening statements last week as pure “mayhem,” was the sounds of doors slamming, people yelling and cars crashing, Balint said.
“I was like, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’” she said.
Prosecutors said what was going on was a cold-blooded execution by suspected killers Andre Romero and William “Bill Bill” Mitchell, who riddled Dowling’s car with bullets as they drove by in stolen Chrysler Sebring.
The Sebring, which was owned by a city woman who also testified Wednesday, had been lifted from outside of crime-riddled La Guira bar at the intersection of Poplar Street and North Clinton Avenue.
Balint, who worked for the state Attorney General’s Office for 16 years, was the first witness put on the stand who caught a glimpse of the suspected killers, though she didn’t know that at the time.
She normally parked in the underground garage of the massive Market Street justice complex. But on this day her car was in a visitors parking lot closest to the nearby William Trent House, where Mitchell, Romero and two others allegedly fled after lighting up Dowling’s car and bailing out of the crashed Sebring.
Shortly after the shot rang out, Balint heard footsteps and “sharp and urgent” shouts from four men but she couldn’t make out the words.
They scaled a brick wall of the museum that Balint estimated was about six feet tall. She said the men, whom she said appeared to be African American, all looked about as tall as the wall or taller.
She couldn’t make out faces and only clothes of two of four, who were dressed in Carhartt overalls and tan work boots, and another in a ball cap.
Balint said she the men appeared to coming from the direction of Route 29, where the drive-by murder had occurred, and seemed in a rush.
They hopped off the wall, picked up their pants, unruffled their jackets and walked down Warren Street, casually, so not to arouse suspicion, Balint said.
Balint didn’t call the cops that night but spoke to detectives the next day, while they were still processing the crime scene. She told them all she knew, which she admitted wasn’t much.
Balint may not have given prosecutors a vivid glimpse of the faces of the suspected killers.
But they believe a trail of evidence leading from the highway to the Trent House – including bullet casings, abandoned guns, pieces of clothing and a phone apparently belonging to one of the suspects left inside the stolen car – is enough to send Romero and Mitchell away for life.
They also expect to get a big boost from at least one of the two of the men who were in the car with Romero. They both struck plea deals and are expected to participate in the trial.
An electronics expert from the FBI also took the stand and testified that he examined Mitchell’s phone.
A parade of police officers was also brought into to discuss finer points of the investigation – from the autopsy that concluded Dowling’s death as a homicide to how Trenton Police processed the sprawling crime scene on a blustery night in the dead of winter.
The trial resumes Thursday.