"Are you going to shoot me now?" Those were the last words spoken by law clerk Gabriel Lerner, seconds before he was shot by accused killer Auriel Devon Frett on Oct.26, 2008.
So said John Jared Southwell, Frett’s alleged accomplice, who took the witness stand on Tuesday, the second day of Frett’s murder trial.
Frett, 24, allegedly carjacked and robbed Lerner with the help of Southwell, 19, then killed Lerner in a wooded area in St. Thomas’s West End. He is being tried in Magistrate’s Court in Barbel Plaza.
In addition to murder, Frett faces charges of kidnapping, robbery and possession of an unlicensed firearm, reckless endangerment, reckless driving, unauthorized use of a vehicle, and possession of stolen property.
Southwell, who was one of five government witnesses to testify Tuesday, pleaded guilty last September to one count each of second-degree murder and first-degree assault-robbery. He is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Prosecutor Renee Gumbs-Carty walked the baby-faced Southwell through the timeline of the crime spree that started in a carjacking and ended in a wild police chase. His account of the spree depicted Frett as the initiator and Southwell as an unquestioning participant.
Southwell testified that the pair first met up around 8 a.m. Sunday near the Midtown Guest House and hopped on a safari bus, intending to go to Red Hook and then on to St. John. They got off the bus at Cassi Hill and hitched a ride from Lerner, who indicated he was headed to Lindqvist beach but would be happy to drive them to Red Hook.
During the ride, Frett asked Lerner to stop so he could urinate. Southwell described how Frett then came back to the car, drew a gun and asked Lerner "You ever been robbed before?"
Lerner reportedly replied "No, why? Are you robbing me?" then Frett forced him into the back seat, took his wallet and court ID, and got in the driver’s seat.
Surveillance video from Friendly Grocery near Four Corners, which police obtained after the murder, showed the next stop on the pair’s itinerary. Grainy footage played in court revealed Lerner’s maroon Ford focus pulling up to the gas pumps, and the two suspects getting out of the car. Lerner could not be seen on the video.
Cameras behind the cashier showed Southwell buying food and drinks around 10:20 a.m., using Lerner’s credit card. He testified that the cashier questioned whether the credit card belonged to him, to which Southwell said no. He claimed it belonged to his uncle, and can be seen on the video going out to the car to get Frett, who then signed for the transaction.
Southwell then testified that Frett drove to a private driveway in the Hull Bay area and stopped the car. Frett asked Southwell where the button was on the Ford to pop the trunk open, and Southwell found it and opened it.
Then Southwell opened the rear passenger door, and Frett took Lerner out of the back seat and forced him into the trunk. The pair then drove out to Bordeaux, past the Blue Water Bible College.
Gumbs-Carty asked Southwell whether Frett said anything during that portion of the drive.
"The only thing he said was ‘No witnesses, no witnesses,’" Southwell testified.
After marching Lerner down a dirt path, Frett shot Lerner in the back of the head from a distance of about two feet. Lerner fell to the ground, and the two men ran back to the car and drove off.
Dr. Francisco Landron, Chief Medical Examiner of the Virgin Islands, explained the crime scene and autopsy photos of Lerner, which showed the extent of his injuries and the condition of his body when he was found two days later.
The photos revealed a single gunshot wound in the back of Lerner’s head, about 5.5 inches from the top. Dr. Landron said the wound was consistent with a shot from a small-caliber handgun, fired from a distance of two feet or more.
Lerner’s body was dirty, bloated and discolored. The graphic images were difficult for Lerner’s family to see, and most left the courtroom before they were shown. Judge Harold Willocks reminded the jurors to not let their emotional reaction to the photos affect their opinion of the defendant.
Landron, who said he has performed more than 5,000 autopsies, read from Lerner’s death certificate, which listed the cause of death as a gunshot wound to the head, and the manner of death as homicide.
Additional surveillance video from Friendly Grocery, which was admitted into evidence Tuesday, showed that Frett and Southwell went back to the store after Lerner was killed. The time stamp on the film shows that they were there around 11:19 a.m., and receipts submitted into evidence revealed that they bought $94.45 worth of goods using Lerner’s credit card.
The remainder of Southwell’s testimony Tuesday revealed that the two men went about the rest of the day as if the murder never happened. They didn’t speak about it to each other or anyone else, and spent the day customizing the car using tint and stickers they bought at Western Auto with Lerner’s credit card.
Southwell said he saw Frett again Sunday evening, and on Monday evening as well, when they went out in Lerner’s car. The pair met up again on Tuesday morning, and went to Lindbergh Beach in the vehicle. It was around noon Tuesday when the all-points bulletin went out, and the two men were chased and eventually apprehended by police.
During police questioning on Oct. 28, 2008, Southwell admitted his part in the crime and led police to both Lerner’s body and the spot where he said he ditched the ID and credit card.
VIPD Detective Albion George testified that Southwell told him he had discarded the ID and credit card in a gutter near the Midtown Guest House. George said that when he went to the scene, he found both items exactly where Southwell said they would be.
Southwell, who said his mother was present during the questioning, insisted that the events of those three days transpired exactly as he had told them, and exactly as he had described in the police statement.
"Did you tell police anything different from what you’re telling the jury today?" Gumbs-Carty asked him.
"No," Southwell replied.
Defense counsel Michael Joseph tried to poke holes in Southwell’s assertion by pointing out inconsistencies in his testimony as compared to the statement he gave police.
"Isn’t it true that you said in the police statement that Frett threw Lerner’s ID and credit card into the ditch, but on the stand you said YOU discarded it?" Joseph asked. "You lied to the police, didn’t you?"
Southwell stumbled a bit before replying hesitantly. "I didn’t lie, I just made a mistake," he said.
Joseph also grilled Southwell on what happened after the police chase ended with the Ford Focus crashing into a police cruiser at a roadblock. Southwell told the jury that he jumped the crash barrier and ran into the bushes, but didn’t see where Frett went. However, in the police statement he said that both of them jumped over the barrier.
In an attempt to show that Southwell was the one controlling the crime spree, Joseph peppered him with more demanding questions.
"Why did Frett ask YOU where the button for the trunk was, in Lerner’s car? That’s because you were in control of the car, wasn’t it?" Joseph asked. "And the reason you walked into Friendly’s with the credit card was because YOU robbed Lerner, isn’t it?"
"No," Southwell insisted to both questions.
Jurors also heard the testimony of VIPD firearms supervisor Frieda Robinson. She testified that Frett did not hold a permit to carry a firearm on the date of the crime, which the prosecution will use as evidence to support the charge of possession of an unlicensed firearm.
The trial continues Wednesday.