Defense claims accused Ladd-Peebles shooter was defending himself against mob

Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 11:51 AM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Two of the victims of a shooting last year during a high school football game admitted they and others were charging toward the alleged shooter and preparing to attack him and his friends, a police investigator testified Tuesday.

Detective John Scroggins II of the Mobile Police Department offered the testimony during a preliminary hearing for Hezekiah Kaniel Belfon, who prosecutors say fired four times, wounding five people. The Oct. 15 incident was the second shooting at Ladd-Peebles Stadium since 2019 and prompted the Mobile County Public School System to sever ties with the city-owned stadium.

Notwithstanding the self-defense argument, Presiding Mobile County District Judge George Hardesty determined prosecutors presented enough evidence to send five counts of attempted murder to a grand jury. A grand jury also will consider charges against co-defendant Jai Scott.

Under cross-examination from defense attorney Yancey Burnett, Scroggins acknowledged that Belfon, 20, of Chickasaw, Scott and a teenager who has not been named because of his age were walking down the off ramp toward the exit just before 10 p.m. toward the end of the game between Williamson and Vigor high schools. He testified that a group of as many as 22 people who were part of a loosely affiliated gang, some of them running, were closing in on the three from behind.

“Just as they reach the suspects, the individual identified as Hezekiah Belfon turns and fires four times,” Scroggins said.

Burnett told reporters after the hearing that the detective’s testimony matches his client’s account of what happened and that it points to self-defense.

“It’s obvious. Look, you got two dozen guys that are jumping my guy,” he said. “They’re jumping my client. He has no obligation to be beaten to death, you know, to please anyone. He doesn’t have to surrender and say, ‘Eh, you guys go ahead.’ That’s what they were doing. They were attacking him. It’s on video.”

Gwendolyn Crawford, the mother of one of the victims, told FOX10 News on Tuesday that her son is not affiliated with any gang and was not in any way a threat to Belfon. She said the gang accusation comes from a misunderstanding over the acronym VMG. She said that is not a gang sign but a record label, Vandross Music Group.

Crawford said her son, Kobe Morgan, has recovered enough to walk but is in severe pain and unable to work. She told FOX10 News that the shooting took his innocence left him paranoid.

“The nightmares still haven’t stopped, you know?” she said. “He keeps replaying the 15th over and over in his mind. And he’s in severe therapy.”

Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Louis Walker said the “Stand Your Ground” protections normally afforded to someone who uses a gun do no apply if the shooter is engaged in criminal activity. He said Belfon, in this case, unlawfully possessed a gun in a place where he was not allowed to have one.

“Persons that are engaged in unlawful activity have a duty to retreat, and only if they cannot retreat is the use of force justified under the law,” he said outside the courtroom. “And here, instead of making any effort to retreat, the defendant fired a gun multiple times.”

Scroggins testified that two adults and two juveniles in the pursuing group suffered gunshot wounds and that one of the bullets passed through one of the males and struck a teenage girl who was in the vicinity. He said investigators recovered four 9mm shell casings on the ramp. Later, he said, police in Troy searched the home and car of a Troy University football player where authorities believe Belfon fled to after the shooting. He said police found Belfon’s dreadlocks in a trash can and his Glock pistol – the same one used in the shooting – in his friend’s car.

Scroggins said several witnesses – both those questioned at the stadium and others who called 911 – identified the shooter as a man named “Chop.” He said a Mobile police database indicated that Belfon goes by that nickname and testified that the descriptions match the images of the shooter captured on surveillance video from the arena.

In addition, the detective testified, the juvenile charged in the case told investigators that Belfon was the one who fired the gun.

It remains unclear exactly what set up the confrontation. Scroggins testified that Scott had words with one of the victims a short time before the shooting. He said at one point, the three defendants left the building and retrieved guns from their car before returning after the metal detectors had been taken down.

Under cross-examination, Scroggins said he was unaware that Belfon and his two friends moved to another part of the stadium to “tamp things down” prior to the shooting. He also said police had not tried to obtain threatening text messages that the lawyer said people had sent to the defendants.

“There’s a history that goes back, and it is stunning to me that they don’t have any text messages,” Burnett told reporters. “They don’t have any of the back and forth. My client tried very hard to avoid this confrontation. You know, they were in the football stadium together watching the game. He goes way down to the endzone to get away from them, you know, 40, 50 yards away, trying to avoid the confrontation.”

When that did not work, Burnett said, the three left the stadium. The lawyer said their intention was to leave the game but that the teenage defendant wanted to go back because his girlfriend was there.

Prosecutors have characterized Belfon’s post-shooting conduct as consciousness of guilt. He immediately went to Troy and then was not apprehended until March when he was in a car stopped for a traffic violation in Florida’s St. John County. Then, he fought extradition back to Alabama.

But Burnett said his client feared for his life.

“Of course, the police think he was running away from them,” he said. “He’s running away from the 20 guys trying to kill him. They were trying to beat him to death. And if they caught him, they would have.”

One issue likely is going to be whether Belfon legally possessed the gun had. Walker said it was “clearly prohibited, not only by the regulations of the stadium, but also, too, I think that the evidence will show whether or not the defendant had a lawful pistol permit, for example.”

But Walker acknowledged that he does not believe the law specifically prohibits guns in stadiums.

Said Burnett: “Just because you put a sign up isn’t the same as passing a statute.”

Updated at 2:20 p.m. with comments from the mother of one of the victims.

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