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Alex Mann

The Baltimore Sun

February 27, 2024

Sgt. Dominic Crawford had been patrolling the Southern District with Officer Keona Holley in the early morning of Dec. 16, 2021, keeping tabs on businesses that had “issues,” when he left to go refuel his police cruiser at a station for city government vehicles downtown.

As Crawford returned to his post around 1 a.m., he testified in Baltimore Circuit Court Tuesday, a call buzzed across his radio: There was a crash in the 4400 block of Pennington Avenue.

Upon arrival, Crawford “observed a broken fence and a patrol car in the park,” he said. “I went to the driver’s door and I saw Officer Holley unconscious.”

She had been shot four times, including twice in the left side of her head — one of “two executions, 90 minutes apart, [in] two different neighborhoods in Baltimore” that morning, Assistant State’s Attorney Kurt Bjorklund told jurors assembled to decide the fate of one of the two men charged in the killings.

Elliott Knox, 34, is accused of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and firearms offenses in both killings. After jury selection Monday, his trial on those charges began Tuesday.

“Her executioner approached from the left,” Bjorklund said in his opening statement. “The evidence will show she barely had a second to realize what was happening.”

Bjorklund played video from Crawford’s body camera in court.

The footage showed him approach Holley’s police car, with a civilian already at the scene. After Crawford got Holley out of the car, the man at the scene helped provide medical assistance.

“She has a very faint pulse,” the man told Crawford, before directing his comments to Holley. “You just stay still. Don’t say nothing. Just keep fighting for that breath. … C’mon, girl. You got this!”

Medics took Holley to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where she died about a week later. Friends, family and colleagues said she joined the police department to help change her community.

The next fatal shooting that morning happened around 3 a.m., drawing officers about eight miles from the scene of Holley’s shooting, to the city’s Yale Heights neighborhood. Police found 27-year-old Justin Johnson unresponsive behind the wheel of his 1997 Lincoln Town Car.

Shelly Jackson, who lived with and had a daughter with Johnson, awoke to the sound of “gunshots outside my window,” she testified. Afraid, she called Johnson to tell him about the gunfire and beckon him home.

When he didn’t answer his phone, Jackson said, she took some Nyquil to try to get some sleep.

Sgt. Frederico Dickens was the first to arrive, testifying that the vehicle was locked. He suspected Johnson was dead, which fire department medics confirmed when they were able to break the window to reach him.

“He was also executed,” Bjorklund said. “He was shot six times in the back.”

Jackson testified she woke again around 5 a.m.

“Detectives were banging at the door,” she said, and soon she was asking if the gunshots “were for Justin.”

The detectives told her he had been shot and that he died.

Investigators would recognize a nexus between the killings once they identified a vehicle of interest in connection with Holley’s shooting and apprehended the driver, Knox. After waiving his Miranda rights, he spoke to investigators.

Bjorklund told jurors that Knox’s statement to police amounted to “hours of deception and lying” and that he “consistently attempted to minimize his role in these two murders.”

The prosecutor played the first of four hours of Knox’s interview with detectives. He spent several minutes going back and forth about whether to continue the interview, worrying aloud that police would twist his words to implicate him in the killings. He continued nonetheless.

Detectives confronted him about his car being picked up by license plate readers and caught on camera near the scene of Holley’s shooting. But for the first hour, Knox would not say that he had been there.

“I can’t necessarily say I was around there last night. Well, I was actually at a friend’s house,” he said.

According to charging documents, Knox eventually told detectives he and another man were present at both shooting scenes, but he blamed Travon Shaw for opening fire on Holley and Johnson.

A jury in October convicted Shaw, 34, of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence, along with other gun offenses, in Johnson’s death. Shaw is due back in court in March for sentencing, where he faces life in prison.

He is scheduled to stand trial for Holley’s killing later in March.

Jackson testified Tuesday about hearing another knock at her door, later in the day of the fatal shootings. It was Shaw, she said, “the person Justin would call for anything and everything.”

Shaw had come to check in on Johnson, which Jackson said she found “unusual,” but “kind of believed” given everything that had happened. Then, Shaw started asking for information, she recalled, such as “what the detectives asked. Did they have his phones? Did they have access?”

While Knox initially lied to police, his defense attorney, Natalie Finegar, told jurors that he did come clean and even directed police to the place where he stored the guns used in both shootings.

“He goes and gets all the pieces of evidence and delivers it to them,” Finegar said in her opening statement.

Detectives found a .40 caliber handgun and a .223 caliber AR-style pistol at the house Knox told them about, according to charging documents. The guns allowed police firearms examiners to draw more definitive conclusions about evidence in the case.

Police searched two addresses connected with Shaw and Knox, uncovering a cache that included boxes of bullets, magazines and gun cleaning kits. Detective John Amato was there for both searches and testified to finding the guns in two backpacks, along with masks and gloves. He held up the AR-style pistol in court, demonstrating a homemade fabric device on it that was designed to catch discharged cartridge casings when it was fired.

A crime scene technician testified he collected six .40 caliber cartridge casings, and one projectile, from the scene of Holley’s fatal shooting. Dickens, the first officer at the scene of Johnson’s death, found .40 caliber and .223 caliber casings.

Firearms examiners concluded that the .40 caliber handgun recovered from the house likely fired the casings of the same caliber at both shooting scenes, police and prosecutors have said. The examiners also believed the AR-style pistol recovered by detectives fired the .223 caliber casings found near Johnson’s car.

Despite Knox’s statement that Shaw pulled the triggers, Bjorklund said, evidence will suggest that Knox shot Holley and Johnson.

Finegar disputed that claim, saying Bjorklund was relying on “assumptions” to come to that conclusion. She said Bjorklund believed Knox shot Holley because he was the second person captured on surveillance video returning to the getaway car parked about a block away.

“What my client admitted to was being an accessory after the fact,” said Finegar, adding that he also confessed to handling firearms despite being legally prohibited from doing so. “It’s still entirely possible that what my client said is what happened.”

She said Knox was not guilty.

Bjorklund said it doesn’t matter whether the jury believed he was the shooter in the killings.

“When you commit a crime with another person, as a joint venture, you’re just as guilty,” he said. “He’s guilty of everything he’s charged with, whether he was the shooter or not.”

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