Public Safety

Smoke shop killing of two teens won't go to trial

Plea and sentencing tentatively set for May

Andre Richardson (center) reviews notes with defense attorney Peter Persaud during hearings last October in Linn County
Andre Richardson (center) reviews notes with defense attorney Peter Persaud during hearings last October in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids. Richardson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the May 2019 shooting deaths of Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)


CEDAR RAPIDS — A man is seen on a surveillance video firing a series of shots from a .45-caliber handgun at a black Buick Rendezvous outside a smoke shop last May.

The video shows the gun jammed several times as the man repeatedly fired the gun at close range into the SUV, and each time he cleared the weapon and continued to fire, a criminal complaint showed.

When officers arrived about 1:20 a.m. May 18 at the Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Ct. SW, they found four people in the Rendezvous. Two 18-year-olds, Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson, were fatally shot in the back seat.

Booker McKinney and Kayla Panos-Blackcloud, both 19, were in the front seats and had serious injuries.

After interviewing witnesses and reviewing video, authorities said they identified Andre Richardson, 26, of Cedar Rapids as the shooter. The gunman fled before officers arrived.

The investigation and video showed Richardson was in the front seat of a vehicle driven by Alexandra Smith, 24, who was named as a person of interest early in the case and later convicted as an accessory after the fact. Deshawn Hull Jr., 21, Kenyauta Vesey Keith, 19, who was acquitted in a 2018 fatal shooting, and Colby Shannon, 22 — who police also identified as persons of interest — also were in that vehicle.

Video surveillance showed Smith’s vehicle arrived in the smoke shop parking lot “just minutes” before Panos-Blackcloud’s Rendezvous pulled in.

Authorities said Richardson jumped out of Smith’s vehicle when Panos-Blackcloud parked her SUV, and started shooting. After he stopped, he got back into Smith’s vehicle, and they drove away. 

Two days later, Cedar Rapids police officers and U.S. Marshals Task Force members received a tip that Richardson was in the 300 block of 22nd Avenue SW.

Authorities said he ran but was tracked with the help of a K-9 unit. Law enforcement captured Richardson as he hid in a garage at 229 21st Ave. SW.

Richardson was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and willful injury causing serious injury, and one count each of intimidation with a weapon, felon in possession of a firearm and going armed with intent.

No information was released on a possible motive for the shooting.

A relative of Johnson told The Gazette shortly after news of the shooting broke that the teen and others had attended the May 17 funeral of Tyrice D. “Reese” Douglas, 27, who died last May from being shot in December 2018.

Later that night, the relative said Johnson and others had gone to a party not far from the smoke shop.

What has happened since

Richardson’s lawyers asked a judge last October to move the trial out of Linn County, arguing their client wouldn’t get a fair trial based on the “inflammatory” comments on social media attached to numerous news articles on the case.

The defense also said the billboards installed by law enforcement to assist in the capture of suspects in this case tainted any potential jury in Linn County.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill in his ruling said there was nothing “outrageous or harsh” in the tone of the articles or news coverage. He described news coverage as “professional.”

The billboards, he said, did nothing more than tell the public what any potential juror would be told at the start of this case — the defendant is accused of killing two people.

Thornhill said most of the social media comments are “outrageous, inflammatory, offensive and harsh.” But the views shared in these comments can be found everywhere, not just in Linn County, he said.

The way to determine if publicity had any impact, Thornhill said, is through jury selection, and the court will allow extensive questioning of the jury panel.

Richardson’s lawyers also asked Thornhill to toss out a statement Richardson made to police after he requested a lawyer.

Thornhill denied the argument, saying Richardson's rights were not violated by the investigator asking him if he knew why he was arrested. 

Last December, Panos-Blackcloud, who was seriously injured in the shooting, told The Gazette she didn’t know why Richardson shot her and her friends that night. She was shot in the face and it took months for her to recover and piece together what happened that night.

She said the four of them stopped at the smoke shop to get soft drinks. She was looking down in the console for change and when she looked up, Richardson was at the passenger side window, where McKinney was seated, holding a gun.

She attempted to put her vehicle in reverse, but he started shooting. He shot her first and then McKinney before she blacked out.

Richardson’s trial was reset to May 4, but the defense in March asked the Iowa Supreme Court for a discretionary review of Thornhill’s ruling on suppressing Richardson’s statement, which could typically delay a trial.

However, the court denied the review, and the trial remained set for May until the court postponed all jury trials across the state through May because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, a plea agreement was reached and a plea and sentencing hearing is set for May 22, according to court records.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden on Friday said ethical rules prohibited him from discussing details of the plea before the hearing, but added that the victims and their families had been told about the plea agreement.

If the restrictions of social distancing are still in effect at that time, then the hearing will be reset to a later date to ensure the victims and their families can be in court and give victim impact statements. Richardson also will have to be in court, Vander Sanden said.

Richardson remains in the Linn County Jail on $2 million bail.

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