A vicious double homicide that erupted in northwest Roanoke the night before Halloween was deemed “a cold-blooded drug killing” by prosecutors Tuesday.
After two days of seeing evidence and hearing witness testimony and arguments by counsel, and about four hours of deliberations, a Roanoke jury returned convictions in the case.
Dominic Shantae Townes, 31, was found guilty on twin counts of second-degree murder, plus using a firearm in both cases, and the jury asked that he serve a total sentence of 42 years in prison.
Townes was initially indicted by a grand jury in November on charges of first-degree murder, just days after the Oct. 30 incident that claimed the lives of Jacob Sallah, 42, of Roanoke, and Travis Jerrod Turnage, 37, of Franklin County.
The choice by the jurors to impose a lesser charge suggests they felt Townes’ crimes lacked the element of premeditation, a requirement for first-degree murder. Their decision also lowered the range of punishment he faced from 20 to life to between five and 40 years in prison.
The shootings happened at a home in the 600 block of Hanover Avenue. Turnage and Sallah did not live there but were there visiting longtime resident Larry Michael “Big Mike” Hodges, reportedly watching a basketball game.
Also at the house was Hodges’ son Michael “Little Mike” Witcher; Witcher’s fiancee, Deja Browner; and the couple’s 5-year-old son.
Prosecutors have said Townes’ younger brother owed Sallah a $500 drug debt and claimed Sallah was arguing on the phone about it with Dominic Townes around 10 p.m.
Hodges said in court that soon after, he answered a knock at the door and found Townes waiting with two guns.
“He said, ‘You got nothing to do with this. Get out of the way,’ ” Hodges testified Monday.
Browner gave testimony, too, and she recalled being awakened that night by her fiance, who told her guns were being fired in the house.
“I just kept thinking, ‘Please don’t let him kill my son,’ ” Browner said.
In the shooting that ensued — an attack that occurred in a very narrow bedroom — only Turnage and Sallah were hit. No one else was reported injured.
One witness, a neighbor, reported hearing gunshots then seeing two men leave the house; he said one was bearded, but did not identify Townes specifically.
A former girlfriend of Townes also testified she drove Townes and his brother to Hanover that night, briefly, and said when they got back in the vehicle, Townes’ brother seemed shaken, but she also acknowledged she’d been drinking that night, hadn’t noticed anything else amiss and had not asked any questions.
Wendy Gibson, a firearms expert with the State Department of Forensic Science, said in court Tuesday she analyzed 22 cartridge cases taken from the scene, all from handguns: Thirteen shells from a .40 caliber, seven from a .45 caliber, and two from a 9mm.
The .40 caliber caused each of the injuries in the shootings, Gibson said. She said other weapons found at the crime scene, including a loaded pistol in Turnage’s jacket pocket, were never fired.
Dr. Amy Tharp of the state crime lab in Roanoke performed autopsies on Turnage and Sallah and, on direct examination by assistant prosecutor John McNeil, walked the jury through the wounds each man had suffered.
The sum of that violence was staggering.
Sallah was shot directly in the forehead, with the bullet passing completely through his skull. He also took five shots to the torso, including a round that struck his liver and another that penetrated his heart before lodging in his spine.
“All six of his wounds had lethal potential,” Tharp testified.
Turnage’s autopsy revealed 17 bullet pathways through his body, shots that appeared to have come from behind. Bullets broke his jaw, his collarbone, his left arm. Two passed through the back of his left leg, with one exiting through his groin and the other lodging in his small intestine.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Marshall Lukacs, both Tharp and Gibson acknowledged that nothing in their examination could directly tie the weapons or the shootings to Townes himself.
Lukacs in her arguments also pointed at other limitations in the commonwealth’s circumstantial case, including the fact that no eyewitness directly saw Townes fire the shots, no gunshot residue was detected on his hands, no phone records or text messages between Townes and Sallah were brought forward, and no weapons were recovered when Townes was pulled over and arrested hours later.
She also raised the issue that Hodges and Witcher initially denied knowing who the shooter was.
Additionally, it was not established in court exactly how investigators came to seek Townes as a suspect, or why his brother was not charged with criminal offenses.
McNeil argued that the witnesses, afraid of reprisals, had eventually been compelled to come forward, and he said the different elements presented, when taken as a whole, proved Townes’ guilt.
Circumstantial evidence “doesn’t make this a bad case. This is a strong case,” he told the jurors, and used the analogy of going to sleep when it’s dry outside and waking up to find wet streets and grass.
“You know that it rained,” McNeil said.
Townes’ punishment will be officially delivered by a judge after a pre-sentence report has been conducted.
A related charge of possessing a firearm as a felon was severed from the trial and will be heard at a later date. A conviction on that could bring Townes an additional five-year term.
Townes also has about 13 years in suspended time from a 2015 conviction for shooting at an occupied house on Melrose Avenue, more time that could be revoked as a result of his new convictions.
Staff writer Henri Gendreau contributed information to this story.