Officer describes chase, shooting in case against alleged killer of area rapper

Joseph Blacknell III, Marcus Russell

Joseph Blacknell III, left, is accused of the 2009 slaying of Marcus Russell, a rising East Bay rap artist.

Wallace Jensen and his partner Kristian Palma were in the dark, guns drawn.

The Richmond police officers had moments earlier sprinted down Cutting Boulevard, hopped a retaining wall and plunged into a narrow alcove in the 500 block of South 18th Street. The city had been rocked by brazen shootings throughout the day, and the officers had just chased a man they say had a gun into a dark, dead-end corridor.

Palma was about 10 feet from the man, who was wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt. Jensen was 15 feet behind Palma, a few steps to the right.

They had their suspect cornered at a wood fence. Both officers were yelling, “Drop the gun!”

“What was going through your mind?” Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts asked Jensen, seated at the witness stand Thursday afternoon in a Martinez courthouse. “My adrenaline was pumping,” Jensen replied.

Jensen testified that the officers squeezed off five rounds at the man they had cornered. All of their shots missed.

The scene was described during testimony at the trial of Joe Blacknell III, an alleged Richmond gang member.

The rest of the testimony from Jensen and others Thurdsay centered around the disputes at the heart of Blacknell’s trial: Whether Blacknell had a gun, whether he pointed it at the officers and, most important, whether he is responsible for a bloody rampage that hit the East Bay before his arrest on September 13, 2009.

Blacknell, age 21, faces 22 felony counts stemming from his alleged involvement in two days of mayhem spanning six months and two cities. Blacknell is accused of killing Marcus Russell, a local East Bay rapper, and wounding Russell’s female companion on March 10, 2009, when attackers shot at the car Russell was driving east on I-580 Richmond, riddling it with bullets until it careened off the highway.

Blacknell is also accused of shooting four people on September 13 that same year and carjacking an 80-year-old Oakland resident, all during a crime spree police and prosecutors say was motivated by gang feuds. Butts said during opening statements on January 17 that Blacknell’s south Richmond gang, Easter Hill Boys, are allied with North Richmond gang members in an ongoing battle against Central Richmond neighborhoods, dubbed “Deep-C.”

Blacknell’s attorney, public defender Diana Garrido, says her client is innocent of all the charges, has an alibi for his whereabouts and has become a fall-guy for prosecutors eager for a conviction. At the time of his arrest, Blacknell, who goes by the street name “Fatter,” was already well-known to Richmond officers and detectives who suspected him of being a violent gang member.

The District Attorney’s Office is basing its case on eyewitness accounts linking Blacknell to stolen cars used in the crimes, a police chase that culminated in capturing Blacknell and recovering a firearm nearby, and at least one surviving gunshot victim expected to testify that Blacknell was the triggerman in Russell’s murder.

Opening statements were delivered Jan. 17 in Judge Thomas Haddock’s court in Martinez. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

On the trial’s third day, Butts continued to use testimony of crime victims and law enforcement personnel to establish a pattern of criminal activity linked to the defendant. Butts’ case alleges that Blacknell was often armed with handguns and high-capacity magazines and motivated in part by a fanatic devotion to his neighborhood gang. Butts argued in his opening statements that Blacknell was hunting for retaliation for the killing of a gang associate years earlier when he killed Russell. Butts said Blacknell drove alongside Russell’s Nissan Maxima and waited for the victim to make eye contact before unleashing a deadly fusillade of 9 mm bullets into his car.

After three days of testimony, no witness has yet identified Blacknell as involved in any crime—although Butts has assured the jury that these witnesses will appear later—nor offered evidence directly linking him to the weapons used in the crimes.

Jensen’s testimony was the first on Thursday morning, and the most gripping. Jensen told the court that he chased an armed, fleeing man into a dark residential alcove on Sept. 13, moments before discharging his firearm on duty for the first time in his young career.

Granted permission by Judge Haddock, Jensen demonstrated at the courtroom’s entrance doors the way he remembers the events. Jensen said as he and Palma yelled for the the man prosecutors allege was Blacknell to surrender, the man attempted three times to jump a wooden gate before forcing it open just enough slip through.

As he made his escape by turning his body sideways and sliding through the opening, the man raised his trailing arm to aim a handgun at the officers, Jensen testified. As the jury looked on, Jensen mimicked the move, raising his right arm and rotating this fist parallel to the ground as if shooting a handgun sideways.

“I saw the gun pointed toward my partner’s face and I reacted,” Jensen said. Jensen testified he fired two shots at the man as he slipped through the fence.

Jensen’s testimony triggered the trial’s first instance of visible emotion from Blacknell. The defendant, seated about 15 feet away next to his attorney, scowled and shook his head side to side for several seconds while Jensen testified that the man aimed his gun at officers. Jensen testified that he and his partner fired five rounds total, all missing the suspect.

During cross-examination, Garrido homed in on Jensen’s inability to positively identify Blacknell at the time of the shooting, despite the man running by Jensen moments earlier as he had opened his cruiser door at Cutting Boulevard and South 18th Street. Jensen testified that he saw the side profile of the man and a gun in his hand, and that the height, build and complexion were consistent with Blacknell.

Like officers and detectives throughout the department, Jensen was familiar with Blacknell at the time.

“If I had seen his face while running I would have identified him as Joe Blacknell,” Jensen said.

In response to Garrido’s questions, Jensen told the court that he was about 25 feet from the man, and Palma even closer at only about 10 feet, when they fired five times at the suspect, after he allegedly pointed the gun. As his testimony wound down, Jensen told Garrido that he never saw a muzzle flash from the suspect’s gun.

Later, Richmond Police Det. Steve Harris gave lengthy testimony about the March 10, 2009, murder of Russell, a local rapper who went by the name “Young Smacka.” Prosecutors allege that Blacknell stalked Russell for weeks before killing him. Russell was driving toward Oakland on I-580 after a photoshoot in south Richmond when Blacknell, riding shotgun in his mother’s red minivan, pulled up alongside Russell and shot at least 11 rounds into the driver’s side of his car, prosecutors allege.

Harris said he was typing a report related to another homicide when his radio squawked with news of gunfire and a crashed car on I-580. Grabbing his gear and leaving from police headquarters at Marina Bay, Harris testified that he was on scene in less than 10 minutes.

Harris testified that on arrival to the scene, just before the Bayview Avenue exit, he encountered a one-quarter mile debris field of 9 mm Lugar shell casings leading to a downed chain link fence off the right shoulder of the freeway.

Beyond the fence, a bullet-riddled Nissan Maxima sat on Meade Street, which runs parallel to the freeway. A pool of fluids spread from under the car.  There were two victims – Russell and a young woman who rode in the passenger seat.

“The girl was on a gurney receiving medical attention, and on her cell phone,” Harris said. “[Russell] was being extricated from the vehicle.”

Under cross examination, Harris said he did not recall what the female victim was saying into her phone, and that his attempts to get Russell to implicate a shooter were unsuccessful.

“We are trained to attain a dying declaration, so that was my initial instinct,” Harris said.

Harris testified that he later attended Russell’s autopsy and conducted a thorough examination of the Maxima. Russell, Harris said, was shot several times in both legs, on the left side of his torso and the left side of his face.

The car sustained 11 gunshots to its driver side, Harris testified, all in a downward trajectory. The evidence indicates that the shooter was firing from a vehicle that sat higher than the victim’s car, Harris said. Prosecutors have alleged that Blacknell shot Russell from the passenger side of his mother’s red minivan, using a long-barreled assault rifle.

Other witnesses called by the prosecution Thursday included Tim Allen, a Contra Costa County Sheriff’s gang unit veteran, Richmond police officers Thor Simmons and Matthew Stonebraker, and an 82-year-old Oakland man who was carjacked on his way to a park to play dominoes. The procession of witnesses attempted to both link Blacknell to specific crimes and establish a history of gang activity, based in part on cell phone communications.

Allen testified that on June 18, 2009—three months after Russell’s murder but before the September crimes— two men in the North Richmond housing projects fled when they saw he and his partner’s cruiser. Both men ran from a car and escaped, but Allen said that cell phones found at the car and photos his partner showed him moments later led him to conclude that Blacknell was one of the fleeing men. Photos, call records and messages on the phones, which Allen said he turned over to Richmond Police Detectives, are expected to re-surface later in the trial as evidence of Blacknell’s whereabouts and alleged gang affiliations.

Other witnesses testified to the events of September 13, 2009, the day prosecutors allege Blacknell went on a crime spree that included two carjackings and three shootings.

Blacknell and unknown accomplices allegedly went on the crime spree to mark the three-year anniversary of the murder of Sean Melson, who was killed in North Richmond. Two alleged gang rivals were shot that morning in the Pullman Apartments, and later that morning a car containing a 30-year-old man and his 10-year-old niece was riddled with bullets at Eighth and Adeline Streets in Oakland. Witnesses reported a blue minivan at both crimes.

The van was dumped after the Oakland shooting, and a man was carjacked for his Chevrolet Malibu.

The last shooting was that evening in Richmond, when an alleged gang member survived two gunshot wounds he sustained in a drive-by at Harbour and Chanslor avenues.

The jury heard testimony Thursday from the 82-year-old man who was carjacked for his 2005 Silver Chevrolet Malibu near Eighth and Wood Streets in Oakland on the afternoon of Sept. 13.

The witness said a man got out of a “large blue van” and, wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and covering his face with one hand, came to his driver’s side window and asked for money. When the man replied that he didn’t have any, the suspect showed him a large handgun and told him he’d take his car instead.

The witness said there were at least three men in the van, but he was unable to identify Blacknell as an assailant. The man testified that he saw only one suspect up close, and that he only saw that man’s eyes, forehead and hand, and the assailant’s skin was “darker than me.” Blacknell’s complexion is significantly lighter than the witness’.

Richmond Police Officer Thor Simmons testified that he investigated the shooting that morning at the Pullman Apartment complex, which sent two suspected gang members to the hospital. Simmons said a witness told him the shooters were black males wearing black hooded sweatshirts and black masks, and fled in a blue minivan.

Later, after two more shootings and carjackings, Simmons testified that he searched the roof of a home near 16th Street and Hoffman Avenue, where Blacknell was arrested. Simmons testified that he found a 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun and 30-round magazine in a crevice in the roof. Prosecutors allege the gun was stashed there by Blacknell moments before his capture.

Officer Matthew Stonebraker testified that he booked Blacknell into custody on September 13, 2009. Stonebraker said he found a black neoprene mask and one black neoprene glove in a pocket in the front midsection of Blacknell’s hooded sweatshirt.

The courtroom was empty with the exception of Blacknell’s mother and grandmother, and the press. If convicted on all charges, Blacknell faces life in prison.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Monday.

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