Testimony: Co-defendant identified 16-year-old as shooter in Iraq War veteran's murder

Testimony: Co-defendant identified 16-year-old as shooter in Iraq War veteran's murder
(L-R) Charleston Wells, Ahmad Johnson, De’Ron Keith Lucas, of McCalla, 16-year-old Darrian D. Bryant
Mike Gilotti. Source: Family photo
Mike Gilotti. Source: Family photo
Mike Gilotti. Source: Family photo
Mike Gilotti. Source: Family photo
Police say Mike Gilotti was killed in front of his home in the Lake Cyrus subdivision of Hoover. Source: WBRC video
Police say Mike Gilotti was killed in front of his home in the Lake Cyrus subdivision of Hoover. Source: WBRC video

HOOVER, AL (WBRC) - A Hoover police investigator testified Tuesday that 16-year-old Charleston Wells was identified by a co-defendant as the person who fatally shot Iraq War veteran Mike Gilotti in early January.

Sgt. Mike Czeskleba testified that co-defendant Darrian Bryant, 16, made a statement to police in which he identified Wells as the shooter after a night of vehicle break-ins and a truck theft in a two-county crime spree.

Czeskleba said in the statement Bryant identified Wells, 17-year-old Ahmad Johnson, 19-year-old De'Ron Lucas and himself as among the individuals who traveled to Tuscaloosa and then to Hoover in the early morning hours of Jan. 5.

After checking several vehicles along the 5500 block of Park Side Circle to see if they were unlocked, Czeskleba testified that Bryant, Wells, Johnson and Lucas were about to leave the street when they saw the 33-year-old husband and father of two walk out of his house on the way to a pre-dawn workout.

"They all loaded back up into the truck and started to drive off, but saw Mr. Gilotti going to his vehicle," Sgt. Czeskleba testified that Bryant told investigators.

Sgt. Czeskleba told the court Bryant identified Johnson as the driver of a stolen Ford F-250 that had been seen in the Lake Cyrus neighborhood at the time of Gilotti's murder. Czeskleba said Bryant identified Wells as a passenger in the front seat, while Bryant and Lucas sat in the backseat.

"Charleston got out of the truck and approached Gilotti," Czeskleba said Bryant told investigators. "Charleston asked for directions on how to get out of the neighborhood. He (Bryant) did not hear what he said, but Charleston produced a handgun and Gilotti turned and ran to make it inside."

"Charleston fired one shot, Gilotti fell to the ground and they began to exit the neighborhood," Czeskleba said based on Bryant's statement to investigators.

Czeskleba said witnesses in the neighborhood described hearing a noise that sounded like "thunder crashing after a lightning strike" at the time of the shooting.

One witness, the officer testified, heard what sounded like a vehicle with a large engine speed away immediately after the gunshot.

A day after Gilotti's murder, his father-in-law described his final moments as his wife found him on the front step of the home they shared with their two young sons.

"God, please forgive me for my sins," Guy Higgins described Gilotti saying before he died.

During Tuesday's testimony, prosecutors and Czeskleba discussed two firearms recovered when Bessemer police arrested Johnson in a stolen Chevrolet Malibu two days after the Gilotti shooting. Czeskleba said Johnson was in possession of a .40 caliber handgun and a 9mm firearm was found near the vehicle. The handguns were sent to the Department of Forensic Sciences to compare with a .40-caliber shell casing and 9mm shell casing found at the Lake Cyrus crime scene.

Czeskleba testified the 9mm matched the shell casing recovered at the scene. He said results of the .40-caliber comparison was inconclusive.

While Johnson was alone at the time of his arrest, Czeskleba said Wells fingerprints have been found identified in the stolen Malibu, as well as on the F-250 and a video game found in the truck and reported stolen from a vehicle several doors down from Gilotti's home.

During questioning by Charles Salvagio, Wells defense attorney, Czeskleba said investigators don't currently have any additional evidence that connects the gun with Wells.

Judge David Hobdy rejected motions to dismiss charges in the case for Wells and Johnson.

After the hearing, Salvagio called testimony about Bryant's police statement "self-serving."

"When he (Wells) was arrested there was nothing that connected him to this crime. Nothing. And then when they bring in a co-defendant at the last minute who now says yes, this is what happened. It's a weak case. We're going to see what kind of credibility Mr, Bryant's got," Salvagio said.

The prosecutor, Lane Tolbert, said the evidence points to suspects who were "getting bolder with every step."

"Sgt. Czeskleba put everything on the table of what we have for the defense," Tolbert said.

"We have witnesses who implicate both Ahmad Johnson and Charleston Wells in this murder. They've given statements and they have been corroborated by physical evidence. The physical evidence here, we have a weapon used in the Lake Cyrus murder that has been tested and comes back positive. We have a weapon used in Fultondale in a robbery two days earlier. We have the suspects on video the morning of this killing in Tuscaloosa as they come back from Tuscaloosa to Lake Cyrus."

In addition to details surrounding the Lake Cyrus murder, prosecutors presented a timeline that they believe led the suspects to the Jan. 5 shooting in Lake Cyrus, including:

  • Dec. 28, Trussville. Four unlocked vehicles broken into and a Toyota Tacoma stolen. The Tacoma was later found with what appeared to be Wells cell phone inside.
  • Dec. 31, McCalla. Chevrolet Silverado stolen from McCalla.
  • Jan. 1, Pelham. Resident watches two black males get out of a Chevrolet Silverado and check doors of vehicles in the subdivision. The males robbed the resident at gunpoint, taking money and a cell phone. A police chase followed on I-65 before the individuals in the Silverado eluded police in Bessemer. Prosecutors said the victim’s cell phone was traced to a phone call to Wells girlfriend. Investigators said Wells girlfriend confirmed she had spoken with Wells from that cell phone number.
  • Jan. 4, Fultondale. Two black males fire shots at resident as he leaves his home to get in his vehicle at 4:20am. Resident was uninjured, but saw suspects get in silver vehicle. 9mm and .40-caliber shell casings recovered from the scene. A Chevrolet Malibu was stolen the same night in Fultondale and the Chevrolet Silverado was recovered by authorities.
  • Jan. 5, McCalla. Chevrolet Tahoe stolen from Heritage Park subdivision.
  • Jan. 5, Tuscaloosa. Several vehicle break-ins reported with stolen items including .40-caliber SPEER brand ammunition. Ford F-250 reported stolen, then captured on surveillance video along with stolen Chevrolet Tahoe at 3:38am at MAPCO gas station.
  • Jan. 5, Hoover. Gilotti fatally shot in front of his Lake Cyrus home, nine vehicle break-ins discovered or reported.

Johnson, Wells and the other two suspects are scheduled to appear in court several times this month.

The next appearance is Thursday when Johnson and Wells appear in the Birmingham courthouse for a preliminary hearing concerning the Fultondale incident.

Related stories:

Teen charged with murder of Iraq war vet in Lake Cyrus 

Police recover truck connected to Lake Cyrus shooting death

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