ELYRIA — Reluctant witnesses, allegations of intimidation by gang members and a shouting match in the hallway of the Lorain County Justice Center prompted a county judge on Thursday to restrict access to the reckless homicide trial of Alverno Howse Jr.
“From the court’s perspective, there is a danger to many of these witnesses,” Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski said as he explained his decision.
Betleski said he will limit the number of people in the courtroom supporting Howse and those who were friends and family of Charles “Chuckie” Howard Jr., whom Howse is accused of shooting and killing on Aug. 19.
The courtroom will be entirely cleared, except for the media, today during the testimony of one witness, whom Betleski said appeared so nervous during her brief time on the stand Thursday that she looked nauseous, and for the testimony of a confidential informant to whom Howse allegedly confessed.
Betleski also ordered the media not to report the name of the witness who will resume testifying today and that of the informant. The Chronicle-Telegram had agreed not to report the name of the informant before Betleski announced his decision but had made no agreement regarding the other witness.
The witness who was testifying Thursday gave conflicting accounts of what happened in the Taft Avenue home the day that Howard was shot.
She first said Howse was there, then later said she couldn’t be sure and didn’t remember.
Prosecutors suggested that was due to intimidation from at least one of Howse’s supporters, a man who goes by the street name of “Mook Duke,” who was sitting in the courtroom.
The man reputedly is part of a gang known as the Middle Avenue Zone, which operates on the south side of Elyria.
The woman had told police and a county grand jury that Howse was alone in the room with Howard when Howard was shot, prosecutors said.
As Betleski was preparing to adjourn court Thursday morning so the woman could review her previous statements, shouts from the hallway sent deputies and Elyria police sprinting out of the courtroom.
Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Greiner later testified that an argument erupted between Jeris Nelson, another reputed member of the M.A. Zone, as the gang is commonly known, and a member of Howard’s family.
Greiner said when he got to the hallway, Howard’s father, the Rev. Charles Howard Sr., was standing between the two. He said he heard Nelson tell Howard’s family that “we rule these streets.”
Deputies split up the two sides, but there was still shouting back and forth between supporters of Howse and Howard’s family.
No one was arrested following the altercation and Betleski said it became no more physical than a chest bump, but prosecutors were concerned enough to ask Elyria police detectives to investigate further.
Detective Steve Zacharias testified he believes he’s identified “Mook Duke” as Gregory Raymore, a man he said has tremendous influence on the streets near the public housing at 1864 Middle Ave. Raymore was in the courtroom in the late morning, but he was barred from returning to the Justice Center later Thursday.
“The word on the street is there could be problems in this courtroom and on the streets,” Zacharias said.
Detective Larry Barbee testified that the M.A. Zone has been at the heart of a year-long dispute that has led to several shootings — including twice when Howse was the victim. He also said that witnesses who told him one thing during his investigation and when they appeared before a grand jury in December are now telling a different story.
“I can only attribute that to the fact that they’ve been intimidated,” Barbee said.
Assistant County Prosecutor Mike Kinlin warned jurors during his opening statement earlier this week that few witnesses in the case wanted to cooperate with police because they didn’t want to be labeled “snitches.”
Being viewed as a snitch can have dire consequences, Barbee said.
“To me, it’s a person who talks to the police, but to a person on the street it’s a death wish,” he said.
Nelson and Clyde Anderson — another witness in the case who was indicted on unrelated weapons charges Thursday — both had told police and grand jurors that Howse was alone with Howard when he was shot. On Wednesday, they both insisted that they didn’t know who was with Howard when he was shot.
Kinlin said both have opened themselves up to felony perjury charges, which carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Mike Camera, Howse’s defense attorney, has suggested that police intimidated the witnesses in the case to get them to say that Howse was at the shooting scene. Barbee, Anderson testified earlier in the trial, threatened to charge him with the shooting if he didn’t cooperate.
Camera opposed closing the courtroom, arguing the trial should remain fully open to the public.
Meanwhile, Elyria police Lt. Andy Eichenlaub said police are concerned about what might happen outside the Justice Center.
“We’re advising the officers that there may be some heightened emotions because of this trial,” Eichenlaub said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.