A preliminary hearing got underway Monday for a 18-year-old former Palos Verdes High School student accused of driving the getaway car in a fatal South Los Angeles shooting, with testimony centering on whether the defendant was affiliated with a local gang.
Cameron Terrell is facing one count of murder in the Oct. 1 shooting death of 21-year-old Justin Holmes, plus two counts of attempted murder and a gang allegation.
A gang expert is set to testify Tuesday in the preliminary hearing, which will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to order Terrell to proceed to trial.
Los Angeles police homicide Detective Stacey Szymkowiak, the prosecution’s first witness, testified that Holmes and two friends were walking on 78th Street near South Western Avenue when two teens turned out of an alley. One of the two asked, “Where are you from?” and pulled a handgun out of his blue hooded sweatshirt, according to the detective.
One of the three friends yelled, “Run!” and all three took off as four to five shots were fired, she said.
“Justin was hit (twice) and fell,” Szymkowiak said, testifying that an autopsy showed a bullet fired into his back proved fatal.
One of the Holmes’ friends alerted a local business and then ran back to stay with him until paramedics arrived. He later identified the 16-year-old shooter, an alleged gang member, from a “six-pack” of suspects provided by police, but said he didn’t know either teen who came out of the alley.
A chrome .38 Special revolver and ammunition were recovered from the 16-year-old’s home and he admitted to firing on Holmes, according to Szymkowiak.
Surveillance video captured the 16-year-old and another juvenile jumping into the back seat of a black Mercedes-Benz sedan after the shooting. The car, which was seen in other footage turning into the alley in question, was registered to Terrell’s father and was typically driven by Terrell, the detective said.
Szymkowiak said she interviewed Terrell 11 days after the shooting and “by the end of the conversation, he admitted that he was driving the car at the time.”
However, he also told the detective that the other two guys had been talking about “tagging” and that he didn’t know they planned to shoot anyone, according to the witness.
“He said he never let people inside his vehicle with firearms,” Szymkowiak testified.
A search of the Mercedes uncovered a light blue jersey with gang insignia and also, the detective said under cross-examination, a backpack with a spray paint can inside.
During cross-examination, Szymkowiak testified that the alleged shooter told her it looked like Holmes or someone in his group “might have, could have” had a gun and seemed to be reaching for his waistband. Police say Holmes and his two friends — who were named only by their initials in the criminal complaint citing them as victims of attempted murder — had no gang affiliations.
Terrell gave his cell phone to police along with his passcode and investigators found multiple videos and photos of the defendant flashing gang signs and showing off a curly W tattoo on his chest, Syzmkowiak said.
“He said he got (the tattoo) before he knew anything about (local gangs) … because he saw it on Kevin Durant and he thought it was cool,” the detective said.
One video showed the 16-year-old alleged shooter kicking over and breaking candles placed at the site where Holmes was killed. When the prosecutor played the video, a woman from the gallery filled with the victim’s family and friends stood up and left the courtroom.
However, Terrell insisted to police that he wasn’t a gang member, was “never officially jumped in” and didn’t take orders from “big homies,” though he told the detective that others might consider him a member, according to Szymkowiak’s testimony.
Defense attorney Jovan Blacknell stressed that his client was sitting in the car in the alley out of sight of the other two teens when he heard gunshots and that he drove away rather than toward the shooting.
Near the end of the detective’s testimony, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar asked whether Terrell had a gang moniker.
Szymkowiak said Terrell’s phone showed him referring to himself as “Milk,” despite the fact that he said he wasn’t in the gang.
Blacknell pointed out that the criminal complaint refers to Terrell as “White Boy” and asked her to explain the discrepancy.
“I’m not sure how that ended up in there,” the detective said.
Terrell and the two juvenile suspects were arrested Oct. 12. Terrell posted $5 million bail, prompting parents at Palos Verdes High School to call for his suspension when he returned to classes.
His parents — identified by the Daily Breeze as media consulting firm president Donald Wayne Terrell and interior designer Debra Terrell — agreed to pull him out of classes.
His attorney said Terrell is continuing to work toward finishing his high school education, though he did not say whether he is being home-schooled or attending classes elsewhere.
The two juveniles arrested are awaiting transfer to adult court.
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