The Million-Dollar Jackpot
Word started circulating in certain nefarious circles in Brooklyn in early 2006 that 40-year-old John Allen Davis was a mere shell of his former dope-dealing self, having been hospitalized with bacterial meningitis for a month and spending more than a week of that in a coma. One of his eyes was partially closed, he could hardly hear, and he needed help just to walk. He was "food," robbers were saying, ripe for the picking.
On January 19, 2006, some robbers recruited a big thug named Derrick Gordon and laid out a plan to satisfy their hunger. "They tellin' me they got a food," Gordon later told investigators. "They tellin' me they got a drug dealer with a hundred thousand at the house. Whatever, whatever. They say it's going to be easy. He just gonna give it up."
But the next day, when Gordon and a gun-wielding pal confronted Davis inside a Flatbush apartment, Davis fought like a trapped animal. Gordon had four inches and more than 100 pounds on him, but Davis succumbed only after the butt of a gun smashed his nose and a screwdriver poked holes in his head and lungs.
Even after the ferocious battle ended and Davis was dying, there was still much risky work afoot for Gordon. According Gordon's own statement to cops, he held four hostages at gunpoint while his cohorts searched for Davis's stash in his girlfriend's house down the street. Finally, after 30 tense minutes, Gordon's pals called to give him the clear-out signal.
The payoff wasn't immediatethe guys who recruited Gordon for the job told him that Davis had placed a "voodoo" curse on the money and that it had to be "washed" first. Gordon didn't believe in that shit, but what could he do but wait? He eventually got his cut: a sweet $15,000. Not bad for a guy making $10 an hour doing deliveries for Fresh Direct. Though it may not have exactly been easy come, the 15 large was easy go.
"Blew it up on anything, partying, having a good time," he recalled. "It took me about two weeks."
It was only three months later, as he sat in the squad room of the 63rd Precinct and listened to two detectives lay out the case against him, that Gordon realized how his partners in crime had screwed him"royally," as his attorney put it.
While Gordon was doing the dirty work, his friends had found two duffel bags in an unlocked closet in the house of Davis's girlfriend. Inside the bags were 10 bundles wrapped carefully in black garbage bags and then encased in clear plastic wrap. Each bundle contained $100,000, making it a cool $1 million that the robbers had whisked out of the closet.
Nearly two years later, with Gordon now convicted of robbery, authorities still have no idea what happened to the million bucksexcept for Gordon's $15,000, which he no longer thinks is so sweet.
Exactly how John Davis became a millionaire remains somewhat of a mystery. When asked by the Voice if the family would talk about Davis's life, one of his brothers politely replied, "Never."
Cops and prosecutors say they can't explain exactly how Davis, whose rap sheet contained a single drug conviction for which he served less than two years, had socked away $1 million. Pittsburgh attorney Bill Difenderfer, who was Davis's lawyer for that lone drug case, chuckles as he gives the obvious answer: "I can tell you: He sold a lot of drugs."
Much of the tale has unfolded during the past six weeks on the 21st floor of Kings County Supreme Court, where Gordonthe only member of the robbery crew who has ever been caughtstood trial for Davis's death.
Davis's girlfriend, Tara MacGregor, now 32 and working for a stock brokerage, testified she knew that Davis sold marijuana but thought he had stopped dealing drugs after getting out of jail in 2000. She said she thought he worked construction and, more recently, had started dabbling in real estate. Gordon's attorney, Barry Krinsky, ridiculed MacGregor's claim by asking how someone supposedly working construction could afford to buy both a $600,000 three-residence house on East 55th Street in Brooklyn and an apartment building in Pittsburgh, as Davis did in the fall of 2005. Krinsky claimed that Davis's burgeoning real-estate career was just a way to launder money from his continuing drug dealing.
Davis had a bigger rep while living in Pittsburgh in the '90s than he ever did in Brooklyn. He was connected with some of the Iron City's biggest drug dealers. That association was put on ice on June 11, 1998, when a man named Roderick "Wolfdog" Thornhill set up a deal to buy crack from Davis in Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood. Using the alias "Michael Brian White," Davis was arrested after showing up with his three-year-old son in the front seat of his Toyota Camry and a half-kilogram of crack in a grocery bag in the back. Wolfdog had set Davis up for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to whittle down the time he faced after getting pinched selling heroin.
Wolfdog was intimately connected to Pittsburgh's circle of dealers and snitched on some of the city's heaviest hitters, including Terrance Cole, recently described by a newspaper there as "the biggest cocaine kingpin in Western Pennsylvania history." Nicknamed "The Boss" and "Big Head," Cole was known to fancy $2,000 blue alligator shoes and socialize with celebrities. Last year, after Cole was convicted of racketeering charges and sent away for life, drug agents discovered $2.2 million in a suitcase hidden in his girlfriend's closet.
Federal prosecutors arguing for a sentence reduction for Wolfdog in 2000 outlined some of the drug dealers he helped take down. Included on Wolfdog's hit list with Cole and other narco bigwigs was Davis, whom the officials described in court papers as "a well known city trafficker."
According to court records, Davis pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute crack in August 1998 and signed a cooperation agreement. There is no mention of what type of assistance he provided to law-enforcement agencies, if any.
He was released in April 2000 on probation after serving 22 months. If Davis continued in the drug business after his release from prison, the cops never caught him at it again. Within a year, he was trying to finagle an early-probation transfer to Brooklyn. According to probation records, Davis listed himself as a "talent scout" in the music industry and claimed that returning to New York was a necessary career move. Pittsburgh probation authorities found "very little documentation of legitimate employment or efforts to obtain employment" and turned down several requests before finally agreeing. In December 2004, his probation case was finally transferred and he moved in with his mother in Flatbush.
There, he resumed his relationship with Tara MacGregor, whom he had first met in 1991, when she was 15 and he was 25. Their on-and-off relationship was in the off mode in November 2005, she testified, when one of Davis's friends stuck a note in her mailbox: John Davis was in the hospital. MacGregor called Davis's mother, confirmed his condition, and rushed to Downstate Hospital. Not only was he sick with bacterial meningitis, he was in a coma. He regained consciousness after a week but remained hospitalized for more than a month. MacGregor said she visited him every day. Two weeks before Christmas that year, doctors cleared Davis to go home, but he was a mess. MacGregor tallied the damage: "Memory loss, couldn't hear, his right eye was closed, and he couldn't feel anything from the waist down."
She said she settled into a routine of going to the home of Davis's mother every evening to take care of her boyfriend. And then one night, she recalled, Davis turned to her while lying in bed and said, "I know I have a lot of money somewhere. I just don't remember where it is."
She had heard him brag of having a large stash of money, but, according to MacGregor, he never told her how much. She said she told him that night, "You've just got to try to remember where it is." For the next couple of hours, she said, Davis lay in bed just staring off into space, while MacGregor drifted off. Then it hit him. He shook her awake and said, "Come with me." In the middle of the night, they quietly padded into his mother's basement. Davis overturned an ottoman. Inside was the meticulously wrapped million bucks.
It was four in the morning, MacGregor recalled, but Davis told her to immediately drive the money to her house, some 15 blocks away, because he didn't trust keeping it at his mother's anymore. The next day he moved in with MacGregor and stashed a .40-caliber handgun under her bed.
Less than three weeks later, on January 19, 2006, 28-year-old Derrick Gordon was at his girlfriend's Brownsville apartment when he got a call from two of his childhood friends, "Trims" and "Feda." The duo, whose real names he claims not to know, came over about 20 minutes later and told him about the "food"the tasty John Davis: "The guy, he got 100 grand in the crib."
The mastermind behind the scheme, Gordon was told, was a mystery man who had done drug deals with Davis in the past. Gordon referred to him only as "the old guy" or the "big dude" and said he knew nothing else about him except he had given orders that he wanted Davis's Rolex.
In recent weeks, Davis had apparently come under secret surveillancenot by cops but by gangsters. Feda told Gordon that Davis came out of his girlfriend's home at 1220 East 55th Street every morning around eight o'clock and went to a two-story attached wood/brick home he had recently bought on the same block to let in the workers who were renovating it. Perfect setup for a robbery. "They basically said it was a walk-in, walk-out job," Gordon said.
The next morning at eight, Davis and Tara MacGregor emerged from her house, drove off in Davis's Lexus to grab some coffee and hot chocolate at a Dunkin' Donuts, and then returned to meet the workers at his new home at 1188 East 55th Street.
The robbers had been told to confront Davis before he went inside"They say he's paranoid and there's no way we're going to catch him unless we grab him [outside]," Gordon explainedbut they missed their chance.
A worker emerged to get supplies and left the door ajar, but the robbers hesitated and the worker returned and pulled the door shut behind him. But a few minutes later, MacGregor left the apartment, got in the Lexus, and drove off. (Later, she tearfully testified that she left because she'd run out of vacuum-cleaner bags.)
With MacGregor gone and the door open, Gordon and Trims sprang into action: "Me and Trims get out and walk down the block. When we get close enough, we see the door open, so we walk upstairs." Trims, who had a gun, ordered the three workers to get on the floor, while Gordon approached Davis.
"I tell him to lay, get down on the floor," Gordon recalled. "He starts yelling and screaming and saying, 'It's downstairs.' " Davis tried to push past him. But the six-foot-two, 260-pound Gordon grabbed the five-foot-10, 148-pound Davis and put him in a headlock. The two started wrestling.
As Gordon described it, Trims came over and screamed, "Yo, stop, man, stop." But "the Dread," as Gordon called Davis because of his hair style, kept fighting, so Trims pistol-whipped him. Davis went to the floor, blood pouring from his head, Gordon recalled, "but he's still fighting hard, fighting hard." Trims hit him again in the head with the gun, and when Davis looked up, Trims smashed him in the face with it. Davis still kept fighting. Gordon and Trims tried to duct-tape Davis's wrists and ankles, but he kicked out and kept fighting. So, Gordon said, Trims grabbed a screwdriver and started stabbing him with it while yelling, "Chill! Chill!"
In his death throes, Davis finally stopped struggling, and the robbers taped his wrists behind his back, put a pillowcase over his head, bound it to his neck with duct tape, and wrapped a cable-TV wire around his body. Feda, standing lookout outside, told them that MacGregor was returning. She went straight downstairs to resume cleaning, but the vacuum had come unplugged. When she went upstairs to plug it back in, Gordon pressed a gun to her temple.
After ordering her onto the floor, Gordon asked MacGregor where the money was. She feigned ignorance until Gordon pointed at her moaning boyfriend and threatened, "Don't make us do to you what we did to him." She produced the keys and told them that the money was in "the bedroom with the TV in it" in their other apartment.
Gordon said Trims took the keys and set off. While nervously training the weapon on the prostrate girlfriend and workers, Gordon muttered, "Damn, I wish I had a cigarette." MacGregor told him she had a pack in her bag. While squatting on a five-gallon plastic bucket, keeping watch and smoking, Gordon realized that Davis was "breathing funny." He stubbed out his Newport in the kitchen and called Trims's cell phone. It went straight to voicemail.
Trims called him right back, and Gordon said, "Yo, dude's sounding real bad, sounding like something's wrong. We have to get outta here." Gordon said he told MacGregor to count to 20 before calling the ambulance. Then he scrambled down the stairs and fled. Another accomplice drove him to the house of the "big dude," but he was told he'd get his share later because "the money gotta be washed. The dude [Davis] put voodoo on the money. We got to clean the money first. They into that stuff."
The beating was so brutal that police initially reported to the media that Davis had been shot in the headone newspaper story even described it as "execution-style." The holes in his head, however, were not caused by bullets but the screwdriver. Davis, who had a broken nose and partially deflated lung, wound up suffocating in the pillowcase.
The money disappeared into Brooklyn's underworld.
Immediately after the murder, Derrick Gordon and the guy who pulled the job with him talked about leaving town . But they waited it out and, after a month had passed, Gordon later told police, he thought they'd gotten away with it. He probably would have too, if not for the smoke break he took to calm his jangled nerves that chaotic morning.
Until March 31, 2006, detectives had no idea at all who killed John Davis. Then, in the time it took for a fax to be transmitted, there emerged a lead-pipe lock of a suspect: Derrick Gordon. The crime lab matched the DNA on a cigarette stubbed out in Davis's apartment to a DNA sample Gordon was forced to supply after being convicted of possessing a .40-caliber Beretta in Schenectady in 2002Gordon's only other arrest prior to this one. On April 13, 2006, Gordon's parole officer called him in for an unscheduled meeting. When he arrived, he was met by detectives who drove him to Brooklyn's 63rd Precinct. Less than eight hours later, Gordon cracked, police say.
Fast-forward to September 10, 2007, in Kings County Supreme Court. Before the start of a hearing on the admissibility of the statements Derrick Gordon made to detectives in April 2006, the judge's clerk asked Assistant District Attorney Timothy Gough how many minutes the videotape he was going to play lasted. Gough, a senior prosecutor in the homicide bureau, turned to his adversary and said, "I don't knowBarry, how long do you think it is?"
"Too long," Barry Krinsky, Gordon's lawyer, replied. The veteran defense attorney's wry assessment was borne out a short time later when the "play" button was pushed.
The star of the show, Derrick Gordon, was dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, and he wore an all-white Yankee cap with its straight bill pulled down low. The behemoth Gordon nodded through his Miranda warnings before Assistant District Attorney Rob Walsh started him down his road to ruin by simply saying, "Mr. Gordon, why don't you take it from the top and tell me what happened."
Over the next 33 minutes, Gordon matter-of-factly gave investigators all they needed. He provided chapter and verse of a robbery that had ended in a particularly gruesome death.
The videotaped confession, coupled with a statement Gordon gave to detectives Louis Pepe and Luis Yero, was so incriminating that the district attorney's office made no pretrial offer to Gordon. Twenty-five to life, the maximum, take it or leave it.
The only question left after viewing the tape was, why did Gordon talk so much? It's not as if anyone else had rolled over on Gordonhis gun-wielding pal, Trims, and the other robbers have never been caught. Gordon bore no signs of physical abuse. He wasn't offered a deal, and he wasn't cooperating against someone else. Yet he calmly gave it up, all of it. He didn't even try to diminish his role in the fatal attack. At a September 17 hearing on the defense's attempt to suppress Gordon's confession, it became clear why the thug talked so much.
Detective Pepe admitted that after Gordon initially denied having anything to do with the murder, Pepe used a series of lies to trick Gordon into confessing. Most were the typical kind of fibs that cops use on suspects: Four witnesses identified Gordon in a lineup (only one did); his DNA was all over the crime scene (they had only one cigarette butt); and his co-conspirators were talking and were blaming him (the cops hadn't even identified them). In this case, however, the cops used an unusually big whopper. They told Gordon that Davis had died of a stroke, not from being pistol-whipped, stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver, and asphyxiated with the pillowcase.
Krinsky argued to the judge that the detectives' ruse effectively deceived Gordon into waiving his Miranda rights and, as such, his statements and videotaped confession should be thrown out as "fruit of the poisonous tree."
Judge L. Priscilla Hall acknowledged that the confession concerned her. "Most of the lies that the officer told," she said in court, "are nothing out of the ordinary, except the one where he tells him the person didn't die because of a homicide but he died because of a stroke. . . . That seems to be a little differentsubstantially different." She told the lawyers on both sides to file briefs on the issue.
But for all the concern she voiced at that hearing, her ruling on October 11 was anticlimactic: Her written decision allowed Gordon's confession to be used, and it contained no comment on the detectives' tactics.
When Gordon's trial started a few days later, one of the first things the prosecutor showed the jury was the videotaped confession that Gordon's lawyer had unsuccessfully fought to keep out of the jurors' sight .
In the end, however, Gordon was pretty lucky. Last Friday, the jury found him guilty of robbery but acquitted him on the charge of second-degree murder.
The fact that John Davis was murdered less than three weeks after moving his money into Tara MacGregor's home had prompted Gordon's attorney to accuse her during the trial of being the "mastermind" behind the crime.
"You set the whole thing up, didn't you, Miss MacGregor?" Krinsky said.
MacGregor responded with an indignant "Absolutely not!" She wasn't shaken then or at any time during her tear-filled testimony. In fact, if Gordon's own words weren't enough to sink him on the murder charge, then MacGregor's at least were enough to get him on the robbery. A blonde with dark eyebrows who looks like a cross between Marcia and Jan Brady, MacGregor told the jury between sobs that it was Gordon who put the gun to her temple when she walked into the second-floor apartment, and Gordon who ordered her to the floor, and Gordon who threatened to hurt her unless she told them where the money was. It was also Gordon, she said, who added insult to her boyfriend's mortal injuries by musing out loud while holding her hostage, "I wonder why he's with you. You have a fat ass."
There are a million neatly bundled reasons why Derrick Gordon got into trouble. One of them is that he just didn't know how to keep his mouth shut.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.