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State v. Wheeler

October 30, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Indictment No. 02-10-1347.

Per curiam.


Submitted: September 19, 2007

Before Judges Cuff, Lihotz and Simonelli.

Following a jury trial, defendant was convicted of aggravated manslaughter, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a (count one); possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a (count two); and unlawful possession of a weapon, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b (count three). At sentencing, counts two and three merged with count one, and defendant was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment subject to an 85% No Early Release Act*fn1 (NERA) parole ineligibility term. The judge also imposed a restitution award against defendant in the amount of $25,000, a $1000 VCCB penalty, a $75 Safe Neighborhood assessment, and a $30 Law Enforcement Officers Training and Equipment Fund penalty.

The events leading to the death of James "Peanut" Anderson in the early morning hours of May 29, 2002, on the streets of Passaic commenced in April 2002. At that time, Romaine*fn2 York was a close friend of Anderson. York managed a nightclub in Passaic that Anderson frequented. York was also a drug dealer. Through Anderson, York met a group of men from Pittsburgh in the market for a sizeable quantity of drugs. The group was referred to as the Pittsburgh Crew. Co-defendant Tremayne Laman Briston, also known as "Fat Boy" and "Munch," was a member of the group and met with York several times during April and May 2002.

The quantity of drugs sought by the Pittsburgh Crew exceeded the amount that York customarily was able to acquire.

From the record it appears that Briston advanced York money to acquire the drugs. York insisted that the money was stolen from him when he and Anderson went to Newark to buy the drugs. York also insisted that he had been shot in the leg during the robbery. The Pittsburgh Crew suspected that York had stolen the money advanced by them.

By the end of May, Anderson sought to borrow $10,000 from York to repay the Pittsburgh Crew. York agreed to loan him the money. Anderson had been contacted earlier in the evening of May 28 by his brother, Ronald, at the behest of Briston. According to Ronald, Briston was accompanied by three men from the Pittsburgh Crew, Briston was not "bad-mouthing" Anderson, and did not seem to be in an aggressive mood or carrying any weapons.

Tyrone Sanders was at the T & L Lounge on Main Avenue in Passaic that evening and saw the Pittsburgh Crew. Briston asked him if Anderson had been robbed in Newark. According to Tyrone, Briston told him to call Anderson and tell him that his family was in danger if he did not bring the money that Anderson owed him. Tyrone was not able to speak to or leave a message for Anderson.

At approximately 12:30 a.m. on May 29, 2002, York met Anderson and Victor Sanders, a brother of Tyrone, in Passaic.

York, clothed in a bullet proof vest, had the money and carried a .40 caliber gun loaded with nine bullets. The three men drove to the T & L Lounge.

Briston and some of "his people" were outside the lounge. Briston and Anderson met, talked, and Anderson tried to give Briston the money. Briston, however, was angry that Anderson had not returned his phone calls. York overheard Briston say to Anderson, "I beat two homicides, I'll beat this one, too." Briston then grabbed a black .40 caliber gun from a "short dude" standing next to him, pointed it at Anderson and said, "I'm going to blow your mother fuckin' head off."

York tried to explain that they had been robbed and showed Briston where he had been shot. York also told Anderson that they should cross the street and join Victor Sanders at the gas station. At that point, Briston started to shoot.

When the shooting commenced, Anderson ran to the left and York ran to the right. York saw defendant across the street standing between a van and a car. According to him, Briston, defendant, the "short dude," and a man known as "Hit Man" were shooting guns. "Hit Man" was standing in the parking lot of the lounge.

York ran from the scene. As he did so, he observed a flash from a gun by the car and van where defendant stood. Victor Sanders, who had crossed the street before the shooting erupted, testified that he saw defendant near a van and firing a weapon. Sanders also saw Briston shooting at Anderson. Sanders left the scene when a rifle he was carrying jammed as he tried to fire it.

When Sanders returned to the scene, Anderson was lying in front of two cars in front of the gas station. By the time York returned to the scene, Anderson was being placed into an ambulance. No one from the Pittsburgh Crew was in the area. Anderson was taken to Passaic General Hospital where he died.

The police found Anderson lying face up in front of the gas station at 901 Main Avenue, across the street from the T & L Lounge. The body was partly on the sidewalk and partly in the street.

The police retrieved a black .38 caliber revolver about two feet from the victim's body, underneath a white Toyota parked in the gas station. The gun was closer to Anderson's left hand and contained three live bullets and one spent casing.

The police also retrieved eleven .40 caliber shell casings from the parking lot of the T & L Lounge. No casings were found in the street. A projectile was found in front of the white Toyota. That car also had what appeared to be a bullet hole in the driver's side door, and there appeared to be blood by the car. Other projectiles were found near the gas pump and in front of the gas station, and the gas pump appeared to be damaged. In addition, a projectile was found lodged in the entranceway of 901 Main Avenue and there were suspected holes in the wall.

No spent shotgun or assault rifle shells were found at the scene, and no nine-millimeter shells were found. No shells were found by the victim's body.

According to Detective Nelson Carrasquillo of the crime scene investigation unit of the Passaic County Sheriff's Department, an automatic weapon, such as a .40 caliber, ejects its casings after it is shot, whereas a revolver, such as a .38 caliber, retains its casings. The detective could not determine how many weapons were used to fire the eleven casings found at the scene.

It was stipulated that Anderson died from multiple gunshot wounds. Specifically, he had: a gunshot wound to the head that entered from the back and exited through the front; a gunshot wound to the back that entered in the midback area and exited through the upper chest; a gunshot wound to the hip that entered on the right hip and exited at the top of the buttocks; a gunshot wound to the left leg that entered from the outside of the leg and exited from the inside of the leg; and a gunshot graze wound to the left palm. All gunshots had exited the body; therefore, there were no projectiles inside the body. There was also no evidence of powder or stippling in any of the wound sites.

Based on the statements given to the police by York, Victor and Tyrone Sanders, and Ronald Anderson, four men were taken into custody on June 10, ...

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