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Durham Found Guilty of Tavern Triple Murder

By Petula Dvorak and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 10, 2005

For the past two weeks, Carlos Wilcox returned to Colonel Brooks' Tavern every night to share the latest courtroom drama.

The cooks, waitresses, hostess and bartender gathered around the polished wood bar as Wilcox provided every last detail from the trial of a man accused of taking part in the killing of three tavern employees in a botched robbery. The victims -- a cook, a dishwasher and the head chef -- had been herded into a walk-in refrigerator at the Northeast Washington restaurant and shot, execution-style.

Wilcox, who was the assistant manager on duty the morning of the April 6, 2003, slayings, sidled up to the bar yesterday with an announcement that brought relief to the tavern's family: A jury in D.C. Superior Court had found Rodman Durham guilty of murder and other charges.

Two other men pleaded guilty earlier in the case. A third, a former restaurant employee who allegedly acted as the ringleader, killed himself as authorities were closing in with a murder warrant. Durham, however, held out, denying his guilt.

During the trial in Judge Robert I. Richter's courtroom, defense attorney Jon W. Norris argued that Durham, 30, was not even at the tavern at the time of the killings and was framed by a friend. Norris also said that Durham was lying when, after his arrest in January 2004, he told police that he was a gunman in the crime. He said Durham gave a false confession out of desperation. Durham did not testify during the trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines said, however, that the detective work on the case was rock solid and that the jury believed the videotaped confession. The verdict came on the fifth day of deliberations.

"I am relieved, but there is no joy in this," Sines told the victims' relatives outside the courtroom after the verdict was read.

Police said the shooting began after cook Neomi Payne, 48, recognized one of the gunmen, David A. Wright, who had been fired from the tavern the previous summer. The robbers executed dishwasher Rodney Barnes, 47, and head chef Joshua Greenberg, 34, then turned and killed Payne as she begged for her life.

Wilcox was upstairs counting money when the gunmen arrived about 8:15 a.m. The restaurant was not yet open, and the workers had been preparing brunch. Wilcox survived by going out a door onto the roof and hiding while the robbers killed the other employees and stole about $3,000. Wilcox, who no longer works for the tavern, described his terror for the jury, sobbing so hard at one point that the panel had to be excused while he composed himself.

"Carlos Wilcox was not supposed to live. He was supposed to be executed that day. And he will suffer for the rest of his life because of this," Sines said.

The victims' family members, Wilcox and other co-workers had become increasingly anxious as the deliberations continued, worried that a trial that seemed to them a slam-dunk might go awry. Then, about 10:30 a.m. yesterday, the jury returned.

"When that verdict was read, we wanted to hug every juror. They were a great jury," Wilcox said. "This will never be over, but at least this chapter is over."

The panel of six men and six women convicted Durham of first-degree murder in Payne's death, for which he could receive a 60-year sentence; second-degree murder for the killings of Barnes and Greenberg, which carry a penalty of up to 40 years each; and weapons and conspiracy charges. His sentencing is set for Aug. 26.

Durham, of Hyattsville, could face significantly more prison time than two other defendants will face. Joel A. Smith and Tyree S. Bunn pleaded guilty last year to three counts of second-degree murder. Bunn, who testified against Durham, and Smith are to be sentenced later this month.

Wright killed himself in late January 2004.

Prosecutors said that Durham, then a student at Coppin State University in Baltimore, used a floor plan sketched by Wright to grab the money. Durham stood by as a backup while Wright shot Greenberg twice in the head, then did the same to Barnes, prosecutors said.

Payne, screaming and begging for her life, was next. Durham shot her in the body, not the head, as Wright had done to the other two. "She's feeling every single shot," Sines said. Wright then stepped in and shot her in the head, she said.

Afterward, the robbers went to a fast-food restaurant, spending a bit of their take from the holdup.

When police arrived at the tavern, food was burning in the oven, and the morning crew was dead inside the walk-in refrigerator.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company