“Pull over right quick. Hurry up!” James Johnson said from the front passenger seat.
An off-duty Pentagon police officer had confronted the men as they were breaking into cars on a dark, predawn morning in the parking lot in Takoma Park, Md., police said. No uniform, no siren, no badge, according to Thomas. Just his service weapon, pointed at Thomas’s black Lexus.
“I seen his eyes and I seen that gun, and God told me to duck,” Thomas said. “So I ducked and hit the gas, thinking that he was going to shoot — and that’s exactly what he did.”
Two of the rounds struck his friends’ upper backs. Within a minute, both went quiet — no longer responding as Thomas shouted their names louder and louder. Johnson fell into a seizure, according to Thomas. His body curled up and went limp — lurching into Thomas’s side as he made a frantic drive for help.
The unfolding terror and chaos, as described by Thomas in recent interviews, remains a largely untold part of a story of the encounter involving off-duty officer David Hall Dixon, who was charged with two counts of murder in the shooting that left Johnson and Williams dead. Police said the fleeing car posed no threat and Dixon had “no lawful or justifiable reason” to shoot as it drove away.
“My heart goes out to Michael,” said Erica Teel, a cousin of Williams who has been in regular contact with Thomas since the shootings. “Who can sit there and say, ‘I had to drive my best friends, as I heard them taking their last breaths, to the hospital to try to save their lives?’”
A dark parking lot
A central element to Thomas’s account — how he says the officer approached his car and fired while Thomas was driving away — tracks with parking lot surveillance video described in charging documents. The recollections also line up with what Thomas told detectives, according to Brian Shefferman, an attorney who represented Thomas during his interview by authorities.
“Michael wanted to tell them exactly what happened,” Shefferman said. “He was candid about everything.”
That included explaining why he and his friends were in the parking lot at 5 a.m. on April 7.
“We were breaking into cars,” he said. “It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all.”
At the time, on the seventh floor of the 12-story Takoma Overlook condo building, Dixon, 40, left for work. It would be a 10-mile drive to his position at the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the police department responsible for security at the Pentagon. Before that, he worked as a police officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Md., served as a military police officer with the U.S. Army Reserve, and was a combat crew communications specialist in the Air Force.
In his four years at the Takoma Overlook, where he lived with his wife, Dixon struck some as a pleasant resident who enjoyed walking his dogs. But his time there was not without problems. On May 6, at 3 a.m., Dixon confronted a homeless woman in the lobby by pointing a shotgun five feet from her face, according to court filings and documents from the Takoma Overlook board of directors.
The incident prompted the condo board to advise Dixon to call 911 instead of intervening in situations that were not life-threatening. They also instructed him to not “remove and display outside of a holster any firearm on the common area of the condominium,” according to the board documents. Dixon retained an attorney, according to the documents, and argued that as a federal police officer, he was “obligated to respond” to criminal activity. The matter was closed.
Less than a year later, as Dixon left the building that Wednesday morning and entered his car, he noticed a late-model Lexus without its headlights on, according to police allegations later filed in court. His suspicions raised, police said, he drove up to the Lexus so the vehicles were face-to-face.
'We hung together every day'
Inside the Lexus were three men who had been close for much of their lives.
Thomas was 7 when he met Johnson, another kid growing up in a large public housing project on the eastern edge of Washington. Athletic and outgoing, James learned early how to produce music and bought the equipment to make beats.
“He was like the first kid in the ’hood that knew how do to that,” Thomas said. “So everybody knew him, because everybody wanted to come and make a mix-tape or make a video.”
Johnson went on to start a DJ business, showing up to gigs with carnival-styled popcorn and cotton candy machines. One of his nicknames: “Crazo.”
“He was just a live wire,” Thomas said. “He was a very smart guy.”
Thomas was 21 when he met Williams, whom he quickly took to calling “Domo.” The young fathers bonded over their children. It became nothing, Thomas said, for Williams on the spur of the moment to pick up Thomas’s son and take him to a shoe store, a restaurant or Six Flags.
Into their 30s — Johnson at 38; Thomas, 36; and Williams, 32 — the three lived within miles of each other in D.C. and neighboring Maryland. “We hung together every day,” Thomas said.
'Don't do it!'
As the car approached them in the parking lot, Thomas recalled, his friends scrambled to get back inside.
“I think that’s the police,” Williams said.
Thomas wasn’t so sure. No flashing lights. And as the driver got out and headed for them, Thomas said, he wore no uniform and flashed no badge. Thomas worried they were about to get robbed.
“I instantly put the car in reverse,” he said.
Thomas said he executed a wide U-turn, which moved him from a back row of the parking lot to a front row. He was now facing the exit. But the maneuver left his car momentarily paused, Thomas said, with the man running to the front driver’s side of the Lexus — gun drawn.
“Cut your car off! Don’t do it! Cut your car off! Don’t do it,” Thomas recalled the man yelled.
Thomas said he veered to his right to avoid the man. In a court affidavit, Takoma Park police Capt. Richard Cipperly described what the surveillance camera picked up next.
“A review of the recording by investigators,” Cipperly wrote, “showed the defendant confronting the subjects at their vehicle and then firing several rounds toward the vehicle while standing behind it as it was leaving the parking lot.”
Thomas didn’t realize at first his friends had been hit. And even when Williams said so from the back seat, his calm voice suggested he’d survive. From the passenger seat, Johnson started giving directions to a hospital.
Seconds later, though, he asked Thomas to pull over. Then he started shaking.
“His whole body just started curling up,” Thomas said. “His arms curled up.”
Thomas called out his name.
“James! James!” he yelled, shaking his friend’s body. “James!”
No answer. Darting his head back, Thomas saw no response from the back seat either.
He called his mom and sister. Someone had just shot Domo, just shot Crazo, just shot at him. He was trying to get to Prince George’s Hospital Center.
“I’m scared! I’m scared!” he told them. “I think they’re dead!”
Thomas pulled up directly to the trauma entrance, parking his car just feet away. Moments later, nurses pulled out his friends’ bodies onto stretchers. The flurry of action gave him hope. Maybe one will make it, he thought.
A hospital security guard came out, noting bullet holes in the back of the car.
“What happened?” Thomas remembers being asked.
He didn’t really know. Maybe Williams was right: It had been a police officer. And whoever it was, Thomas thought, maybe he would be coming for him.
“You know what,” he told the security officer. “I’m gone. I gotta go.”
Minutes later, his mom, his sister and his sister’s 5-year-old son — riding along because they couldn’t leave him alone — pulled up. They found Thomas nearby, next to a parking garage.
“Michael, get in the car. Please get in,” his mother said.
Able to catch his breath, Thomas collected himself. He called Williams’s girlfriend and Johnson’s aunt, told them what happened and said they needed to get to Prince George’s Hospital immediately.
Hours later — at his mom’s apartment in Southeast Washington, surrounded by siblings who’d come to be with him — dire facts and haunting questions mounted.
Thomas heard back from William’s girlfriend and Johnson’s aunt. His friends were dead. The police would soon be connecting his car to him. Conversation, Thomas recalled, surfaced of what might happen to him.
“Hopefully they don’t try to charge you with their murders.”
“Them his friends, they can’t do that.”
“You know what, they probably can.”
Thomas’s mother called Shefferman, an attorney she knew from an earlier traffic case, who soon was talking to one of the law enforcement officers trying to piece together what happened outside the condo building.
“Michael,” Shefferman told a prosecutor, “wants to tell the police what happened.”
No 'immediate threat'
Within 40 hours, according to court records, Takoma Park investigators had obtained an arrest warrant against Dixon, charged him with two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Williams and Johnson, and one count of attempted second-degree murder in the shooting at Thomas. Detectives said in court documents that the fleeing Lexus “no longer presented an immediate threat” to Dixon.
“The Lexus had multiple bullet holes in the rear of the vehicle,” detectives wrote in charging documents.
After his arrest, Dixon applied for the services of the Maryland Public Defender’s Office based in Montgomery County. That office represented him at a brief court hearing Monday, but no details of the case were addressed. It is unclear if Dixon will seek private counsel. Allen Wolf, the chief public defender in Montgomery County, declined to comment. A relative of Dixon’s, reached in California, said the family did not want to comment.
Charging documents indicate Dixon tried to pin the blame on Thomas. During the parking lot encounter, Dixon had told investigators, he was nearly run over by the Lexus as he fired several shots to defend himself.
There is no indication, from charging documents or statements made by public officials, that they found any weapons in the Lexus.
Thomas said there was no gun in his car, which he told investigators. And he added no one could see inside his car, especially at night, because the windows are so darkly tinted.
“You couldn’t see through them while the sun was out in Miami, Florida,” he said.
Takoma Park Police Chief Antonio DeVaul has acknowledged that the three men had come to the parking lot to steal from cars. But he indicated that Thomas has been through enough.
“We have no intention of charging the survivor of this incident with a crime,” DeVaul said. “They were victims; all three were victims in this particular case.”
Thomas lost his hotel job — as a houseman at a D.C. hotel — to the pandemic last year. In the week since the shooting, his emotions have swung from anger to guilt to complete despair. He set up appointments with a therapist.
“No one’s life was threatened that night, until he shot his gun,” Thomas said.
He knows his drive to the hospital, which extended to 30 minutes, took too long. But behind the wheel — with his friends unconscious, on roads he didn’t know and worried the shooter might be in pursuit — clear thinking got pushed aside. Thomas said he called 911, told the operator his friends had been shot, but hung up after they asked him to pull over to wait for an ambulance. Surely, Thomas thought, he’d get to Prince George’s Hospital faster if he kept moving, if he’d just recognize a road that could take him there.
It was only later that Thomas realized he’d been closer to two other emergency rooms.
“I was so in panic,” Thomas said.
And the horror of why remains.
“As soon as I close my eyes, I see me calling their names, trying to wake James up, reaching in the back, trying to wake Domo up, saying, ‘I know this man did not just kill y’all.’”