It was before dawn on July 4, 2016, and the plan, according to one of the men involved, was to “make some moves” — their code for robberies for cash.
The four men piled into a white Pontiac and drove around parts of Northeast and Northwest Washington scanning the streets, Cyheme Hall, who said he was one of them, testified in court. Three of the men had guns, Hall said. They found their first victim on Eastern Avenue, someone who was “dressed as a woman, but had facial features like a man,” he said. “It was somebody that was gay.”
While one of the men stayed in the car, the other three rushed the victim, ordered her to put her hands in the air and pushed her to the ground, Hall, 23, said. They took $80, ran back to the car and sped off. A few bocks away they came across another transgender woman. Hall, 23, remembered one of the men saying, “Get ’em.”
Hall testified that he and his friend Montee Tyree Johnson, 23, jumped out of the car with their guns and pounced on the victim, thinking she’d give up her cash. But Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, 22, fought back.
Hall testified that Johnson pointed a gun at Dodds’s face and that Dodds grabbed the barrel with both hands. Hall said Johnson fired. The men grabbed Dodds’s silver clutch purse and cellphone as she lay bleeding on the sidewalk, Hall said.
“There was nothing in the purse,” he told the jury.
He said his group went on to commit another robbery of a group of people that night.
Days later, Dodds died of her injuries.
Details of the shooting of Dodds and other robberies were revealed in D.C. Superior Court over the past two weeks as prosecutors presented dozens of witnesses in the trial of Johnson, of Upper Marlboro, Md., and Jolanta Little, 28, of Southeast Washington. Both are charged with first-degree murder while armed, conspiracy, robbery and other counts. Prosecutors added hate crime enhancements to the charges, saying the men targeted transgender women.
In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Baset outlined the crimes and what he called “the sheer brutality that these four men unleased on the transgender community of Washington, D.C.”
Attorneys for Johnson and Little say both men are innocent. Little’s defense contends that Little, who was allegedly driving the car at the time while wearing a GPS ankle bracelet from a previous carjacking case, had no idea his passengers were committing robberies. Johnson’s attorney says he was wrongly identified by Hall and Hall’s brother, who also admits he was with the group and is expected to testify.
The trial began as a report found an increase in hate crimes in the nation’s capital. The District logged 209 hate crimes in 2018, up from 179 in 2017, 107 in 2016, and 66 in 2015, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a research center at California State University at San Bernardino. Hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity accounted for nearly half of the city’s total hate crimes last year, the study said.
The District recorded 61 crimes based on sexual orientation in 2018, up from 40 in 2016 and 56 in 2017, according to the study.
At the trial, two victims have testified they were robbed, but neither could identify the attackers.
On the night after the fatal shooting of Dobbs and the other robberies, one victim testified, she saw the white Pontiac and called police. The transgender woman told police she had been robbed at gunpoint less than a week earlier by a man in the same vehicle. The man, she told police, pointed a gun at her and ordered her to disrobe and run across the street.
The main evidence against Johnson and Little is the testimony of Hall and his older brother, 25-year-old Shareem. Both men were among the four people initially arrested and charged in the murder. The brothers agreed to cooperate with authorities and reached a deal to plead guilty to second-degree murder with a hope of securing leniency from prosecutors and the judge when they are sentenced.
Defense attorneys argued that the Hall brothers, who were kept together in the same cell at the D.C. jail after their arrests, have coordinated their testimony and are lying to implicate Johnson and Little.
Little, Cyheme Hall testified, told the men he knew where they could find victims. And by Hall’s account, it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds.
“This case is about the Hall brothers,” said Johnson’s attorney, Kevin Irvin. “Two brothers with every incentive to shift the blame off themselves and make Mr. Johnson a scapegoat.”
L:ittle’s attorney, Brandi Harden said, Little was simply driving his friends around the city that night and had no role in any crimes.
With members of Dodds’s family in Judge Milton Lee’s courtroom last week, Cyheme Hall gave his account of the attack on Dodds, describing they way she tried to fight off the two armed men. Hall said the plan was never to kill anyone.
“The plan was just to rob a person,” he said. “I was in shock. He shot a person for nothing.”
Hall also said they did not set out to victimize transgender women.
“We had no idea they were transgender when they were being robbed,” he said. “They were just women standing around.”
After the shooting, the four men drove to Northwest Washington to an area of K street where transgender prostitutes often work, authorities said. It was there, prosecutors say, that the men descended on a group of five people, ordered them to lie on the ground and robbed them.
By the time the sun was coming up, the men had robbed seven people, leaving one dying, prosecutors said. They stole $80, which they split four ways, a Metro fare card, a cellphone, some condoms and an empty purse, Hall said.
Outside the courtroom, Dodds’s uncle and cousin said Dodds was shot just down the street from her aunt’s home, where she lived. They believe Dodds, who worked as a prostitute, was walking home when she was attacked.
“This is heartbreaking,” her uncle, James Wagner, said. Wagner said he was the one who gave Dodds the nickname Dee Dee because those were among her first words as a baby.
He said Dodds’s attackers did not expect Dodds to fight back because of how she was dressed.
“Dee Dee was going to fight back. She was not afraid,” Wagner said.
Dodds’s cousin, Betty Young, called the assailants “cowards” for robbing women in dresses. “For nothing,” she said. “My cousin was killed for nothing.”