Dawson: First sleepover turned to drunken shooting spree
The teenage boy who helped shut down a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 64 in March by firing into occupied vehicles was described in court yesterday as "a shy, friendly young man," away on his first sleep-over, as he earned a six-month sentence atop the three months he's already served.
While pleading guilty to what was described in court as a beer-fueled rampage, 16-year-old Brandon W. Dawson was also appealing a harsher sentence in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court that could have kept him incarcerated until he was 21.
During the July 8 sentencing in Albemarle Circuit Court, details were released about the night and the quiet teen who had reportedly never been allowed to spend the night at a friend's nor had ever had a beer, and who answered "Yes, ma'am" to questions from the judge and lawyers.
"I've been thinking about it," said Dawson, who remained handcuffed throughout the lengthy sentencing hearing that lasted about as long– six hours– as I-64 was shut down. "It was a bad decision," he testified, "and I was hanging out with the wrong person."
The wrong person was 19-year-old Gremlin-driving, mud-boggin' Slade Woodson, who'd made news a year ago when he torched several cars, including his brother-in-law's.
Young Dawson had another reason to think about his decision. In the aftermath of the March 27 shooting spree that terrorized two counties, closed county schools, and made national news, police shot his father twice. Edgar Dawson was hit by two police bullets while pointing a gun toward the officers who burst into his Crozet home at 4am March 28 to arrest his son.
"We're very close, more than father and son," said Edgar Dawson, making his first court appearance yesterday, with his hand still bandaged. Two weeks ago, the county's chief prosecutor announced that no charges would be filed in the wounding.
The elder Dawson, describing his occupation as mechanic and farmer, testified yesterday how shocked he was to learn his son was involved in the shootings. "We're friends, buddies," he said. "We work on equipment together."
The elder Dawson testified that he "didn't really like" Woodson, who was friends with his daughter. Woodson was also arrested at Yonder Hill Farm, the Dawsons' rented residence on Lanetown Road.
Brandon Dawson had attended Western Albemarle High School, where he was a sophomore, until October 2007. There had been some problems at school, and he was being instructed at home. He hadn't been allowed to spend the night away– until March 26.
"His grades came up, so we let him have a friend over," said his father. Brandon had lost other privileges, including the farm work he loved, which was "like taking candy from a baby," the dad testified.
"He's a 16-year-old boy who loves being outdoors and working on vehicles," said Dana Strickler, an Albemarle educator who came to Dawson's house for two to four hours a week. She described him as very close to his family, a "follower" and a "very sensitive boy."
Strickler said she was there the day after the early-morning shootings. "He was very distracted, chewing antacids," she testified.
Young Dawson testified that his mother told him to be home by 7am, and he said he heard about the shootings on the news and saw pictures of the cars that had been shot. He felt breathless, couldn't eat, and his stomach was upset. "I wanted to turn myself in and didn't really know how," he said.
Dawson had first met Woodson when he was in the ninth grade, and the older teen "came back around the house and started talking to me," said Dawson. On the fateful night, Dawson went over to Woodson's house to help work on his Isuzu Rodeo. Both young men were getting frustrated by the hard work, he testified, so Woodson suggested they go for a ride.
They had a case of beer, and Dawson estimated that between 6:30 and 9 or 10pm, he'd consumed between eight and 10 beers–- the first time he'd ever had alcohol. And he didn't realize Woodson had a gun in the back of the car.
Woodson began firing into vehicles on I-64. Dawson, who pleaded guilty to five counts of malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle–- he still faces two other charges in Waynesboro–- admitted firing into an 18-wheeler, and its driver still has a small scrap of metal in his back.
"After eight to 10 beers and the testimony of your family and witnesses, I'm wondering why something didn't go off in your conscience that this is a very bad idea," interrupted Judge Cheryl Higgins. The defendant mumbled something inaudible.
Dawson also admitted firing into an occupied house that was for sale, and its owners, in a victim impact statement, say they still have "anxiety" about the bullet that came into their house near where their son slept, Higgins said.
The day after the arrests, young Dawson spent hours with County police retracing his steps, showing investigators where various shootings had occurred. Prosecutor Darby Lowe cited Dawson's cooperation as critical in agreeing to let him stay locally at Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention. "This boy is going to come back to our community," she told the judge. "We want him to come back in better shape."
Lowe also pointed out the six-month program plus over three months Dawson had already served adds up to close to the estimated 9-15 month range he might have served in a larger state juvenile facility.
Defense attorney Dana Slater brought in nine witnesses to testify that keeping Dawson at the local juvenile detention center for an 180-day program was in his–- and the community's–- best interest. That argument fell on deaf ears in juvenile court May 28 before Judge Susan Whitlock, who sentenced him to an indeterminate sentence in the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which could have held him until his 21st birthday.
Judge Higgins also had concerns about the seriousness and violence of the crimes, and took a 10-minute break to think about her sentence. Slater won a motion early in the trial to seal psychiatric records from spectators, but something in there may have informed the Judge's mention of "the weakness of the family," whose "tight rein" on Dawson "stunted his decision-making process."
"This is a very difficult case," she said upon returning to the courtroom just before 8pm, where lawyers and witnesses had been since the the hearing began at 2pm.
Noting the services Dawson can get at the local Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention–- psychiatric, educational, life skills classes–- she remarked, "There are no classes that I know of that teach you not to get drunk and shoot.
"This court finds it important to continue to monitor you," she continued. The court will get a review every 30 days, and she wants to be notified at even a hint of trouble, in which case Dawson will be yanked out of Blue Ridge and sent to the larger state system.
Once his sentence is completed, he'll have supervised probation, and Higgins requested electronic monitoring. She also ordered that he get a job and pay $12,512 in restitution to victims, taking 20 percent of every paycheck.
Finally, Higgins admonished the young defendant to look at the people who had come to court to support him and testify on his behalf. "If you betray them," the judge intoned, "you'll be in for worse than what I've sentenced you."
In the story above, you'll see the name of the 16-year-old who participated in the shooting spree that paralyzed Interstate 64 for several hours in March. Why is the Hook breaking with our self-imposed policy against naming juvenile criminals?
This is a reasonable question, particularly after we touted a non-naming policy in the case of two youths outed by the Daily Progress in the notorious 2006 "smoke bomb" case. Things are different this time.
For starters, the Progress named names two years ago after the youths had been convicted in juvenile court. In the current case, however, the juvenile was convicted of five felonies in Albemarle Circuit Court, which, unlike the juvenile system, is a court of record, carrying additional rights and burdens, including the entry of his name into the public record.
Another difference this time is that these convictions indicate that serious, violent activity occurred.
Sixteen-year-old Brandon W. Dawson has now pleaded guilty and had his plea accepted for his role in spraying dozens of bullets into homes, businesses, and moving vehicles. Two people were hospitalized, others may have narrowly escaped death, and there were thousands of dollars in damage.
In the "smoke bomb" case, by contrast, the only teen who went before a court of record received an acquittal, and that case's paucity of evidence regarding means, motive, and weapons– unless one counts the single smoke bomb and the guns that were confiscated from one teen's dad's locked gun case– led many citizens to conclude, when they voted the County prosecutor out of office last year, that no crime had actually been committed.
Although Dawson testified yesterday that he helped investigators retrace the events of the night of the shootings, his actions created terror for thousands of Central Virginians and closed schools after homes, cars, and bodies were harmed by his gunfire.
The decision to name Dawson puts the Hook at risk of seeming malleable on such crucial community issues. The decision was reached following vigorous pro/con debate among five full-time journalists in the newsroom.
"That's the nature of ethics," says former Poynter Institute media ethicist Bob Steele. "It's about principles and working through the gray area."