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."

Editor's note
Dear Readers,
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."

31 comments

I hope he learns a lesson from this all and get his life on track and stay out of troble.

These kids are hanging out with bad company.

Now, I hate to be the one that says, I told you so... wait a second, no I don't. I wrote about this kid some time ago when the last article about how innocent this kid was surfaced. HE WAS ON A BRIDGE, OVERLOOKING AN INTERSTATE, WITH A RIFLE. So what I am to understand is that shooting at people is less of a crime than a DUI, or tax evasion? What about if he actually killed someone? 3 years suspended sentence? Once again, thank goodness that this kind and caring young man (WHO OPENED FIRE ON THE HIGHWAY) who just made a single mistake (I have a feeling this is just the first time he got caught) was not black, or we would have never been able to see his good intent hidden behind the rifle, and under the pigment.

On the decision to name names, in this case there was actually a guilty finding in court. In the "smoke bomb" case, the Progress was in the wrong to name the name of a boy who plead innocent, went through the adjudication process required to get into a constitutional court and ultimately was not found guilty of any crime but instead had the charges dropped and his record expunged.

Despite the fact that the justice system did not find him guilty of any crime, the Progress laid a very heavy burden on a young boy. In my opinion, the Progress looks to have done this in violation of Virginia laws designed to protect children. Maybe they skirted those wise laws on a technicality but the decision was unwise and a danger to a child.

So, I applaud the Hook for exercising wisdom and restraint in naming names of children until after the judicial process is complete. Y'all can sleep well at night knowing your judgment has not laid a bad reputation on an innocent child.

Brandon Dawson is someone whom I have known for years. He was constantly in trouble at school, which is why he was removed in October. There were many incidents of bullying younger children,fits of temper, and blatant disrespect, for which he was directly responsible. It seems, however that this sentence may do him the most good. On the other hand, we must realize that Slade Woodson was a much better citizen during his high school years but somewhere along the line the wheels slipped off track. I hope, that he too can be helped before we condemn him to take the brunt of the responsibility for this case in which both boys were equally culpable

Fry em. This is Virginia...don't be second fiddle to Texas.

This is an outrage! What is wrong with this country? A punk shoots at, with intent to KILL, inocent human beings traveling down a highway and the court system gives him what amounts to a slap on the wrist! How can shooting at someone not be attempted murder? What is this BS charge of "shooting into an ocupied vehicle"? Shooting into an ocupied vehicle with intent to KILL someone. Oh, it was because he was drinking beer and hanging out with the "wrong people". Lets all feel sorry for the punk and just slap him on the wrist. In the future we will be dealing with this punk again. Lets just hope he does not kill someone next time. This is 6 months sentence is an embarassment to the justace system.

Yes, Dufus, I fear we will be hearing of him again. Something is severely wrong with someone who gets drunk and spends hours shooting.

I also hope Dawson somehow gets his life on track. It sounds as if the local educational support systems allowed him to "fall through the crack" for too long. This errant behavior didn't just begin. There seems to be too much mention-garbage in his history. What was going on at home? I suspect he didn't receive adequate direction. If Daddy didn't like Woodson, why on earth would he allow his 16 year old child to "sleep over" with him?

How can the judges and the prosecution in the City of Charlottesville be so out of touch with the interests and needs of the community? This crime impacted the entire State, and this punishment is a slap in the face of all of us who live here. The other comments are right on that this kid will be out and causing pain and suffering in the community, possibly resulting in loss of life, after tax-dollars are spent providing him with a hotel and free counseling for only 6-months. Why do we have to wait until he successfully kills someone?

As we read former blogs, it is interesting to note that some in the community do not "get it" in this case. I'm amazed that several in the area believe Dawson's past history and the related family circumstances, including lack of proper adult supervision are "normal". There may be a chance he can be reformed, but I would guess the local system can't succeed here. Sadly, Dawson has been misguided for too long now. In my view, he should never be allowed to have a access to firearms. The adults who neglected his needs and care should also be charged.

In less than a year this "kid" would have been 17 and with parents permission would be allowed to join the military and have many opportunities to shoot at targets (or people).

Sadly, I don't think the military would be interested in having him now.

teacher #9, I am curious if your comments are meant to apply exclusively to the boy's parents or also to the school system that cast him adrift. Far too many troubled kids in this county are expelled from school, exacerbating troubled home lives. The outcomes are predictable.

Other communities struggle to keep troubled kids from dropping out of school.

Here, we kick kids out to deal with their troubles all alone. When they cannot do that successfully, we are quick to point the accusing fingers at the parents, though we have failed to do our part for our community's children. Current policy only fuels hopeless anger. This county has far far too many children excluded from school.

We can and should do better. When we have a situation where we cast out a kid as so much rubbish and then shoot his innocent father when that kid turns to anger motivated crime, perhaps we haven't done our best. Can we be perfect? Of course not. Can we do better? Shouldn't we at least try?

There should be dialog between the community and the school superintendent to clarify our desire for policies that do not create hopeless anger. Let's at least see what percentage of our children are shoved out of school by administrators so we can consider how best to cope with the resulting angry hopelessness.

There should be dialog between the community and the police chief to clarify our desire to avoid strategies predictably leading to the shooting of homeowners when military style raids are conducted against family homes as if they were crack houses or dens of thieves. The disabled father and the officer who had to shoot an innocent peaceable man deserve better and we should help achieve that.

This whole thing was a tragedy and should serve as a learning experience. If we're half as smart as we think we are, we won't miss that opportunity. If we're as dumb as we appear, we will just "stay the course" while blaming others for our problems.

"This county has far far too many children excluded from school." Was Dawson a drop-out or was he expelled?
"This county has far far too many children excluded from school." How many children are excluded?
"Here, we kick kids out to deal with their troubles all alone." Was he living alone or with a parent?
"There should be dialog between the community and the police chief to clarify our desire to avoid strategies predictably leading to the shooting of homeowners when military style raids are conducted against family homes as if they were crack houses or dens of thieves." What's the difference between that house and a crack house? It seems people were allowed to flow in and out all hours of the night under the influence of some illegal intoxicant. Young Dawson admitted in court that he had been sharing a case of beer with his cohort.
"This whole thing was a tragedy and should serve as a learning experience." Very true.
"If we're as dumb as we appear, we will just ¢Ã¢â??¬Ã?â??stay the course¢Ã¢â??¬ while blaming others for our problems."
We certainly can't blame the father for the responsiblity he took in instilling good values in his son, steering him away from "bad influences," supervising his activities in the middle of the night, and using his authority as guardian to require his son to get counseling and perhaps medication and treatment for his troubled mind. As a family man, I'm sure you agree that the community should dictate to you how you raise a child.

An alternative school option to keep these kids in a productive environment and out of their homes and the bad influences that surround them there would be a positive step. If the city and county could cooperate and fund such an endeavor it would be truly amazing leadership.

Yikes, do you mean that they should be put in a publicly funded boarding school, or in a foster home amd be home schooled? I'm assuming that you agree that the current alternative schools in city's school system and in the county's would not be the place for Dawson. If not, why?

Family Guy, You make some valuable points. This truly is a complicated situation. Perhaps better steering through the education process would have helped. It sounds as if this kid and the family needed a different approach. The reality of the situation is the "school" isn't equipped to be responsible 24 hours a day. So my answer is: The parents are mostly responsible, especially during the night. The fact that the father (who didn't like Woodson), allowed the 16 year old to do a sleep-over with him, speaks volumes. This kid was failed by his own father,who didn't say no. I do have a suggestion. I believe this boy should now be removed from this home when he is released. If he is to be reformed, an appropriate substitute supervisory family would be better for him. He should be permitted to visit his birth parents, but returning to this situation entirely appears to be a no win situation. This kid should also be required to attend some sort of educational program. The courts had better set up strict requirements for the future, including goals for appropriate behavior. He should be commanded to show respect while working or attending school. Dawson needs firm structure for many years to come. This kid has already cost the city and state big bucks. Yikes, you may be correct. Many of these kids need to removed from homes, if positive change is to occur. In this horrific case, the court should now be preparing to place him in an alternative family/educational setting.

Wow, Cville Eye got every fact wrong. 100%. Dawson was expelled in October. I suggested that the community ask how many kids are expelled from school. If problems at home have led to troubles at school, how is expulsion NOT leaving them to deal with the problems alone? Again, most communities strive to keep troubled kids from dropping out but we kick them out.

The raided home was a family home. It was NOT Woodson's house where the kids stayed when they got drunk and shot up the place. The man and wife who lived there had no criminal record, committed no crimes and had no reason to expect the police to ram in their door and invade. Mr Dawson was shot twice with a high powered rifle standing next to his own bed at 4:00 AM, holding his home defense pistol. This hardworking man who has never committed any crime is now disabled and cannot work his trade as an auto mechanic. I'm sure this father is "kicking himself" severely for allowing his son, that one time, to stay over at Woodson's house to work on his car.

A community shouldn't often dictate how parents raise their children but should do their part. High school kids often spend more waking hours in school than they spend with their parents.

Hey, maybe you have no interest in doing better than what results in this sort of tragedy. At least try to read and comprehend the information before you comment on it.

Teacher #9, your suggestion of not only kicking kids out of school but also removing them from their homes would be counterproductive in avoiding a situation that promotes anger and hopelessness. Would the next step be to drive them to the state line and kick them out of the car with no money or ID?

Dawson's mother isn't a crack whore. His father isn't a street thug. Yes, they made the tragic mistake of letting their son stay over at the home of a kid he met in school to work on his car. As a result, Mr Dawson is permanently disabled and his son is in jail. Still, you think more punitive measures will help.

It sounds to me that Dawson was having some anger problems in October. Who knows what was going on? Girlfriend? Tense home life due to financial stress? Academic challenges? I suspect that his October expulsion from school was the factor that kicked his anger into high gear. What hope did he perceive in his life at that point?

That set the stage for the fateful night when first-time drinking removed the inhibitions to anger at the same time that a violent character, who had "secretly" been in jail before, put a gun in his hands.

I am left thinking that if the schools had done better than to tell him, "get the hell out of here", tragedy might have been averted.

The tragedy is done. The boy's prospects are dim. Hope is gone, to the point that all he has left is prayer. You suggest that he now be removed from his family, who has been reported by the Albemarle County court services unit to be loving and supportive. Is his suicide your goal?

It is obvious to me that events could have been much better than what happened. Shouldn't we, as a community, want to avoid such tragedy in the future?

Or, will we just go for "staying the course" to get more of the same as this?

Our schools expel far too many students, offering no alternatives.

Our police should not conduct military style home invasion raids on the family homes of innocent homeowners.

Our community should work with our elected representatives and appointed officials to do our best as a community.

Why not explore possible improvement?

Family Guy, thank you for answering my question about Dawson's expulsion. I'm sure the school system followed Virginia law in regards to the reasons for and the methods used for this expulsion. Since you have provided no other evidence against my other statements, I will continue to believe that I'm right. If you can not see that this family obviously have severe problems that can not be solved by a school system, there really isn't need to have further conversations with you.

Family Guy, You seem to know alot. Why don't you volunteer to take this kid into your own home and save him? The local juvenile system is failing in many ways. For example, young kids with prior records are excused from the court system too early, and are then found beating up innocents on the downtown mall. I don't trust the local court services to solve this or other situations. And, don't put words into my mouth! You are the one who tried to impose a guilt trip with the mention of suicide for this kid. SHAME on you! This is truly sick in suggesting such for the individual!
The family you protect has failed Dawson in a big way. They have seemingly neglected this child's needs. All I'm suggesting is: Why not place Dawson in a more productive situation for the future? Once again, why don't you volunteer to mentor this kid, as you know so much.

I am beginning to wonder if Family Guy is applying too much of his family's circumstances to this story. There is an air of personal experience in his writings.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have here a learning opportunity and the dialog is all about why there is nothing to learn and improvement isn't worth the effort.

Hey, I'm not protecting the family. The kid belongs in jail for what he's done. It's obvious that both the family and the community fell short given this outcome of cars shot, a kid turned criminal and a father disabled.

Cville Eye, is there any reason we shouldn't strive for better than that? Is that the best this community can do?

Teacher #9, you are right that the juvenile court system and courts services is coming up short. I keep thinking that you and I agree that this tragedy is a call for improvement. I apologize for the hyperbole in my previous post.

Why shouldn't there be a dialog with our elected representatives and appointed officials where we, the community, voices our concerns?

Every time this discussion touches on that point, there is an emotional turn to crying "it's their fault, punish them", as though we shouldn't strive for improvement.

As for your challenge, I would certainly volunteer to mentor this boy if the community strips him from his family and continues to refuse education or support. Somebody has to do it. Don't you think the community might be able to muster a better plan than to dump it's problems on me? Shouldn't we see if we, as a community, should try.

Or we could sweep it under the rug, point fingers, and wait for the next tragedy. We have a very high school expulsion rate and many parents who don't have PhDs in child development. Should we just double the budget of the SWAT team?

"Yikes", I like your thoughts on education alternatives rather than just expelling troubled kids. That's the kind of thing that is worth considering as a possible way to avoid angry hopeless kids shooting at cars when they get drunk.

Family Guy, As I am hopeful Dawson can be helped, I just can't see that returning him to this isolated/wide open farm is best for his future development. I am concerned he will require supervision and role models this family can't provide. I am concerned, guns will be available/within sight there. Much govt. money has already been put forth for Dawson's care, so why not finish the job correctly? In this one case, why not place him in a proven foster home? Give him a real opportunity to get a new start. I'm not sure why he was expelled from school property. What if he were violent toward others? It sounds as if the school system provided home tutoring. Are you sure the school system shirked responsibility? I'm not so sure. Maybe the school did their part and the family did not do theirs. As far as alternative schools go, I know of two or three. Who knows if these established alternative schools are right for the individual? I firmly believe he should be required to finish high school. It sounds as if he is finally conforming/following the rules in a structured environment-AWAY FROM HOME. Doesn't this tell us that he responds to firm limits? If a new strategy works, why rock the boat for now?

Why rock the boat? Yes, I guess I am advocating "rocking the boat". The status quo gave us a kid shooting at cars and a family home invaded by police with the innocent homeowner shot and disabled. Maybe there is no better but it seems worth considering rather than just not wanting to rock the boat.

I do note your aversion to firearms. I agree that the Dawson farm, and probably every farm in Virginia, has firearms. I also note that there was never any problem about the Dawson's family firearms. It was Woodson's gun involved in the trouble. My only surprise is that kids who get in gun trouble are usually those who never learned firearm safety and responsibility and got all their "gun knowledge" from Hollywood. I am surprised to learn that Woodson was able to buy ammo after midnight while drunk.

When kids are expelled from Albemarle schools, there is no support provided by the schools. Some teachers earn a few bucks working as private tutors occasionally. I think, but don't know, that's what happened here as a supplement to home schooling. There are no "alternative schools" unless you consider private schools that charge university size tuitions. Not really an alternative for most kids who find themselves having problems because of a tough home environment. Sure, some fit.

The fact is that, while most communities try to keep troubled kids in school, Albemarle expels a lot of kids. There is no program, alternative school, or other resource to steer these kids to a positive outcome in the community. As you observe, family dysfunction is very causal in school trouble. When the policy is to kick that kid out of school with no alternative, isn't he/she very likely to become the county's newest hard core crime problem?

I know they can't all turn out right but aren't they all worth a try? I think that's worth rocking the boat just a little to have a dialog to see if we just might learn how to do it a little better. What's the downside to such a dialog? Why shouldn't we look at the statistics? Why shouldn't we consider whether there is a better idea? Is there some secret? If we expel more kids as a percentage of population than other areas, how do the results compare? Why just give up and not rock the boat when we have a teachable moment here?

The fact is that the only way this kid, and many others in Albemarle, will finish high school is if their parents home school them. Given your feelings about the home life, how do you expect that to work out? I wonder if mom is up on her polynomial equations? Foster parents? No, they don't do home-schooling.

I know. Nobody cares. Let's spend the tax money on Biscuit Run infrastructure instead. Disadvantaged kids don't require county services, real estate developers do.

Stay the course. Don't rock the boat.

That editor's note is ridiculous. The self-serving nature of the media ethicist's quote makes me gag.

The decision was reached following vigorous pro/con debate among five full-time journalists in the newsroom.

¢Ã¢â??¬Ã?â??That's the nature of ethics,¢Ã¢â??¬ says former Poynter Institute media ethicist Bob Steele. ¢Ã¢â??¬Ã?â??It's about principles and working through the gray area.¢Ã¢â??¬

Ha ha ha. I think the Hook just raised the bar for pretentious, self-righteous piety yet again! Just when I thought it couldn't be raised any higher, the guardians of the Fourth Estate step forward and prove me wrong! Outstanding!

Are we now hearing from the folks over at the cville weekly?

When I mentioned "not rocking the boat", I was advocating not sending him home when he is released. We are told he is succeeeding in a more controlled environment. Send him back to Yonder Hill? My guess if this is done, we will hear of additional failure.

I seen on your website a guy got counseling for 6 months for free. I have a friend who is in desperate need at 22 years old for temper tantrums that lives in tampa florida before he kills somebody but he would also need free counseling. How can i get my friend free counseling? Are you in tampa florida or where?