Hennepin County prosecutors say the inability to secure testimony from the father of a 2-year-old Minneapolis boy, along with other key witnesses, forced them to dismiss the murder case against the man authorities say killed the child during a drive-by shootout in 2016.
Chris M. Welch, 36, had been charged in July 2019 with second-degree intentional murder in connection with the gunfire near Lowry and Penn avenues that struck Le'Vonte King Jason Jones as he rode in a van with his 15-month-old sister and their father, Melvonte Peterson.
On Tuesday, less than a week before the murder case was to go to trial, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Senior Assistant County Attorney Daniel Allard had the case dismissed.
"This case was charged based on the statements and expected testimony of five key witnesses," Freeman and Allard wrote in their dismissal filing. "Each of the five key witnesses' testimony was vital to proving Defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt and all five key witnesses are no longer available to testify against Defendant."
Despite the dismissal, Welch remains years away from freedom. He's serving a 17-year federal prison term that began in 2018 for an unrelated weapons offense.
The prosecution spelled out in its dismissal document the reasons behind each witness' unavailability, while identifying each by a single letter:
• Witness D, the "most credible and crucial eyewitness," has since died in what the prosecutors said was "an unrelated incident."
• Witness H is Peterson, the intended target of the gunfire that instead killed his son. He has been uncooperative with the investigation, provided inconsistent versions of what happened when Le'Vonte was shot and cannot be located.
• Witness B is out of state, his "whereabouts are currently unknown" despite an extensive search.
• Witness E is in jail on murder charges in a killing unrelated to Le'Vonte's death.
• Witness G is "an uncooperative and hostile" witness.
Along with those five, the prosecution also told the court that less critical "but important witnesses are unavailable."
Peterson, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to illegally possessing a gun the day of his son's killing, has since been released after serving a five-year sentence. He did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Le'Vonte's mother on Wednesday challenged the prosecution's contention that Peterson has been uncooperative with the investigation and unavailable as a witness. LeShae Jones said she stays in regular contact with Peterson and he's always been willing to testify against Welch.
"It's they who won't accept Melvonte's testimony," she said. "Melvonte told me all he saw [at the scene of the shooting] was Chris."
The setback in holding someone responsible for Le'Vonte's death has weighed heavily on Jones since she got the news nearly two weeks ago.
"I have three kids I deal with every day, and I'm pregnant now," she said. "I have health issues going on. … I can't allow myself to go back in that deep [depressing] hole again."
Without the testimony of these key witnesses, the prosecution's filing concluded, "the State does not have any evidence to present at trial to identify [Welch] as the person who committed the crime. Therefore, the State has insufficient evidence to prove [Welch] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the alleged offense. Accordingly, the State has no other option but to dismiss the charges."
In November 2018, Welch received a 17-year federal prison sentence for illegally possessing a firearm after authorities raided a house that he frequented and recovered four guns, synthetic marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Lab tests found his DNA on one weapon, authorities said.
In an appeal, he accused the arresting officer of setting him up in retaliation for his supposed involvement in Le'Vonte's death. Welch has long maintained his innocence.
In a statement, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office said the circumstances behind the dismissal are becoming far too familiar.
"There was a total lack of cooperation from witnesses including the father of the child who witnessed the shooting and would not identify the shooter," the statement said. "The mother cooperated fully and we express our full sympathy to her and the family. Unfortunately, lack of witness support is increasing, making prosecution in other cases more difficult. Full community support is necessary to bring the killers of little children to justice and we hope people will be forthcoming in the future in other cases."
Welch's attorney, Michael Colich, declined to comment on the dismissal, but he did write in a court filing in August that the case was "wrongfully brought" against his client and other suspects were not properly considered.
When the murder count was filed against Welch, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called a news conference where he said, "This case … involved the most vulnerable of our community, and that's our children. When children are shot and killed, our entire city mourns."
On Wednesday, Arradondo said in a prepared statement that Le'Vonte's murder is a "stain across the heart of Minneapolis."
"I commend the diligent and professional work by MPD Homicide Detectives who have been relentless to bring those to account who are responsible," he said. "We will not give up on our children. We will continue to seek justice."
The city has seen several children 12 or younger either fatally shot or wounded. Most recently, a boy was grazed by a bullet Sunday morning while sleeping in his bed in the 2400 block of S. Portland Avenue as people in two cars exchanged gunfire.
On Sept. 8, 12-year-old London Bean was killed in a dispute at an apartment complex at N. 8th and Aldrich avenues. Jeremiah Marquise Grady, 18, of Minneapolis, has been charged in his death.
A $180,000 reward is offered for information in fatal shootings of two young children this spring and a shooting that left another fighting for his life. Aniya Allen, 6, and Trinity Ottoson-Smith, 9, were fatally shot within days of each other in May. In April, Ladavionne Garrett Jr. was shot in the head and continues to recover. Anyone with information is asked to contact Crime Stoppers at crimestoppersmn.org or the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension at 877-996-6222.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482