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The Christmas Killings: Dayton’s worst crime spree

In December, 1992, downtown Dayton was filled with holiday decorations and activities. There was the Christmas tree lighting on Courthouse Square and across the street, the Dayton Arcade had reopened temporarily with pop-up shops and eateries for the holiday season. As people shopped and celebrated, they would have never imaged what was about to happen.

A band of teenagers were looking for trouble. Laura Taylor, Marvallous Keene, Heather Matthews and Demarcus Smith called themselves "The Downtown Posse." They were estranged from their families and looking for trouble. 

>> MAP AND TIMELINE: The notorious ‘Christmas killings’ of 1992

"Let's get some drama in our lives," Taylor, a 16-year-old runaway, said to the group. 

On Christmas Eve, they began the worst crime spree in Dayton history. The first victim was Joseph Wilkerson. The girls lured their way into his Prescott Avenue home promising sex, and the 34-year old General Motors worker was shot and killed. The posse then partied in Wilkerson's house over the next three days. They ate his food and drove his cars while he lay dead in a bedroom. 

>> PHOTOS: Infamous killing spree shook the community 25 years ago

That same night, they shot Danita Gullette, 18, who was using a pay phone outside a neighborhood market in West Dayton. She was pronounced dead at the hospital. Police said Gullette was robbed of her gym shoes, jacket and book bag. 

"All she said was, 'Don't shoot me' and they shot her anyway," said Rhonda Gullette, the victim's sister. "She gave them everything that she had. I just wish that they would have spared my sister." 

Danita Gullette, 18, was killed while she stood at a pay phone on Neal Avenue in 1992. Her murder was part of a spree over the Christmas holiday weekend in Dayton that left 6 dead and injured two. COURTESY OF GULLETTE FAMILY

On Christmas day, the body of 19-year-old Richard Maddox was discovered in a car. He had been shot in the head. Detectives later found out that Maddox was the former boyfriend of Laura Taylor. Jeffrey Wright was also shot that day outside a home on Yuma Place. Despite, 4 bullets, he survived. 

The posse went into the Short Stop Mini Mart on December 26, and shot Sarah Abraham who was working in a family business that holiday weekend. The 38-year-old mother died 5 days later in the hospital. A store customer who was shot, Jones Pettus, survived . 

At first, Dayton homicide detectives did not know that these crimes were all connected. 

"Really the first thing that made the connection for us was the ammunition," said retired Dayton Homicide Detective Doyle Burke. "Then you start to worry and you figure out that we've got a person or persons that are probably not going to stop." 

Burke said they had no idea who they were looking for. 

"The fact that it was truly stranger on stranger crime, which is the most difficult homicide to solve…there was not even a motive," Burke said. 

Later on December 26, former Dayton Police Sgt. John Huber, spotted a stolen car on Kumler Avenue. At the time, he did not know that he was stopping Dayton's spree killers. 

"They all cooperated and put their hands up. I was later to find out from the detectives that Laura Taylor told Marvallous Keene to shoot me and he wouldn't.," said Huber. 

After the four members of the posse were behind bars, Taylor got a visit from a local minister who was concerned that she was only sixteen and accused of such terrible crimes. During their visit, Taylor told him about two more victims. Police found the bodies of Wendy Cottrill, 16 and Marvin Washington, 19, in a city-owned gravel pit on Richley Avenue. Taylor said they were shot because the group thought that they would snitch to the police. 

Keene confessed and was sentenced to death. After 17 years of appeals, he was executed in 2009. The other three got life prison sentences. During a prison interview in 2000, Heather Matthews explained why she got into in the crime spree. 

"I wanted to be like them. I wanted to do what they was doing," Matthews said. 

Detective Burke said that once the killing started, he believes they were all willing participants. 

"They enjoyed it. They lived it. It made them somebody," Burke said. 

Rhonda Gullette admits that even after 25 years, the holidays are very difficult. 

"I grieve for my family but I continue to grieve for the other victim's families and also the people who are incarcerated," said Gullette. "Anybody's life can either go to the left or the right, so I do, I think about them very often." 

Gullette said the murder of her sister had a huge impact on her life. The crime led to the break-up of her engagement, the loss of a child and her mother. 

"Six years later my mother passed away prematurely," said Gullette. "My mother passed away at 51-year's old and she passed away because of grief. My mother absolutely died of a broken heart." 

Gullette is now an advocate for victim's rights and is working on her master's degree. She said she gets through the holidays by serving her church and feeding the homeless. 

John Huber, retired from the Dayton Police Department, is the Public Safety Director at Sinclair Community College. Doyle Burke is Chief Investigator for the Warren County Coroner and has written a book about the homicide cases that he has investigated, including this one. 

A book called, "The Christmas Killings," was written by retired Dayton Police Officer Steve Grismer, Detective Dennis Murphy and Dr. Judith Monseur. Both books will be published early next year.

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