Teen charged with murder leaves court after trial

Trouble at ‘The Doug’? Murder conviction spotlights possible gang activity at Middletown park

Gonnii White, 17, of Middletown, was convicted of murder and specifications he used a firearm and was participating in a gang at the time of the shooting last week in Butler County Common Pleas Court. The jury deliberated for about 90 minutes Thursday night. White admitted to shooting Joseph Davis, 17, of Middletown, but said it was in self defense and defense of others.

MORE: Middletown teen guilty of murder in 17-year-old’s shooting death

The jury found him guilty on all three charges.

White will be sentenced next month before Judge Noah Powers II, and he faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 19 years, said Butler County Assistant Prosecutor Brad Burress. Four years were added to White’s sentence because he used a gun to shoot and kill Davis and the crime was gang related, Burress said.

Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw, who has been outspoken about gang activity in the region, said the gang-related conviction sends a “huge message” to gangs to get out of Middletown.

“It’s a big conviction for us,” Muterspaw said.

MORE: Battling Butler County gangs: How a 2016 bar shooting started a rash of incidents

Middletown Detective Kristi Hughes, the prosecution’s lead witness, testified that Douglass Park is a hotbed for gang activity that leads to violence. She said gang members, many of them teenagers, refer to the city park as “The Doug.”

Even though Middletown detectives and Butler County Assistant Prosecutor Brad Burress talked about gang activity and violence at Douglass Park during last week’s murder trial, those in the park Monday said they feel safe. RICK McCRABB/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Photos from White’s cellphone showed him making “gang signs,” Hughes said. The pictures on White’s instagram account showed he “chases money and always carries a gun,” Hughes testified. White said shooting Davis was the first time he had fired a gun.

One photo showed him making “a Blood killer sign,” indicating he would kill a “Blood gang member,” Hughes said.

White said he was given a gun by a friend and he took the gun home on May 28, 2018. He never told his mother about having the gun and why he needed a gun, he testified.

The next day, White put the gun in his pocket and carried it the rest of the day, he testified. While walking near the area of Woodlawn and Garfield, White said he ran into Davis, who was riding a bike.

White said he had seen Davis with a gun four or five times over the years, so when Davis reached for something, White shot, he testified.

“I was scared,” White testified.

While Douglass Park was portrayed in the trial as a fertile ground for gang activity, Muterspaw and several residents who use the park describe it as a safe place for families.

Muterspaw said police officers patrol the park and the surrounding neighborhoods and he called Douglass “a good place.” He said there rarely is a call for police service to the park.

The park was quiet Monday afternoon.

Several members of the Middletown Area Salvation Army were passing out free lunches to children in the neighborhood. One of those Salvation Army employees was Beverly James, 66, a lifetime Middletown resident.

“I don’t fear being here,” James said. “God has got us covered.”

Sheila Neeley and her 7-year-old granddaughter ate lunch at one of the park’s picnic tables. Neeley said she always visits the park during the day.

“This is my park,” she said. “These are my people, my neighbors.”

Douglass Park is across the street from the Robert “Sonny” Hill Community Center. The director, Verlena Stewart, has heard about gang activity in the park, so before she takes children there she performs a safety check walk-through. She said the safety of the children at the center is her top priority.

The city added lights last fall and security cameras in May at the park, according to spokeswoman Shelby Quinlivan.

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