After nearly two days of witness testimony, the man arrested earlier this year in the shooting that sent two Ashkenaz employees to the hospital with serious injuries was ordered to face the nine felony charges brought against him by the Alameda County district attorney’s office.
The preliminary hearing for Christopher James Washington of Rodeo took place Tuesday and Wednesday at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland with Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Couzens presiding.
Authorities say Washington is one of two men who robbed Ashkenaz during a crowded 40th anniversary party March 15, shooting two long-time employees in the process. But witnesses for the prosecution said this week that the men began their criminal activities that night with a robbery and sexual assault in Oakland. A victim in that case tracked her stolen phone into Berkeley, where she said she spied Washington and his associate just before the Ashkenaz robbery, then again minutes later as they ran up Gilman Street pursued by a Berkeley Police cruiser.
Berkeley police arrested Washington roughly six hours after the shooting, following an extensive search, after finding him hiding in a narrow strip behind several businesses on San Pablo south of Gilman Street, testified Detective Shan Johnson of the Berkeley Police Department. Nearby, police found the .380-caliber Llama semi-automatic handgun they say was used in the shootings, as well as a red cap and red jacket linked to Washington, more than $2,000 in cash, Ashkenaz gift certificates and a blue bag marked “Door,” which had been used at the club to collect cover charges.
During the arrest, Johnson said, Washington was bitten by a police dog because he had been uncooperative with officers. The second suspect in the case remains at large.
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Sexual assault, robbery leave three victims in Oakland
According to two witnesses who testified Tuesday, Washington and his accomplice began their night in downtown Oakland with a robbery near Jack London Square at approximately 10:30 p.m.
Jade Juhl said she and two friends had just parked their car and were walking to a friend’s birthday party when two men with guns drawn approached them and demanded their bags.
“They said, ‘Give us your bags or we’ll shoot you,’” Juhl testified. “‘Give us your bags. Do you wanna get shot?’” She said Washington focused in on her, while the other man cornered her friends.
According to one of those women, who also testified Tuesday, the other man first demanded their bags, which they gave him. He then ordered her to take off her clothes. She said she began to back away, then he rushed toward her and held his gun to her chest. When she unbuttoned her coat, she said, he put his gun under her dress between her legs and inserted it inside her. (Berkeleyside has not published her name due to the nature of the incident.) The man then ran the gun over her shoulders and used it to pull at her straps and look at her breasts, she said.
Shortly afterward, the men took the stolen bags and drove off in a white car, but not before Juhl said she noted most of the vehicle’s license plate numbers. The women immediately went to their friend’s home, a couple blocks away, and borrowed a phone to call the Oakland Police Department to make a report.
While speaking with police, Juhl said she and another friend began tracking the location of her cell phone using a program called “Find My Friends.” The two told police they were tracking the phone, but officers said they could not pursue it because it didn’t have a different tracking app that’s linked to their in-car computers.
So Juhl and her friend decided to follow the phone themselves to try to find the robbers. The signal led them to Gilman and San Pablo in Berkeley. As they approached San Pablo from the west, they spotted the white car parked across the street facing east. They also saw both men from the robbery standing near the car.
Not wanting to arouse suspicion, Juhl said, she and her friend parked nearby at a safe distance, at Kains Avenue, and called the Berkeley Police Department. While on the phone with authorities, a dispatcher asked if she had heard gunshots. She had not. But, moments later, she said Washington and the other man came running up Gilman chased by a Berkeley Police officer in a patrol car. One of the suspects was holding up his pants, which had partially fallen down.
Washington ran south on Kains but the other man stopped at the white car. The officer followed Washington, Juhl said, and the second suspect then drove off.
Authorities later found the car abandoned south of Ashby Avenue. Juhl said she identified the vehicle to police as belonging to the robbers, and was happy to find she’d been correct in her memory about most of the license plate numbers. There were numerous items inside that belonged to her and her friends. Detective Johnson added later that the vehicle was registered to Washington, and that police found a job application or resume of Washington’s inside.
After his detention by police, Juhl said she also identified Washington as having been responsible for the earlier robbery and reported having seen him in the area at the time of the Ashkenaz robbery.
Meanwhile, inside Ashkenaz…
Other witnesses who testified this week in court said that, between the time Juhl saw the men walk away from their car on Gilman and when she saw them run back around the corner, they had robbed Ashkenaz of more than $2,000 and shot two of its staff members.
According to Stanley Ellis, a bartender at Ashkenaz, he became worried that something wasn’t right when he saw Washington and another man hovering in the music venue’s doorway for approximately 10 minutes around midnight.
It was a busy night for the club, which was celebrating its 40th anniversary. More than 200 people were inside listening to a funk samba band, dancing and enjoying the party.
Ellis delivered most of his lengthy testimony with his back turned completely away from Washington, facing the rear wall of the courtroom.
Ellis said the men were partially hiding their faces — Washington had on a red cap pulled low on his brow, and the other man was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. As they stood there, Ellis said, he noticed an Ashkenaz employee inspecting some currency at the front desk. Unaware she had been told that someone had paid with counterfeit money and that she was looking for more fake bills, he told her to put the money away.
He said the suspicious men then walked outside and, a short time later, he followed them out to get a closer look. Ellis said he walked between the men on the sidewalk, and both appeared to be hiding weapons. Upon seeing Ellis, he said, the other man, in the sweatshirt, told Washington to “look out.” The unknown suspect then retracted his arm into his sleeve to, Ellis believed, hide a weapon in his hand. Ellis said he saw what appeared to be part of the barrel of a gun before the men walked back inside.
Ellis took a moment to speak with another man outside, then walked back into Ashkenaz. In that moment, he said, he saw what looked like both men holding guns on his co-worker. He heard them say, “It’s real now, it’s real now,” as he saw Washington with the trigger cocked back and the gun trained at close range on his friend. The other suspect also appeared to be holding the victim at gunpoint, though Ellis said he couldn’t see a weapon from where he stood.
He testified that he decided to “do a Ronnie Lott” — a reference to the former San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders defensive back — and tackle the men to save his colleague.
In a black-and-white surveillance video played by attorneys during the proceedings, Ellis takes a couple steps into Ashkenaz from the street, then hurls himself at the men with guns, spinning Washington around due to the force of the blow and knocking the gunmen away from the victim and out of frame. As they flew through the air, Ellis said, he raised his arm to protect his head, and was shot through the shoulder by Washington.
As the video played, Ellis was asked to turn his chair around so he could view the screen. It was the first time that day that he looked at Washington and, for perhaps 10 seconds, Ellis seemed unable to look away.
After “bum rushing” the men and landing on the floor, Ellis said he pulled a trench coat over his head, hoping that Washington “thought he blew my head off.” One of the men — police believe it was likely Washington due to casings found at the scene and the caliber of the gun found near his hiding place on San Pablo — then stood over Ellis and shot him in the ribcage.
Another vantage point
About 10 minutes before the shooting, Ashkenaz bartender Comfort Mensah said she was washing dishes behind the bar when she, too, noticed two suspicious men standing in the doorway looking around.
At roughly midnight, Ashkenaz manager and board member Everard “Larry” Chin came behind the bar to tell Mensah about the discovery of some counterfeit money. Chin had already called police to report the discovery, and was looking in the cash drawer to see if there were additional fake $20 bills there, in preparation for a meeting with a Berkeley Police officer who had already been dispatched to the scene. They also wanted to be sure not to give fake money to customers by mistake.
(Both Chin and Mensah testified Wednesday.)
As they looked at the money, Mensah said there was some kind of commotion, including several “pops,” and she heard a man shouting “Where is the money? Where is the manager?” She turned to Chin to ask him what to do, and was shocked to see that he had fallen to the ground. He had been shot, and there was “blood coming from his head like water,” testified Mensah, who is originally from Ghana.
The 17-year Ashkenaz veteran said she remembered thinking, “I have to get up from the bar ‘fore I will get killed too,” she said, knowing that both the money and the manager were right beside her. “At that moment I thought I was dead.”
Mensah saw Washington coming toward the bar, and dropped to her hands and knees to escape. Crying throughout parts of her testimony, she said she had to crawl over Chin’s fallen body to get away: “In my mind, I thought Larry was dead,” because of his injury and the amount of blood around him, she said.
As she crawled, she brushed against Washington’s foot. He had come around the bar to empty the cash drawer, she testified, before she could leave the area. Mensah said she was terrified he would shoot her, but she managed to get outside to safety.
Washington’s attorney, Nora Wong, a deputy public defender, pushed Mensah for details about the incident, including the precise distance between herself and the shooter, and the exact timing and sequence of that night’s events. She asked how Mensah could be sure it had been Washington she’d seen with the gun.
Mensah answered many of the questions with certainty, but there were others she said she could not answer, particularly because it had been nine months since the robbery and due to the trauma of the experience.
“The moment, I was lost,” she told Wong, her voice rising in frustration. “Right now I’m sitting here still facing it. I’m not out of it yet.”
Alive but still recovering
Washington listened calmly and closely throughout the proceedings. He had one supporter in the audience for the first 15 minutes of the hearing but, after leaving a recess, she never reappeared during the proceedings, which lasted for several hours Tuesday and until about 3 p.m. Wednesday. Wednesday morning, Washington entered the room wearing thick black-framed glasses, which he had not worn the day before, and asked the courtroom deputy for paper and a pen to take notes.
Many of the witnesses who testified broke down on the stand, crying or sighing heavily at times throughout their testimony. A handful of supporters of the victims from the Oakland and Berkeley incidents were in the courtroom throughout the preliminary hearing.
Ellis, the bartender — who has worked for about seven years at Ashkenaz — said he had to be carried out of the venue by paramedics due to the severity of his injuries. He spent nearly a week in the hospital, and had been left with a 7- to 8-inch scar on his left shoulder. He had limited mobility in that arm, and said outside the courtroom it was a “miracle” he could even move his fingers.
“Basically, I feel like an 80-year-old person,” he testified, or someone who had a stroke on the left side of the body, he added.
When Chin was shot, he testified, he didn’t know what had happened, and hadn’t seen a gun or known the robbery was taking place. He just suddenly felt a warm sensation in his head before his body gave out on him: “I could hear voices, but everything kinda got foggy.” As he lay on the ground, he reached up to feel his head, and felt “a warm wet thing,” then heard a woman’s voice saying, “Put your hand on your chest. I got your head.” He later felt himself being lifted and carried into the ambulance, but much of the night and following days were a blur.
He does recall, on the way to Highland Hospital for medical care, telling the paramedics: “You need better shocks. This is a rough ride,” he said with a smile.
Chin was left with two holes in his skull, shrapnel and bone lodged in his brain, persistent headaches, numbness, problems with balance and limited peripheral vision. He received surgery to repair some of the damage. The doctor, he said, placed titanium mesh over the holes, then stretched his scalp to cover them.
Asked by prosecutor William Boselli, deputy district attorney, if he’d looked at his injuries in a mirror, Chin said he had not, but noted that the back of his skull is now “lumpy,” and “not as smooth” as before.
Prior to the shooting, Chin said he had taken no medication as a matter of course. Now, he said, he takes one or two pain pills each week to handle the headaches. And it had been difficult to return to Ashkenaz, where he has worked for 30 years and is a member of the board. He would get queasy when he thought about going back. The first time he visited, he said, he “froze.”
To try to counter those feelings, he told Boselli, “I kept going again and again.”
Chin was perhaps the only victim who testified without getting teary or visibly upset. As he wrapped up his testimony he noted that he had, several weeks ago, recovered the hat he was wearing the night of the shooting. He found it in the Ashkenaz lost-and-found collection. It was undamaged, except for one piece of fabric that had been torn through by a bullet. When he put the cap on his head, he said with a smile, the hole lined up perfectly over his injury.
Three Strikes law would apply
According to court documents, due to prior felony convictions, Washington would be eligible to be sentenced under the Three Strikes law if he’s found guilty in this case.
The charging document, prepared by the Alameda County district attorney’s office, lists eight prior felony convictions against Washington, who is 25. All of the incidents took place in Contra Costa County: in 2008, four robbery convictions related to an incident or incidents on the same date, along with a commercial burglary conviction on that date; a commercial burglary conviction nearly three months later; and convictions for receiving stolen property and vandalism causing more than $400 damage from February 2013.
Washington has been charged with nine felonies: three counts of second-degree robbery relating to the Oakland incident; possession of a firearm by a felon; two counts of attempted murder due to the Ashkenaz shootings; and two second-degree robbery counts also from Ashkenaz.
Washington also was charged with sexual penetration by a foreign object due to his accomplice’s alleged assault on the woman in Oakland. Boselli, the deputy district attorney, said that’s allowed under state law involving aiding and abetting. He also said that, if the second suspect is arrested, he would face an entirely separate judicial process, including repeat testimony from all the victims.
Police have not released a description of the second man, but witnesses said he was a light-skinned black man in his late teens or early 20s who was clean-shaven with a low-cropped afro. They said he appeared to be shorter than Washington, who stands 6 feet tall, and seemed much slighter, with a “slender” build. According to the Alameda County sheriff’s department, Washington weighs 210 pounds.
Detective Johnson testified that police did find a second gun — a .22-caliber SIG Sauer with a unique pink-and-black handle — on Gilman along the flight path authorities believe that suspect took. At Ashkenaz, however, police found only .380-caliber casings, which were consistent with the weapon officers found near Washington’s hiding place, Johnson said.
Defense attorney Wong called no witnesses on behalf of Washington. After testimony ended, she made a short statement arguing that there had not been enough evidence presented to hold Washington accountable for all nine counts, some of which she said did not rise to the seriousness with which they had been charged by the district’s attorney’s office. Wong said Washington should not be held responsible for the sexual assault, and that there was no evidence that the shootings at Ashkenaz had been premeditated, or that he had intended to kill anyone.
Judge Couzens said he disagreed, and ordered Washington to be held to answer on all charges. Washington is scheduled for arraignment on those charges Dec. 24 in Department 11 at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in downtown Oakland. (Washington had already been arraigned on the charges prior to this week’s preliminary hearing. The second arraignment is required by law after a judge rules a defendant must stand trial.)
After the ruling, Ashkenaz board president Mitch Fine said the community center has stepped up security following the robbery earlier this year, from adding full-time security staff outside the venue during all shows to installing multiple surveillance cameras. He said other steps have also been taken, and that the center has worked closely with police, to improve safety.
He said neither justice nor retribution was on his mind following the judge’s decision. Fine said the Ashkenaz philosophy is focused on non-violence and, after the robbery, recalled the outpouring of support people had shared, including well wishes for the recovery of the victims and prayers for everyone who had suffered as a result.
“What this has made me think about is how people are coming together and how supportive the community is, even in the face of adversity,” he said. “It lets us know how much love is out there. It’s really nice to feel that. The community is unshaken in our mission of bringing love and peace through music and dance.”
For many, the shooting was eerily reminiscent of Dec. 19, 1996, when the founder and owner of Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, David Nadel, was shot and killed by a disgruntled and drunk patron Nadel had ejected from the club earlier that evening. The perpetrator has never been caught.
Nadel transformed Ashkenaz from a decrepit building into a thriving music hall that featured performers from around the world. After his death, Ashkenaz supporters bought the building from Nadel’s family, turned the business into a non-profit, and continued to offer a broad array of music. Ashkenaz has also become a community center, with classes, dance nights and a place for young musicians to perform.
Police release name of Ashkenaz shooting suspect (03.19.13)
Ashkenaz ‘celebrates for peace’ after shootings (03.18.13)
Two Ashkenaz employees shot during robbery (03.16.13)
Ashkenaz provides music, ‘living room’ for activists (07.21.11)
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