By Daniel Silliman
They used to be neighbors. They knew each other, had close friends in common, and were supposed to be going to the same party.
The two men, both young fathers from the northern end of Clayton County, were connected before the one, Jerome Burgess, drove the car used in the drive-by killing of the other, Dana Varner.
They were connected before that bullet.
Burgess, a 19-year-old, also known as "Oops," is accused of being an accomplice to the Oct. 26 shooting of Varner, a 16-year-old who was standing on a Riverdale sidewalk when he was shot down with an assault rifle fired from a moving vehicle.
According to police, Burgess is a gang member with "an abandoned and malignant heart."
Detective Michael Medious said all the evidence gathered in the murder, so far, points to Burgess and Andre "Hot Deezy" Weems, alleged members of the Murk Mob street gang.
Burgess' mother and sister, however, speaking to the Clayton News Daily on Friday, said Jerome Burgess isn't like that.
They said he was driving, during the drive-by shooting, but he was under duress, and there were mitigating factors.
"My son's not a bad person," said Terry Burgess. "I know you just think, 'Well that's his mom,' but my son's not tough. He just had a baby. He was going to college in January. He works at UPS and they just had him full-time ... He might look tough, but he's not tough."
When Burgess was arrested on Oct. 31, he told detectives he was there, during the shooting, driving his mom's SUV, according to court records. He said he was in the car with a crowd of people and they were looking for a party, when all of a sudden, Weems had a gun and ordered him to turn around and speed by a crowd of people standing on the sidewalk.
Burgess said he didn't want to do it, but Weems pointed the gun at him and said "drive."
His older sister, Ashley, told a similar story, saying how Burgess tried to flash his lights at the idling crowd of kids, to warn them the drive-by was coming.
The witnesses to the shooting said they saw the flashing lights, but they didn't know what that meant, or if that meant anything. They just saw the SUV turn around, and saw the lights flash, saw the SUV speed their way, saw the gun come out the window, and the bullets start to fire.
"I know my son would of went straight," Terry Burgess said. "But that guy made him turn around."
That's what they told the detective, too, but there was at least one witness in the back of the car, at the time of the shooting, and he didn't support Burgess' version of events.
"No one confirmed that story," Medious said. "I've seen no evidence of that. That's what they're saying, but it's like political propaganda: They're just hoping the more they say it and put it out there, it'll be true ... The bottom line is, he was involved in a drive-by shooting."
Medious said both young men were gang members, and that's why they did the drive-by shooting. It was random and purposeless, just meant to perpetuate violence and fear.
The Burgess family agrees with that, they just blame it all on Weems, who they say, they don't know at all. He was just, they said, shooting out the window for no apparent reason. But it was him, "Hot Deezy," they said, not the one called "Oops."
Terry and Ashley Burgess said Jerome Burgess didn't have any animosity toward Varner, and never would have wanted him dead. Varner, they said, was dating the sister of Burgess' best friend, and she's pregnant. Burgess was looking for that girl's party, that night, they said, and had just talked to Varner.
"My brother wouldn't have ever hurt Dana," Ashley Burgess said. "It wasn't anything like that."
The two women said they sent a number of witnesses to Medious, thinking he needed more information, and then Jerome would be cleared of any charges. Now that the 19-year-old is in jail, they said they're working with an attorney to mount a vigorous defense.
Ashley said she's quit her job, to give all her time to seeing her brother free.
"I just don't see accomplice," she said. "A life sentence for something you didn't do. That just isn't right."
Terry said she would do whatever it takes to help her son. "I'm not the mother who's just going to let my son go to jail and be labeled a murderer," she said. "Somebody's got to pay for this, pay for these deaths, but my son didn't do it. My son didn't shoot no one."
Burgess is next due in court on Dec. 2, for a probable cause hearing. At the hearing, Medious will present the probable cause for arresting the 19-year-old on a charge of murder.