Two suspects pleaded not guilty in a Burlington courtroom Thursday to charges related to the shooting death of a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man early Sunday in City Hall Park.
Christopher Crawford, 42, of Sicklerville, New Jersey, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Bryan C. Rogers II of Philadelphia, according to court documents. Joseph K. Craig, 59, of Swanton, is charged with aiding in the commission of first-degree murder.
Crawford, who has a criminal record that includes eight felony convictions, is also wanted by authorities in New Jersey, police said.
A day after their arrests by Burlington police, both men appeared with their public defenders in Chittenden County Superior Court remotely from the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. Judge Alison Arms ordered the defendants held without bail until further hearings are scheduled.
If convicted, they each face a prison term of up to 35 years to life, without the possibility of parole.
Rogers had recently moved to Burlington, and the suspects do not live in Vermont, Acting Police Chief Jon Murad said at a press conference at the Burlington Police Department Thursday afternoon.
He referred to the shooting as “a stone cold whodunit” and an incident of “great, great concern.” It occurred amid a strong police presence, including four Burlington police officers and six state troopers on patrol, Murad said, as it was the first weekend since most college students returned.
“We were able to respond within seconds to the shooting but this individual was willing to undertake this act despite the presence of that much law enforcement,” he said.
Police are still looking for a motive but drugs and “narcotics trafficking” are “strongly suspected,” Murad said. They are also still investigating whether Crawford was prohibited from having a firearm because of his past convictions, and where the gun in his possession came from.
According to the affidavit of probable cause compiled by Burlington Police Det. Oren Byrnes, Rogers’ girlfriend, Rayonna King, said she was sitting next to Rogers on a stone wall near Burlington City Arts when someone approached from behind. Rogers was “shot twice in the back of the head, from close range, without any warning,” Byrnes wrote.
Police were later able to view the suspects’ activity before the shooting via security camera footage, according to Byrnes, who wrote that Crawford had been “lying in wait before he murdered” Rogers.
Footage showed Crawford entering City Hall Park almost 20 minutes before the shooting and looking in Rogers’ direction, Byrnes wrote. He then left, circled the area and re-entered at about 12:40 a.m., at which point he shot Rogers, the affidavit states.
As people ran from the scene, another man was seen getting out of a dark car and walking toward the shooting scene. Later identified as Craig, he “watches for a moment, turns around and walks a short distance away, turns back again and watches for another moment and then walks back” toward the car, according to the affidavit.
At about 12:42 a.m., security footage showed Crawford “walking north on St. Paul Street” and getting into the rear driver’s side seat of the vehicle, the affidavit states.
On Wednesday at about 10:30 a.m., detectives spotted a car matching the description and pulled the vehicle over in the area of College and Church streets. Byrnes, the police detective, responded and identified the driver as Craig.
Craig said he knew one of the two men in the backseat as “Mike” from prison, according to the affidavit. After police noted “Mike” looked similar to the videos and photos of the suspect, he told them he had a gun in his bag and verbally identified himself as Crawford. Police found he had a warrant out of New Jersey for failing to appear in court post arraignment for a cocaine sale charge. Both men were arrested and brought to the police station Wednesday, according to the affidavit.
After the arrest, Craig told police he has known Crawford for “a number of weeks” and that Crawford lived in Winooski at another person’s house, according to the affidavit. He also said he drove Crawford and two “nephews” to St. Albans “where they sold illicit drugs.”
Craig also told police he was at the scene Sunday and had brought Crawford with him, but did not witness the shooting because the public restrooms blocked his view. He said he went closer to examine the scene and was briefly detained by state troopers but went on his way, according to the affidavit.
Crawford denied murdering Rogers, according to the affidavit. He said he was in the area before the shooting but did not stay long, and acknowledged that still photos pulled off security cameras that night were of him.
Officials at the press conference Thursday said they did not have further information about the suspects’ time spent or relationship in prison, nor why troopers had pulled Craig over on Wednesday.
“All we know is that they met in jail and that they have been interacting since being out but I don’t know when that was,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George.
A targeted shooting like this may be rare and isolated “but I know that our community is concerned about this,” Murad said at the press conference. “I know that people are fearful about what’s going on. We are concerned about the direction in which the city is going with regards to certain kinds of crime … particularly gunfire.”
George, the prosecutor, said holding the suspects without bail “is the most punitive thing we can do. We’ve used it in every single one of these cases where somebody has been arrested for a shooting incident and we will continue to do that when we have the evidence to do so.”
Mayor Miro Weinberger called for greater inter-city and inter-agency participation and pointed to ongoing efforts among the downtown community to boost safety such as the Burlington Business Association trying to bring back security details.
During a brief presentation, Murad said Burlington averaged two gunfire incidents per year from 2012 through 2019. (He defined such incidents as occasions when a firearm was discharged in what police suspect was a criminal manner.) There were 12 in 2020 and 14 in 2021. Sunday’s homicide was the 23rd gunfire incident in the city this year.
Of these, about six cannot be solved, 12 have involved a person being struck and three of those have been murders, Murad said. Burlington police have made arrests in 13 of those 23 cases, including in seven of the 12 cases where someone was struck, he noted.
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