The jury deliberated for less than one hour before returning verdicts of guilty on all counts against Rondaiges Harper, on trial for carjacking, kidnapping and conspiracy in a case in which the 89-year-old victim was locked in the trunk of her own car for two days.
Harper was convicted June 26 in Sussex County Superior Court of first-degree kidnapping, first-degree carjacking and two counts of second-degree conspiracy for his role in the crimes.
The victim, Margaret Smith of Slaughter Beach, now 90, testified June 25, recounting the night of March 18, 2013, when she was tossed into the trunk of her 2001 Buick LeSabre. She testified she spent the next two days in the trunk with no food, water, medication or bathroom.
Under questioning from prosecutor Melanie Withers, Smith said she had gone to Chicken Man in Milford. She was sitting in her car eating ice cream when she was asked for a ride by two girls, Junia McDonald and Jackeline Perez. Smith said she initially did not want to give the girls a lift, but she gave in and decided to help them.
Smith, who stands about 5 feet tall and speaks in a soft, halting voice, said the girls told her to drive to several houses in the Milford area before asking her for her keys. Smith said she refused, and a tussle ensued.
"There was two of them and one of me. I put up a little fight," she said.
Smith said she got out of the car and was close to the back when one of the girls popped open the trunk and shut her inside. The girls took her keys and $500 from her pocketbook and began driving.
"Thank God I didn't have a lot of junk in there. I was being thrown from one side to the other. They were going pretty fast. I was hoping the cops would catch them," Smith said.
She said she had never seen the girls before, and she did not notice much about their descriptions except that one was taller than the other.
When asked by Withers what she did in the trunk to pass the time, Smith said, "Pray, for one thing." She said did not feel she could talk to her kidnappers because they had the music on loud.
Smith was eventually dropped off in a graveyard, where she suffered head injuries and scrapes on her fingers and knees.
On cross-examination from defense attorney John Brady, Smith could not identify Harper. Brady also showed her the cane and bag of medications found in the graveyard, but Smith could not identify those items as hers.
"She just said she wanted to go home"
Phillip Brewer, who earlier pleaded guilty to second-degree kidnapping, carjacking and conspiracy for his part in Smith's kidnapping, took the stand to testify against Harper.
Brewer, tall and baby-faced with a mop of curly hair, said he was approached by McDonald and Perez to come with them in Smith's stolen car. He said he got in, but he did not know Smith was in trunk. The three then picked up Brewer's friend, Harper, who Brewer said he had known since third grade. Both boys are high school dropouts.
Holding his head in his hand and speaking in a deep, low voice, Brewer said the teens drove to the park and community center in Brewer's Coverdale Crossroads neighborhood. The group spent the time talking and listening to music, before heading to Royal Farms for gas. Brewer said they returned to the park and listened to the radio. Eventually, the battery in Smith's car died, and Brewer left to get his mother's car, hoping to use jumper cables to jump start the Buick.
After not finding any jumper cables in Smith's car, Brewer said he asked the girls to open the trunk to look there, but McDonald and Perez refused. The teens then split into the two cars, Brewer said, with himself and McDonald in his mother's car, and Harper and Perez in the other car. Brewer said he had sex with McDonald in the car, after which Harper approached, saying he believed someone was in the trunk of the Buick.
Brewer said they opened the trunk and saw Smith. Asking the girls why she was there, McDonald and Perez said they paid Smith to use the car. Brewer said all Smith would say is, "This is my car." He said he and Harper put her back in the trunk. Brewer was repeatedly at a loss to explain why he continued to go along, even though he said he and Harper took Smith out of the trunk at least one more time.
The group picked up Harper's cousin, who helped the teens rent a hotel room at the Days Inn in Seaford, but was not aware Smith was in the trunk. At one point, McDonald and Perez went shopping at Walmart, while Harper and Brewer went back to Coverdale to get marijuana, something Brewer said they did frequently over the two days Smith was in the trunk. The teens made a trip to McDonald's, where Brewer said McDonald asked Smith if she wanted some food.
"She just said she wanted to go home," Brewer said.
He said the teens did not discuss what to do with Smith until the end. Perez suggested going to Milford and burning the car with Smith inside, Brewer said, an idea seconded by McDonald. He said he and Harper vetoed this idea. As they were driving, Brewer said Harper suggested dropping her off at a secluded graveyard outside Bridgeville, which Harper knew about because his sister was buried there.
Brewer said he was against this idea.
"I didn't want to leave her out there," he said.
It was Harper and the girls, Brewer said, who got Smith out of the car at the graveyard. He said Smith was crying, and that she was having trouble walking.
The next day, Brewer said he, Harper, McDonald and Perez took Smith's Buick to their friend Denaya Smith's house in Bridgeville. Brewer said the teens were going to get gas when they were pulled over by Delaware State Police.
On cross-examination, Brady questioned Brewer's timeline of events and conflicting statements on whether he heard Harper, Brewer or Perez discussing what to do with Smith. Brady pointed out that at a reverse amenability hearing, Brewer said he could not hear over the music in the car, but at trial he said that he did hear. Deflecting blame from his client, Brady also got Brewer to testify that it was the girls who put Smith in the trunk.
Harper interview played
The prosecution's final witness of the day was Detective Bernard Gray, who conducted the interview of Harper after his arrest. Video of the interview was shown in court.
On the video, Harper said he was in the car with Perez when he heard a noise from the trunk. He said he went to look inside and found Smith. Harper told Gray he knew the car was stolen and that Smith was in the trunk.
At one point during testimony of Detective Robert Truitt, Harper suffered another involuntary seizure, a condition that manifested twice on Day 1 of testimony and resulted in a cancellation of proceedings June 24. Judge Richard Stokes said Harper was checked by doctors at Sussex Correctional Institution and his medication has been changed. Harper's seizures consist of brief spasms where Harper's body appears to go rigid for several seconds.