Prosecutors say Wesley Gennings had just started selling marijuana and was lured to a Federal Way parking lot, where he was robbed and fatally shot in the back of the head in February 2016. His alleged killers, who were 14 and 16 at the time, are now on trial in King County Superior Court.
The last time Leilani Gennings saw her 16-year-old son alive, he kissed her, said he loved her and told her he would be right back, a King County Superior Court jury heard Monday during opening statements in the first-degree murder trial of two Federal Way teens accused of killing the boy.
Michael Rogers and Diante Pellum were 16 and 14 on Feb. 13, 2016, when they are accused of luring Wesley Gennings to a parking lot in order to rob him of marijuana, which Gennings had started selling about a month earlier to ease financial pressure on his single mother, the jury heard.
Pellum, whose fingerprints were found inside Gennings’ car, is accused of firing a shot into the back of Gennings’ head from the back seat while Rogers, the front-seat passenger, is alleged to have destroyed evidence of the crime, crushing Gennings’ cellphone and tossing other items into a pond, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Phillips. Baggies identical to the ones Gennings used to package marijuana were later found in Rogers’ house, she said.
Gennings died in the driver’s seat of his car, the jury heard. Parked outside a Taco Bell restaurant on Southwest Campus Drive, Gennings was found dead with his seat belt still fastened and his headlights on, though his keys were missing, Phillips told the jury of seven men and seven women.
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Phillips explained Rogers and Pellum are charged with first-degree murder not because the killing was premeditated but because Gennings was killed during the commission of a robbery — and both teens are equally culpable for his death, she said.
“Yes, these defendants are young. So was Wesley. More importantly, murder is murder,” Phillips said, telling jurors the state would use cellphone and social-media records as well as statements from witnesses, high-school students, teachers, parents and detectives to prove their guilt.
Defense attorney Joshua Poisel, who is representing Pellum along with attorney Colleen O’Connor, said his client, who is now 16, turned himself in for a crime he didn’t commit. Poisel briefly spoke of Pellum’s turbulent childhood, saying Pellum had “bounced from house to house to house” between ages 5 and 10, that he struggled academically but excelled at football.
“Wesley Gennings is dead and the government is now trying to rip Diante from his family,” said Poisel.
Rogers, now 18, is represented by attorneys John Henry Browne and Craig Suffian. His defense team did not make an opening statement, with Browne telling the jury their opening would be reserved until after the state finishes presenting its case.
But court records show that Rogers admits being present when Gennings was killed but claims he didn’t know Pellum intended to rob and shoot Gennings.
Court records also indicate that the judge has ordered that jurors will not be told of Rogers’ and Pellum’s alleged gang ties.
Rogers was arrested Feb. 18, 2016, at Thomas Jefferson High School, also in Federal Way, and was found with a handgun hidden in his backpack and a loaded magazine in his pocket, according to court records.
Pellum, who was then a student at Saghalie Middle School, turned himself in on Feb. 21, 2016.
Under state law, 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious violent offenses like murder are “auto declined” to superior court and charged as adults, which is what happened with Rogers.
But because Pellum was under the age of 16 when Gennings was killed, he first underwent a decline hearing in juvenile court, and a judge ruled in November 2016 that he too would stand trial as an adult.
At the time, Pellum was the first defendant in King County under the age of 16 to be charged as an adult with murder in more than eight years.
Testimony in Rogers’ and Pellum’s trial before Superior Court Judge Sandra Widlan is expected to last about a month.
On Monday, Leilani Gennings was the first witness to take the stand. Her son, then a sophomore at Decatur High School, would have turned 19 at the end of the month. She rattled off the names of her son’s five closest friends, boys whom he had started kindergarten with, plus a couple of others who later joined their group.
She testified that she recognized Rogers’ name — he and Wesley Gennings had previously played football together — but they weren’t friends and Rogers wasn’t among the group of kids who routinely hung out at the Gennings’ apartment, playing video games, raiding the fridge and making “a mess in my kitchen,” Leilani Gennings said.
Before her son’s death, she testified he had never heard Pellum’s name before.
Leilani Gennings spoke of her son’s busy athletic schedule — he was involved in track, basketball, football, wrestling and tae kwon do — and how she bought him a car for $2,500 with her winnings from a $3 scratch card. She said she had no idea Wesley was selling pot and they “would’ve had issues” had she known.
After Wesley Gennings walked out of their apartment for the last time, Leilani Gennings said “something seemed strange,” so she went into her son’s room and saw he’d taken a bag off a shelf.
“I hadn’t seen it off the shelf in so long. It had dust on it,” she recalled, and that’s when she knew something was wrong. “He had something in that bag he didn’t want me to know about.”
Her son wasn’t answering his phone and she left the apartment to go exchange some items at a nearby mall, Leilani Gennings testified.
She was stopped at a stop light on 19th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Campus Drive “when I just happened to look out of the corner of my eye and saw the rims of my son’s car,” parked outside of Taco Bell, she told the jury, explaining that Wesley’s car was black with white rims.
Asked when she learned Wesley was dead, Leilani Gennings said officers at the scene wouldn’t tell her much. She described standing in the pouring rain and seeing her child’s body lying on the ground outside his car.
“I know my son’s feet … That was his car, and that was his feet,” she said.
The trial continues Tuesday.