CROWN POINT — A Gary man charged in an alleged murder-for-hire plot to kill a state's witness was ordered released from jail on his own recognizance Friday after the state missed a deadline to keep him in custody while awaiting trial.
Ronnie E. Major, 49, was accused of paying Antoine J. Gates $10,000 to kill Jocelyn Blair the morning of Dec. 19, 2010, inside the Coney Island restaurant at 2490 Broadway in Gary to prevent Blair from testifying against him in an attempted murder case.
Major had no other pending criminal cases and was expected to be released Friday from the Lake County Jail, defense attorney Jamise Perkins said.
Lake Criminal Court Judge Samuel Cappas rescheduled Major's trial for the weeks of Feb. 3 and 10.
He was convicted in 2011 of battery with a deadly weapon in the case in which Blair would have been a witness, court records state. He was sentenced to two years in prison and released in early 2012, Indiana Department of Correction records show.
Major, Gates, 42, and Michael Rivera, 62, all of Gary, each were charged in December 2016 with murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with Blair's homicide.
Cappas granted Major's request for release on his own recognizance under Indiana Criminal Rule 4, which requires the state to bring a defendant to trial within six months while holding him in custody. The rule allows for exceptions when delays are caused by the defendant or a congested court calendar.
Major has worked with several attorneys since the case was filed, and some of the delays were attributable to him. However, Perkins wrote in a motion that more than six months in delays were attributable to the state.
A tangled web of violence
Perkins said the case is complicated because all of the key witnesses have been charged in other homicides.
The Blair homicide case hinges on a statement Major's nephew, Jamell J. Brooks Jr., 27, gave to police in April 2016, court records show.
Brooks was not charged in Blair's homicide, but he was among six people charged in May 2013 in connection with the August 2010 shooting death of 61-year-old Franklin Simmons in Gary.
Brooks pleaded guilty to an attempted burglary charge in April 2018 in connection with Simmons' homicide. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors were to dismiss two other felony cases against him. His sentence was to be capped at 20 years, but it's unclear if a sentencing hearing in December proceeded as scheduled because the case no longer appears in online court records.
Perkins said she has been told a murder case against Brooks was sealed.
She said she's started to review what prosecutors may have offered the witnesses in exchange for testimony in Major's case and suspects there may have been some "covert deals."
Perkins said prosecutors told her they have no written agreements with some witnesses.
"If you don't have a written deal, how come their cases are tracking Ronnie Major's?" Perkins said.
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Perkins said she's considering refiling a request for Brooks' mental health records made by one of Major's previous attorneys.
She believes Major is innocent and that more evidence will come out that at least raises a reasonable doubt regarding Major's involvement in Blair's homicide.
"He's looking forward to his day in court," she said.
The Lake County prosecutor's office declined to comment on the case.
Co-defendants' cases still pending
According to court records, Brooks confirmed for police in 2016 an anonymous tip that Major had hired Gates to kill Blair.
Brooks told police he drove Gates, who is his stepfather, and Jesse Carter IV to the Sin City Deciples' motorcycle clubhouse in Gary the morning Blair was killed at the direction of Major, records allege.
Rivera rode with Blair from the clubhouse to Coney Island restaurant as Brooks, Gates and Carter followed in another car, according to records. After Rivera and Blair arrived at the restaurant, Gates allegedly dropped Carter off at another location and returned to Coney Island.
Gates is accused of entering the restaurant and shooting Blair in the head. Rivera was shot in the leg.
Brooks told police Gates exited the restaurant and told him to drive off. They later met up with Major, who paid Gates about $10,000, court records allege.
Carter pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal in November for serving as the getaway driver in the shooting deaths of Simmons and Kevin Champion, 41, in August 2010 in Gary.
At the time, Carter was the fifth person to turn state's witness in the two murder cases. According to Carter's plea agreement, he also promised to cooperate with the state's prosecution of Gates and Major in the Blair case.
Rivera was released to the Lake County Community Corrections work-release program in March 2018 pending trial. His next court date is set for July 25.