Jury finds Kentucky man not guilty of murder of man gunned down at Labor Day cookout
Published 7:12 am Saturday, February 26, 2022
For three days two families sat on opposite sides of a Franklin Circuit Courtroom listening to testimony in the shooting death case of Anthony Hendrix Jr., who was gunned down at a cookout in East Frankfort Park on Labor Day in 2019.
It took a 12-person jury just 3½ hours to acquit 30-year-old Justin Cromer of murder on Thursday afternoon.
“I’m so sorry for that other family,” Cromer’s mother, Latonya Potts, told The State Journal after the verdict was read.
Sept. 2, 2019
A few hundred Kentucky State University students gathered at the park for a cookout to mark the unofficial end of summer and a day off from classes.
Cromer, who had previously played on the Thorobred football team but was not currently a student at the school, and his roommate, Chadwick Rives, had just arrived and the parking lot was so packed with vehicles that cars were lined up on each side of the road around East Frankfort Park.
Rives was walking ahead of Cromer, who had stopped outside his roommate’s white Dodge Durango to smoke a Black & Mild cigar before joining the party.
On his way to the pavilion where the festivities were underway, Cromer took the time to chat with two women when multiple gunshots pierced through the air creating what several witnesses called “chaos and commotion.”
“My first thought was to get the hell out of there and I made a B-line to my vehicle as fast as I could,” Cromer testified, adding that he didn’t know which direction the shots were coming from.
He said people were running everywhere and he had to start and stop the SUV several times so as not to hit anyone as they fled the area. Then he heard more gunshots.
“I’m like are they shooting at me,” he said on the stand. “I was focused on getting away.”
That’s when he drove Rives’ Durango through a locked gate near Bonnycastle Drive to get out of the park.
Ann Moore, who was at the park while her 9-year-old son practiced baseball, told the jury that she heard multiple gunshots and immediately got her son in the car. That’s when she saw the SUV crash through the park gate.
Cromer said that he never made it to the party or knew who was shot. When he got home he said he tried to call Rives twice to check on him, but he never answered.
Frankfort police, fire and EMS personnel were called to the park at approximately 5:40 p.m. The first responding officer, Shane Music, told the jury it was “one of the most chaotic scenes I’ve ever seen.”
“A lot of people were yelling and screaming ‘he needs help,’” Music testified, adding that the crowd was difficult to control and uncooperative. “I tried to assess the threat and asked several people where the shooter was and they said he fled.”
Hendrix, 25, was bleeding heavily, had no pulse and his eyes were fixed, according to the officer, who immediately began to perform CPR until medics arrived.
Andy McCrystal, an EMT with the Frankfort Fire Department and EMS, was in the first ambulance that arrived on scene after receiving a call that multiple victims had been shot.
He told the jury that Hendrix had several penetration wounds to his upper body and that he was cool to the touch and not breathing.
“I wanted to stabilize (him) as soon as I could to get him transported (to the hospital),” McCrystal added.
EMS continued medical care and chest compressions enroute to Frankfort Regional Medical Center, but there was no change in Hendrix’s condition. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Dr. Meredith Frank, a state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Hendrix, told the jury that he suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his torso and upper extremities.
“It’s hard to say exactly how many shots were fired, but he had at least 10 entrance wounds,” she stated.
A toxicology report found that Hendrix had alcohol and THC in his blood. Frank went on to add that he was not intoxicated though. Oxycodone was found in his urine, but not his blood. The medical examiner explained that meant that his body had already metabolized it and he likely took the medication in the days leading up to his death.
Jenypher Poole, a KSU student, said she was standing about 8 to 10 feet away from Hendrix, who was unarmed and went by the nickname “Tone,” when the shooting occurred. She testified that she saw Cromer, whose nickname is “Chrome,” walk up and he “upped” his gun.
“I saw Chrome with a gun that day. I didn’t see him shoot Tone, but he did start shooting,” she stated. “I saw him shooting. He was shooting everywhere.”
According to Poole, who later identified Cromer in a photo lineup at the police station, he jumped into the passenger’s side of a white SUV and then drove off.
“I know what I saw,” she told the jury. “Nobody else at the park, that I know, had a weapon.”
Poole also stated that she saw Lachanee Singleton, who along with Robert Judkins was also shot during the melee, on the ground. Neither of their injuries were life-threatening.
“I put pressure on her wound,” Poole testified. “She was saying she couldn’t breathe and stuff.”
Singleton was shot in her right leg and suffered severe nerve damage. On Tuesday, when she took the stand, she identified Cromer as the shooter and stated he had a small handgun.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland asked, “Is there any doubt that it was the defendant who shot you?”
“No, I saw his face,” Singleton explained.
“I watched him stand over my friend and murder him,” she said. “He emptied out the rest of his clip into my friend and the only thing I heard my friend say was ow.”
Singleton stated that Hendrix was shot while standing underneath a tree, but he was later moved between two vehicles. She didn’t know who moved him.
Judkins, who didn’t testify at Cromer’s trial, was shot in the right bicep. The bullet struck his collarbone and exited his body.
FPD Capt. Scott Morgan, who responded to East Frankfort Park 15-20 minutes after the call came in, said people were running in all sorts of different directions and police began securing the scene and setting up a perimeter. His job was to document the crime scene by creating a hand-drawn diagram of the area including the locations of vehicles and items on the ground.
Sgt. Todd Smither and other officers took photos of every vehicle’s license plate and the vehicle occupants as they left the park. In total, 140 photos of people and 60 photos of vehicles were taken.
FPD Detective Artie Stratton, the lead investigator on the case, testified that many of the witnesses — including Judkins and Singleton, who were both injured — were uncooperative.
Singleton, who was taken to the University of Kentucky hospital and released later that night, initially refused to speak with police. She told the jury that when she was approached by police at the hospital, she wasn’t mentally ready to discuss what had happened.
“I hadn’t even talked to my parents about it,” she stated, saying that at the time she was confined to a wheelchair and told by doctors that she might never walk again.
When Cleveland asked her why she chose to testify at the trial, she replied, “I really need justice for what happened to me.”
Stratton was questioned by Cromer’s attorney, public defender Rodney Barnes, regarding the evidence that was collected, which included 10 9mm shell casings, cartridges, four bullets, the victim’s cellphone and clothing.
The detective told the jury that the shell casings were not tested for fingerprints or touch DNA.
“Shell casings can be tested to tell whether they came from one gun or multiple guns,” Barnes explained. “Did you send them to the lab to be tested?”
“No,” Stratton said, adding that police weren’t able to recover the weapon that was used to fire them.
Barnes then described the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), a shell casings database that police can use to see whether the gun that fired the shots was used in other crimes. He asked if that was done in this case.
“At the time I was not aware of NIBIN,” Stratton stated.
“You don’t need a firearm to determine if shell casings were from two different guns,” the defense lawyer added.
When Barnes inquired about Hendrix’s cellphone, Stratton remarked that he was not aware it had been collected until it was entered into evidence by Cleveland on Tuesday.
“We don’t know what’s on that cellphone because it was never sent out (to be tested),” the defense attorney remarked. “In fact, it has never been turned on by anybody.”
Poole, one of the witnesses who testified for the prosecution, had previously told the jury that Cromer had posted a message on Snapchat the day before the shooting that said, “MFs gonna learn.”
Barnes then questioned whether a search warrant was obtained for Cromer’s social media accounts. Stratton said it wasn’t.
“If you don’t look, you can’t find it,” the defense lawyer added.
Barnes called four character witnesses for the defense, including a friend, a former girlfriend, his mother and grandmother — none of whom were at the park gathering.
All of them said that Cromer was into sports, especially football and basketball, and they had never known him to carry a gun.
Jayla Watkins, who had planned on attending the get-together at East Frankfort Park with Cromer but changed her mind when he came to pick her up beforehand, described the 30-year-old as an avid gamer and homebody.
She said the two struck up a friendship on campus and would play video games together.
Watkins, who lost a brother to gun violence and suffered from PTSD, told the jury that she couldn’t play shooting games such as Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty because it brought up the trauma and Cromer respected that.
“Justin is not the partying type whatsoever,” she explained. “He never had a need (for a gun).”
Potts, Cromer’s mother, said he was brought up in a rough neighborhood in East St. Louis, Illinois, but that she kept her sons away from drugs and gun violence.
“He’s my good kid. He’s the smart one,” she stated. “He always wanted to go to college and play football. He was always trying to better himself and didn’t like drugs or fighting.”
She testified that he was shot in the leg and side in his hometown while walking to his aunt’s house because a group of men wanted his letterman’s jacket and shoes.
Cromer was running away when he was shot and did not have a weapon on him.
He took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday and explained that he, Rives and Hendrix were roommates for about two months before Hendrix moved out.
In a police report that Rives filed on Nov. 7, 2018 — 10+ months before the shooting at the park — he claimed that Hendrix stole a rifle, two cellphones and about $500 in cash from him when he moved out of the Meadowview Drive house the three men were sharing.
Cromer testified that he had heard about the theft, but never had an argument with Hendrix.
“I was more so disappointed in him. He ultimately decided to do something else,” Cromer said. “I can’t be mad at him. It was his choice.”
Cromer said that after leaving the park on Sept. 2, 2019, he returned to his house and called a friend in Detroit about a job opportunity. He caught a ride to Michigan with another friend and the pair left around 8 p.m. that night.
He also told the jury that he returned to Frankfort twice that fall — including the following weekend. He explained that the last time he came back to the capital city Rives had moved out of the residence they shared and his stuff was gone.
Nearly two months after the shooting, Cromer was arrested by U.S. marshals as he was leaving a Detroit restaurant.
“They came up on me real fast with their guns drawn,” he stated, adding that he didn’t even know what they wanted him for.
Cromer waived extradition on Oct. 29, 2019, and was indicted for murder, a capital offense, two weeks later. He remained in the Franklin County Regional Jail until a jury of seven women and five men returned a not guilty verdict on Wednesday.
After expressing sympathy for Hendrix’s family and with tears running down her face, Cromer’s mother told the newspaper that she was content with the verdict.
“I haven’t seen or touched my son in 2½ years,” she remarked. “I’m so happy for my son.”