For Rhonda Gullette, the meaning of Christmas was forever changed 29 years ago.
“I don’t really celebrate the holidays like other people,” said Gullette, whose 18-year-old sister Danita was one of six people shot and killed over three days around Christmas in 1992. “I go back in my mind and I think about the day I found out that my sister was killed.”
Four young people embarked on a shooting rampage that left six people dead, two others injured and impacted scores of others — friends, relatives and members of the public — in countless ways.
“It will never be forgotten by the public because it was so heinous and so sinister even in the light of the things that are going on today,” said Doyle Burke, a Dayton homicide detective who worked the case.
» MAP AND TIMELINE: What happened during the Christmas killings spree in 1992?
Starting as petty robberies that netted a plaid coat, a pair of sneakers and $44, the crimes escalated to something else: joy killings.
“They were just killing people randomly for nothing, literally nothing,” Burke said. “There was not even a motive in these cases. It was just for fun.”
Said Dayton Police Sgt. George Hammann at the time: “They were like a shark. Once they tasted blood they couldn’t stop.”
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The four people convicted of the killings were part of the so-called “Downtown Posse,” a group that spent most days bumming money on Courthouse Square.
Until they graduated to something much worse.
Dec. 24, 1992
In the early hours of Christmas Eve, Laura Taylor, 16, and her boyfriend, Marvallous Keene, 19, put in play a plan to rob a man Taylor figured would pay them for sex.
Taylor called Joseph Wilkerson, 34, and promised him an orgy. As part of the plan, the couple recruited 20-year-old Heather Nicole Matthews, who had been released from prison a few months before.
Taylor, said Burke, was “tough as nails” and the intellectual leader of the group. She also proved capable of murder.
As Wilkerson was bound to the headboard in his bedroom with electrical cords, the trio scoured the house for valuables and found a .32 caliber Derringer that Keene used to shoot Wilkerson in the chest, according to police records.
Matthews would later testify at her trial in 1993 that Taylor put a .25-caliber weapon to Wilkerson’s head and shot him a second time.
The three ransacked the dead man’s house, stole his car and used it to hunt for more victims. On Neal Avenue, the group, which now included Matthews’ 17-year-old boyfriend, DeMarcus Maurice Smith, found 18-year-old Danita Gullette talking on a pay phone.
Danita, a senior at Patterson Cooperative High School and the mother of a two-year-old, was a complete stranger. At least one account would later say she was shot for her Fila tennis shoes.
Police found her body on the ground outside the telephone booth, shot five times. The pavement was covered with blood and .25-caliber “Blazer” aluminum bullet shell casings.
Those casings would help investigators tie the events together, along with random nature of some of the victims and the sheer senselessness of the crimes.
Taken from Gullette were her coat, shoes and a backpack containing 50 cents.
The group would return to Wilkerson’s house and stay the night, but attempted to claim one more Christmas Eve victim: Matthew’s ex-boyfriend, Jeffrey Wright.
» FROM 2009: 'Christmas killer' Keene executed
Smith put four bullets into Wright’s legs, according to police, but he escaped to a neighbor’s house and survived.
“The Wilkerson killing gave them a base of operation and a vehicle,” said Burke. “They could have stopped by just gagging him … but I don’t think that was ever in their game plan.”
Dec. 25, 1992
On Christmas Day, the 16-year-old Taylor coaxed her old boyfriend, Richmond Maddox, 19, from his parents’ home and the two left in Maddox’s car, with Keene, Smith and Matthews trailing behind.
Maddox eventually spotted the trailing car, became suspicious and gunned the accelerator. Taylor put a Derringer to his right temple and fired.
Taylor bailed out of the car before it crashed on Benton Avenue. Maddox was later declared dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
Burke says spree killers are exceedingly violent, often choose their victims at random and kill for the enjoyment of it.
“While there were multiple victims, there are more victims,” he points out. “It’s the family members and friends that will never outlive this.”
Sarah Abraham, mother of three, received a hand-drawn picture from her daughter for Christmas.
A day later she became the fourth victim of the Christmas posse.
Dec. 26, 1992
Abraham was behind the counter at the Short Stop Mini Market, the family-owned grocery on West Fifth Street, when Taylor walked in to case the place.
Minutes later, Smith and Keene walked in, and Keene shot Abraham twice in the head, the weapon’s bullets similar to the casings found next to Gullette’s body on Neal Avenue.
A witness in the store was shot in the hand and stomach but survived. Abraham died five days later.
This time, the gang got away with $44.
Moving around the city, the gang switched license plates on multiple stolen vehicles to elude police.
Thinking some within the group might snitch, the four ringleaders — Taylor, Keene, Matthews and Smith — turned on two of their own.
On the witness stand, Matthews said the group believed Wendy Cottrill, 16 and Marvin Washington, 18. could implicate them in the previous deaths.
After Abraham was killed, the crew picked up Cottrill and Washington and bought some beer and wine. Keene, saying he had to urinate, pulled into a gravel yard on Richley Drive.
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Smith and Keene ordered Cottrill and Washington out of the car, marched them behind a large pile of dirt, and executed them.
Their bodies would not be found until the killers were in custody.
Dec. 26, 1992
Cottrill and Washington marked the fifth and sixth victims of the killers’ rampage. A woman airing up her tires at a Salem Avenue gas station might have been the seventh, but she ran when her Dodge Shadow was stolen at gunpoint.
A short time later, some 72 hours after the first killing, Dayton Police Sgt. John Huber eyed a suspicious vehicle — that same Dodge Shadow — on Kumler Avenue. Smith, Keene, Matthews and Taylor were inside.
Huber called in a plate check, and when the registration didn’t come back to a Dodge Shadow, units closed in from all directions.
After so much violence, the gang’s capture was fairly uneventful. Smith ran into a nearby house but was quickly captured, while the other three — Keene, Matthews and Taylor — were taken into custody without incident.
Huber, who is now the Director of Public Safety for Sinclair Community College, said afterward he learned that Taylor had ordered Keene to shoot Huber but for some reason he didn’t.
“It was a tragic crime at Christmas, a tough time of year,” Huber says now. “It’s sad that we couldn’t have gotten to them sooner. There was no rhyme or reason. There was no pattern.”
Burke, who will include the “Christmas killings” in a book he is writing about his career, said the case exemplifies how homicide squads and uniformed officers, working together, can solve even the most difficult crimes.
“This is one of the cases I’m most proud of,” said Burke.
Taylor and Matthews are serving life sentences for murder at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, while Smith is serving a life murder sentence at the Mansfield Correctional Institute.
On July 21, 2009, Keene, who was convicted in five of the killings, was executed by lethal injection at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
He had no last words.
Today: ‘How do you ever forget?’
Gullette, who helped raise her sister’s daughter and is now a victim advocate with the Montgomery County Victim Witness Division, said she combats the flood of memories brought by the holidays by helping others.
“I try to shift my focus off myself and what has happened to me and what has happened to my family members onto service,” she said.
“I serve in my church. I serve in my community. I like feeding the homeless. So from September 1st to January 1, I serve.”
She knows the final words of her sister, “Don’t shoot me,” will always haunt her.
And she knows she will never forget what Danita meant to her and others, particularly this time of year.
“How do you ever forget you had a sister?” she said. “How do you ever forget you had a sister that was killed on Christmas Eve?”