On a November night five years ago, masked men kicked in the door to a Bakersfield apartment and opened fire. Their target, police believe, was a West Side Crips gang member.
He wasn’t home. But his pregnant girlfriend and her two young children were.
Gunfire struck and killed 3-year-old Major Sutton. His brother, 5, and mother were wounded but survived.
The shooting stunned the community, prompting an outpouring of anger and calls for justice. Law enforcement promised a thorough, relentless investigation.
They kept that promise, placing two alleged shooters in custody. Keeping them there, however, proved unexpectedly difficult.
Authorities obtained new information in Major’s death during a sweeping 10-month investigation into criminal activity by the West Side Crips culminating in December 2017 with the arrests of more than 40 people connected to the gang. Charges, including federal offenses, were filed against a number of gang members and associates.
Prosecutors announced charges in Sutton’s killing two months later, naming three suspects: Tyrone Johnson, David Palms and Myeisha Dale. All three were ordered held without bail.
It’s alleged Johnson, 25, and Palms, 23, fired the shots while Dale served as a getaway driver.
Witnesses are often reluctant to cooperate in the case of gang killings, but a young boy’s death by gunfire apparently prompted people to come forward. According to court documents, anonymous tips helped lead police to the suspects, and evidence gathered through wiretaps and shoe prints, among other evidence, led to the filing of charges.
A prior incident also played a role.
Police said in the documents they started looking at Johnson and Palms as the gunmen because the killing bore similarities to another shooting in which they were suspects. In that incident, three people broke into an apartment and shot and killed a man in bed with his girlfriend and two children.
A key piece of evidence in Major’s shooting was a distinctive Vans shoe print left on the apartment door. Police contacted Johnson a day after the shooting and noticed he wore Vans shoes.
They arrested him and seized the shoes for testing, revealing they were a match in size, brand and tread pattern for the print on the door, documents said. However, the evidence was not conclusive and Johnson was released from custody.
Meanwhile, tips kept pouring in. A confidential informant and multiple anonymous callers named Johnson and Palms as the killers, according to the documents.
Johnson and an alibi witness gave conflicting statements on where they were the night of the shooting, documents said. Dale claimed she was at home, but GPS data obtained from her cellphone placed it in the area of the shooting, police said in the filings.
During another arrest days after the shooting, Johnson, placed in the back of a patrol car, was recorded telling another person, “They know bro that I kicked the door with the right. That’s why they coming to talk.”
Investigators recorded phone calls Johnson made from jail. During one conversation, he told a woman he was going to “take a life sentence,” according to the documents, adding, “I pulled that trigga (sic) (expletive)!”
Johnson and Palms are charged with first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and multiple firearm-related offenses.
Charges were dismissed against Dale after the 33-year-old died last year while in custody. Coroner’s reports say she died of natural causes, with seizure disorder listed as cause of death and bleeding within the skull — possibly resulting from high blood pressure — a contributing factor.
Early April 28, 2021, staff at Lerdo Jail heard noises on the roof. They dismissed them as the scampering of cats or raccoons and went back to work.
An hour later, while reviewing surveillance footage, staff discovered the noises had been made by mammals of the two-legged variety: Two men, dressed only in white boxer shorts and shoes, darted across the Justice Facility main entrance roof and slid down flag poles, according to sheriff’s reports.
Staff locked down the facility and performed an emergency head count. When they got to the cell housing Palms and Johnson, they saw what appeared to be an inmate in the top bunk and another in the bottom bunk, covered with blankets. They didn’t respond to deputies’ commands.
Deputies entered the cell and found the bunks contained bags of liquid placed so they imitated a torso, with newspapers and toilet paper rolled up to simulate a head, according to the reports. Socks tucked into shoes had been placed near the bottom of the bunks to complete the effect.
Detentions deputies found an 18-by-18-inch hole in the ceiling where metal had been cut and pulled down, leading to a crawl space and air ducts, according to the reports. Rope and torn clothing were found in the crawl space. A metal sheet and pieces of metal were found under the bottom bunk.
A message written on the cell wall may have been a taunt aimed at jail staff. “Now you see” was written on the east wall, “now you don’t” on the west wall, the documents say.
Shafter police arrested Palms at about 6:14 a.m. at the Dollar General at 337 E. Lerdo Highway in Shafter. He was taken to sheriff’s office headquarters on Norris Road for questioning.
Deputies pressed Palms for information on how he got out, but he was uncooperative, the filings say.
A residential burglary that occurred the morning of the escape was later connected to Johnson.
A man awoke to find someone running through his backyard, according to the documents. He told investigators he went outside and found a man trying to steal his car.
The resident chased the man and grabbed a backpack from him before he got away, according to the documents. The backpack belonged to the resident and contained his Chromebook and car keys, which had been taken from a kitchen counter, the filings say.
Johnson managed to evade authorities for nearly three months. He was arrested June 21, 2021, after a vehicle chase through Bakersfield in which he was a passenger, police said.
The vehicle crashed at River Boulevard and Bernard Street and police rearrested Johnson, and also took the driver into custody.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood has said policies and procedures at the detention center were being reviewed to help prevent further escapes. He revealed Johnson and Palms were kept in the same cell despite a previous escape attempt.
The two are no longer housed together.
Trial is currently set for Sept. 19, with a status conferenced scheduled next month. There have been multiple postponements, the most recent occurring in June when another attorney was assigned to the case and needed more time to prepare.