A murder case stemming from an allegedly gang-related brawl that led to the fatal 2015 shooting of Gerald Hightower Jr. has ended with a voluntary manslaughter plea.
Bernard “Butterball” Gibson’s plea before Judge Arthur Smith III also resolves charges related to his role in a 12-defendant armed robbery case involving multiple victims, leaving 11 suspects yet to go to trial.
In the Hightower homicide, Gibson and five other men suspected of being Gangster Disciples left Winston Road about 7 p.m. Jan. 7, 2015, to walk one block to Calvin Avenue to find a man they felt had disrespected one of their associates, said Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus.
In a backyard at 1024 Calvin Ave., they came upon a group of men huddled around a fire barrel, and after exchanging friendly greetings, they jumped the guy they had targeted, beating him up, the prosecutor said. When the victim’s friends tried to intervene, some of the newcomers flashed guns.
The guy being beaten escaped into the residence, with Gibson and two others chasing him to the door. Gibson was walking back into the yard when he bumped into Hightower, Lambertus said.
According to witnesses, the following exchange ensued:
“You don’t have to do all that,” Hightower said.
“No one’s going to f—k with me,” Gibson replied.
“Well, no one’s going to f—k with me, either,” Hightower said.
“Oh yeah?” Gibson retorted. “Well, f—k this s—t.” He pulled out a .45-caliber pistol and shot twice, paused as if thinking about what he was doing, then shot three times more, the prosecutor said.
Hightower, 33, died from three gunshot wounds about seven hours later in the intensive care unit at Midtown Medical Center. The man wounded was treated and released.
The plea deal
Gibson, 21 at the time of the shooting, is now 23. In the plea agreement Lambertus and defense attorney Susan Henderson arranged, he was sentenced to 20 years for voluntary manslaughter and five years’ probation for using a firearm to commit a felony.
The terms of his sentencing were tied to one of the cases in the string of armed robberies in which he and 11 others were charged: A Dec. 8, 2014, robbery at the Cedar Hill Package Store, 4585 Old Cusseta Road, where the business, the clerk and customers were robbed at gunpoint.
In that case, Gibson pleaded guilty to the armed robbery of a store employee and the robbery of a customer. Smith sentenced him to 20 years for the robbery – to be served simultaneously with his 20 years for manslaughter – and 15 years for the armed robbery, with 10 to serve on that count. He also was given five years’ probation for using a gun to commit a crime, to be served concurrently with the weapons charge related to Hightower’s death.
In total, Gibson is to serve 30 years of a 40-year sentence, with the remaining 10 on probation.
Five codefendants implicated in the assaults associated with Hightower’s fatal shooting also have pleaded guilty. Here is how those cases were resolved, according to court records:
- Curtis Williams III, 32, was sentenced to 15 years for aggravated assault and five years for using a gun to commit a crime.
- Thomas Jasper Williams, 30, was sentenced to five years each for aggravated assault and using a gun to commit a crime.
- Richard Lewis Stewart, 28, was sentenced to 15 years for aggravated assault and five years for using a gun to commit a crime.
- Christopher Javon Gilliam Sr., 29, was sentenced to 10 years for aggravated assault and five years for using a gun to commit a crime.
- Richard Lee Gilliam, 25, pleaded guilty to affray and was ordered to serve 12 months.
Gibson’s plea removes him from the voluminous robbery case yet to go to trial, but Stewart remains charged in that string of crimes. Authorities say it began as a single robbery investigation, but quickly grew as police were led to additional suspects they charged in more cases.
Investigators allege the defendants formed a gang of associates who not only would target businesses such as liquor stores, but also randomly rob people they saw on the street, or use social media to set up meetings with victims and rob them.
Indicted with Gibson and Stewart in those cases were Rodrie James Taylor, Orlandos Kantrell Tatum, Gene Autry Bryer III, Queontate Leon Bular, Devonte Devoneer Howard Jr., Ebonee Tarkei Huff, Courtney Cortez Jackson, Aquarius Dominique Nelson, Montavious Marice Steplight and Jermichael Laquarus Bellamy.