COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — Reginald Royal and Lonnial Roundtree thought they were going to die.
So they killed first, the men told separate juries Wednesday during extraordinary testimony in the case of a slain reputed street gang leader.
Royal and Roundtree, two longtime friends and admitted members of the Unknown Vice Lords, took the stand Wednesday at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, testifying in their own defense that when they gunned down the head of the rival Four Corner Hustlers street gang in 2009, it was him or them.
"It's a blur," said Royal, 36. "My heart was pounding. My mind was racing. ... My ears was ringing."
Ray Washington, 38, was riddled with 25 bullets in a West Side alley on April 23, 2009. Prosecutors say the men emptied their guns into the gang boss, firing a total of 30 times. Seventeen 9mm shell casings and 13 shell casings from a .40-caliber gun were found at the crime scene.
But both men are claiming self-defense and took the stand to make their case. They claim Washington not only tried to have them killed the day before and in the past, he pulled out a gun in the alley when they showed up to try to make peace, forcing their hands.
"We were going to have a conversation with Mr. Raymond Washington ... about stopping the attempts on my life," Royal told his jury. "I wish it hadn't led to me having to take a life."
Both Royal and his co-defendant, the 24-year-old Roundtree, swear that Washington pulled a gun first.
Washington "had the gun in his hand, so I just started shooting," Roundtree testified.
When he finally stopped, Roundtree said he stood frozen until a friend pulled him back into their SUV so they could drive off.
"I had just shot somebody who was trying to kill me," Roundtree said. "The police were behind me. I was scared."
No weapon, however, was recovered from the scene. And another man — a home inspector with Washington at the time — testified he was unarmed.
Prosecutors alleged that Washington's slaying was a planned "execution," rather than an act of self-defense.
"You shot him in the back, didn't you?" Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Darman said to Royal. "How about the bullet wounds in his hind quarters, his butt?"
Prosecutors on cross-examination tried to get the men to hold the guns they used in the shooting, to demonstrate for their separate juries how they carried out the killing.
"Go ahead, show the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how you shot him," Darman demanded of Royal as he tried to hand him an unloaded Glock.
Neither of the men would hold the guns.
Both Royal and Roundtree testified that they knew Washington, personally and by reputation, as the "violent" leader of the Four Corner Hustlers, a rival criminal enterprise.
"He was in control of all the Four Corner Hustlers in the city of Chicago," Roundtree said. "South Side, West Side, North Side ... and the suburbs."
The two men said Washington was known in the street as "Big Four" and "Blood." He earned the latter alias for leaving "a trail of blood," Royal said.
According to both men, Washington tried to kill them multiple times.
The night before the shooting, Royal and Roundtree were walking into a liquor store at Laramie Avenue and Adams Street in South Austin when Roundtree saw a man he recognized from the neighborhood as one of Washington's minions, his hand in his waistband as if concealing a gun.
"I thought he was going to pull out a gun and shoot me. ... We started tussling," Roundtree said.
Royal rushed over.
The two allegedly wrested a gun from the man and then "beat him up a little bit."
Royal said he kept the gun, the same weapon he would turn on Washington.
Several hours after the liquor store scuffle, Royal was driving his Chevy Suburban north on Homan Avenue with Roundtree in the seat behind him. They were waiting for the light to change at Madison Street when another of Washington's henchmen, this one known as "Lil' Four," jumped out of a car in the inside lane and opened fire, Royal testified.
Royal slammed on the gas and ran the light, he said.
Fearing the shooter would come after them, Royal and his passengers ditched the SUV at a nearby gas station and sprinted west on Washington Street.
Royal said he called Terrance Hilson, a friend and first cousin of Washington, hoping he could help smooth things over before he and Roundtree wound up dead.
"[I wanted to] speak my piece, settle the beef," Royal said.
The "beef" between he and Washington went back to 2006, when Royal warned a friend that Washington was planning to have him killed, he said.
"I interfered with Four Corner Hustler business," Royal said.
In Roundtree's case, Washington had tried to hire him as a hit man for $20,000, Roundtree said, and issued a clear threat when he refused.
"He told me if I wanted to hang around, I had to put in some work," Roundtree said. "He wanted me to shoot people, kill people."
On cross-examination, prosecutors pressed both defendants about why, if Washington was trying to kill them, they never told police.
"Where I'm from, a guy like Mr. Washington, you don't call police," Royal said. "Naming names will cost you your life."
In December 2008, soon after Roundtree said he turned down Washington's hit man deal, he was shot in the back while leaving a gas station near Laramie and Jackson streets. Roundtree testified that while he couldn't say who pulled the trigger, he knows the order came from Washington.
On April 23, 2009, Hilson, now charged as the driver in Washington's murder, picked up Royal and Roundtree and drove them to a two-flat in the 3800 block of West Flournoy.
There, Washington was meeting with a Chicago Housing Authority inspector to have the unit approved for the Section 8 voucher program, prosecutors said. The two of them were standing in the alley as the inspector examined the building's exterior.
Royal and Roundtree stepped out of the car, they said. Washington looked toward them, his lips curled into a smirk and pulled out a gun, they said.
Both Royal and Roundtree started shooting. They kept shooting, prosecutors said, until the magazines inside both of their guns had been emptied and Washington lay dead in the alley. The CHA inspector was hit in the groin but survived.
Two juries hearing Royal's case and Roundtree's case separately this week will be asked to decide whether the shooting was murder or self-defense.
Prosecutors argue the defendants' story makes no sense.
"Why have that conversation face to face if you are that scared?" Darman asked Royal. "Why didn't you fire one or two times and then take off?"
Neither of the men answered the question.