Moments before being struck by a fatal shotgun blast, a Pinole man killed in Berkeley in December used his body to try to shield his fiancée from the gunman, she testified in court Wednesday.
Rebekah Cleberg of Pinole described the Dec. 29, 2014, shooting in West Berkeley as a medical marijuana exchange that quickly became an armed robbery in the parking lot by the 99 Cents store on San Pablo and University avenues.
Cleberg, 29, said she and her fiancé, 36-year-old Kamahl Middleton, drove to Berkeley from Pinole after arranging to trade about 1½ pounds of a strain of medical marijuana called “Girl Scout Cookies,” for a donation of $3,200, to a man who had provided a verified medical cannabis card and state ID card.
“We told him we were going to give him all the nicest ones,” she said.
Legally, they were not allowed to sell the marijuana they grew, so they stipulated in an advertisement on Craigslist that they would exchange it for a suggested donation to medical marijuana patients. Wednesday morning, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Thomas Reardon granted Cleberg immunity regarding her testimony in the case.
After agreeing to meet up with a man who identified himself as “Mike,” Cleberg and Middleton spent four hours meticulously going through their marijuana to select the best buds for him, carefully trimming off any extraneous leaves.
When the couple arrived in the parking lot, they were surprised to see not just the man who called himself “Mike” — identified in court as Carl Young Jr. of San Leandro — but also several other men with him in a car. For safety, the couple parked in a brightly lit corner of the parking lot near San Pablo Avenue, and watched Young slowly make his way toward them from a darkened corner of the parking lot more than 50 feet away, Cleberg said.
Earlier in the day, they had texted back and forth with Young, she said, rejecting several other proposed locations for where to meet to make the exchange. Middleton, who was from Berkeley, had wanted to pick a location he felt the couple would be safe in case anything went wrong.
But, Cleberg said, having the ID card information of the man they were meeting had offered some assurance that the deal would go smoothly. She said she was relieved to recognize the man walking toward her as the same person shown in the ID she received earlier that day.
Still, she said, something didn’t seem right. When they saw the group of men in the car, parked in a dark corner, Middleton told Cleberg “he was feeling a little weird about it.” They thought the patient they were meeting would come alone, or possibly with his girlfriend, whose car he said he would be using.
Then there was his walk. As he came toward them, rather than a purposeful, confident stride, he was “walking slowly, taking his time, shuffling his feet. He was looking all around,” said Cleberg. “He was taking his time. And I remember thinking to myself that he was taking a long time.”
It was about 9:45 p.m. Cleberg moved into the backseat so the man could get into the front passenger seat to make the exchange. Middleton, who had been paralyzed during a car accident in high school from the lumbar region down, remained in the driver’s seat. Young opened the passenger-side door and, after a brief exchange with Cleberg about an empty medicine bottle she had left on the floorboard, he sat down on the passenger seat, she said.
He then asked Middleton if he could look at one of the marijuana buds. Middleton selected one out of the plastic bag the couple had prepared and tried to hand it to Young, said Cleberg. But rather than take it, he suddenly seized the whole bag and tried to yank it out of Middleton’s hand.
“It ripped and the buds flew everywhere,” Cleberg told the court. Middleton said, “What the f-ck?” as Young hopped out of the car and got down onto one knee on the ground outside, and began trying to collect the marijuana buds from the passenger seat and floorboard. Cleberg — who was sitting on the edge of the backseat in the middle — said she reached forward and tried to push Young by his shoulder out of the car so she and Middleton could drive away.
She then heard “heavy footsteps” running toward the car. A man in a hoodie with a shotgun appeared above Young in the passenger-side doorway. He pointed the shotgun at Middleton and said, “This is a f-ucking stick-up,” Cleberg said.
Middleton threw his body into the space between the front seats, trying to block Cleberg from the shooter. Her arm was still pushing on Young’s shoulder trying to get him out of the car, she said.
She heard a gunshot and saw a flash from the muzzle as the man identified in court as Khalil Leroy Phanor pulled the trigger.
“It was very loud and it filled up the car with gun smoke,” she said. Cleberg had been wounded from the knuckles up to her elbow. She heard Middleton say, “They fucking shot me,” as he opened his door and slumped over.
(Middleton’s cause of death was listed as multiple shotgun pellet wounds of the shoulder and chest, according to the Alameda County coroner’s office.)
The men ran off and, when Cleberg next looked, she said the sedan they had been parked in was gone.
Cleberg said she jumped out of the car and tried to use her cellphone to call 911, but the blood from her injuries caused the phone to fail. She ran out into traffic on San Pablo Avenue to try to get someone to pull over.
“Everybody was just going around me,” she said. “They wouldn’t stop.”
A man ran across the street to ask what she needed. She said her husband had been shot, and asked the man to call 911.
She said she ran back to Middleton to try to find his injuries but was unable to see them. He was unconscious, though, and vomiting blood. She tried to clear his airway and position him in different ways to allow him to breathe, propping him on his side, holding his head. But nothing seemed to work. She said she held him and told him over and over that it would be OK, “because I knew he was dying.”
Police arrived first, she said, though it felt like it took them a long time to get there. She said she asked for help but that no one seemed to respond, other than advice from an officer about how to help clear Middleton’s airway.
Cleberg lost consciousness on top of Middleton’s body and said that, when she came to, she at first did not remember what had happened. Someone told her she had been shot.
“Kamahl was lying next to me in a really big pool of blood,” she said. “And nobody was helping him, because it was too late.”
Throughout her testimony Wednesday, Cleberg chose her words carefully and spoke calmly and with certainty about what had taken place the day and night of the shooting. But after describing the attack — as Alameda County deputy district attorney Rebecca Warren approached with a photograph of Middleton — Cleberg broke down on the stand, sobbing, as did several members of a group seated in the audience that included her supporters and Middleton’s family members.
After a brief recess, Judge Reardon said court would adjourn for the day, to resume Thursday at 9:30 a.m. The preliminary hearing, where Reardon will decide whether he believes there is enough evidence in the case for it to move forward, is expected to last into next week.
Three men have been charged with murder, robbery and assault with a firearm in the case: Young, 20, and Phanor, 18, both of San Leandro, and 19-year-old Gregory Foote of Oakland. They have also been charged with the special circumstance of murder during the course of a robbery. Authorities identified Phanor in court papers as the shooter.
No prior convictions were listed for any of the men in court papers.
Berkeleyside will continue to follow the case.
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