Berkeley gang members sentenced to 12 years in prison for 2018 shootings

Following the resolution of the case, police released surveillance footage — for the first time — from the most “brazen” of the Berkeley shootings.

This story was made possible by the Berkeleyside Founders' Fund.

Surveillance footage captured what authorities described as a Berkeley gang shooting involving at least eight shooters and a hail of 47 bullets on Russell Street in 2018. Credit: BPD

Two Berkeley gang members linked to four shootings in 2018 — including gunfire on I-580 witnessed by a CHP officer — have been sentenced to 12 years in prison as part of a recent plea deal, according to authorities and extensive court documents reviewed by Berkeleyside.

A third man who received a lesser sentence for his role in the shootings was placed directly on parole, with credit for time served, and will now be required to register as a gang offender, according to court records.

All three men — 22-year-old David Russell of Oakland and Berkeley residents Grayson Gordon, 22, and Malik Harrison, 23 — faced a raft of felony charges, including attempted murder, for gunfire in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in 2018. Ultimately, Russell and Gordon were sent to prison as part of their plea deal, while Harrison received a lesser sentence and has been released.

The shootings received significant attention in 2018 in Berkeley and beyond. Amazingly, just one person was seriously wounded across all four incidents. Court papers associated with the gunfire in Berkeley provided rare insights into the dynamics of gang rivalries in the city. And the freeway shooting on Interstate 580 occurred among a spate of gunfire on East Bay freeways that raised alarm around the region.

Recently, following the resolution of the case, police released surveillance footage — for the first time — from the most “brazen” of the Berkeley shootings where, according to court papers, at least eight gang members armed with guns unleashed a hail of 47 bullets on Russell Street at several people standing on a balcony at the Rosewood Manor apartment complex. That video appears at the top of this story.

The black-and-white footage has no sound but is still dramatic. It shows a large group of figures in hooded sweatshirts making their way down the 1600 block of Russell Street on April 12, 2018, before opening fire at the Rosewood. The incident was unusual for Berkeley due to the large number of shooters who participated in the coordinated attack.

The eruption of a long-simmering conflict

The shootings described in court papers took place over five weeks in 2018, from March 9 through April 14, and stemmed from a fissure between teenage gang members throughout South and West Berkeley that had begun several years earlier. The feud involved turf battles as well as disrespect online.

In their early days, according to BPD, “Babas” gang members committed crimes such as prowling, trespassing and burglary, but later moved on to robbery and assault, weapons violations and attempted murder. In 2017, police estimated that the gang — described as the “new generation” of West Berkeley’s notorious Waterfront gang — had 20 members ranging in age from their late teens to early 20s.

On March 9, 2018, according to court papers, Babas used “three guns to fire at least 14 times” at a vehicle on Russell Street occupied by several rival “Ls” gang members in southwest Berkeley. Two young men were shot, including one who sustained a graze wound to the neck, but both survived.

Then, on April 12, Babas returned to Russell Street for the Rosewood Manor attack caught on video and, minutes later, also used three guns “to shoot up a residence” on Mabel Street associated with Ls gang members there, according to court papers. One man on Mabel was injured by flying shards of glass.

A photo of the freeway shooting taken from the CHP officer’s bodycam. Credit: BPD

The final shooting of the series took place two days later on Interstate 580, when Babas used “four guns to fire at least 34 times” at an Ls rival on the freeway, according to court papers. A California Highway Patrol officer who happened to be on a traffic stop on eastbound 580 near Richmond’s Central Avenue saw the occupants of a white SUV open fire just after 6:45 p.m. April 14, the CHP reported previously.

One of those bullets struck a vehicle that had “just been driving by,” the CHP told the East Bay Times at the time. No injuries were reported, but the shooting investigation shut down the freeway for several hours.

Not everyone drawn into the Berkeley conflict was to be so lucky. In July, two young men sustained life-threatening gunshot wounds — which they ultimately survived — during yet another shooting related to the gang rivalry; arrests were made but charges were never filed. That may come as no surprise given the nature of these cases, which often suffer from limited access to eyewitnesses.

Berkeley police indicated, in a brief statement that was released with the Rosewood video, that it had been been a challenge to put the cases together due to the “difficulties in finding cooperative victims or witnesses.” In the end, BPD wrote, the agency was “thankful we were able to bring those who wish to bring harm to our community to justice.”

Tensions were high in 2018

The gunfire on I-580 on April 14 was just one incident in a succession of freeway shootings in the East Bay in 2018, as reported by the East Bay Times and other news outlets that year. Several days earlier, authorities had investigated back-to-back freeway shootings one night near Concord. In March 2018, two people — included a child who sustained major injuries — were wounded in a freeway shooting near Hercules. A number of the shootings took place on I-580 between Richmond and other parts of Contra Costa County.

But criminal charges in the April 14, 2018, gunfire case in Contra Costa County were not filed against Russell, Gordon and Harrison until March of this year, a few weeks before the preliminary hearing — a sort of mini-trial where a judge decides whether there is enough evidence for defendants to go before a jury — was scheduled for the 2018 Berkeley shootings.

Defense attorneys often wait until the preliminary hearing, when they see the evidence the prosecution puts forward and how witnesses hold up, before deciding whether to encourage clients to take a deal.

The Alameda County district attorney’s office had filed charges in the Berkeley gunfire case in 2018, initially against Russell and Gordon and later against Harrison. But charges in Contra Costa County were looming all the while, and were referenced repeatedly in the court file in various motions and other paperwork reviewed by Berkeleyside.

On March 4 of this year, Contra Costa County filed eight felony charges and a multitude of enhancements against the trio, alleging a range of crimes — linked to all four shootings — from attempted murder and criminal street gang conspiracy to assault with a semiautomatic firearm and shooting at an occupied vehicle. Contra Costa County was also pushing for street terrorism allegations, which can carry a life sentence.

The seriousness of those charges likely played a role in the defendants’ decisions in early May to halt their preliminary hearing before it had ended and agree to a plea deal. Ultimately, Gordon and Russell were convicted of assault with a semiautomatic firearm, which is a strike, assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury and street terrorism tied to Babas gang membership.

“I understand that 12 years is a lot of time,” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson told Gordon earlier this year, according to court transcripts reviewed by Berkeleyside. “But given the amount of time that you could get in this case, plus the Contra Costa County case, given the quality of the evidence that I saw, it appears to me that this is a reasonably good plea agreement for you and that you’re saving the exposure of perhaps a much, much longer sentence.”

In a later hearing, Jacobson told Gordon he hoped the young man would take the opportunity to make better choices with his life.

“I’m sad that you are at this spot right now,” the judge said. “Having said that, you are a full-grown adult, and I think that you can see what you need to do to work your way out of this, and I hope that you’re able to do that.”

Rachel Hart, Gordon’s mother, said in a GoFundMe post that her son had lost focus in high school when he was cut from the Berkeley High basketball team, diagnosed with a painful medical condition and transferred to a continuation school “where the throw away kids go.” In 2016, when he was just 16 years old, he was shot twice, she wrote. The first shooting left him in critical condition.

“This young man needs to be at home with his family and/or in a program that can give him the chance to recover and begin to build his life,” Hart wrote earlier this year, before his sentence was handed down. “Grayson suffers from severe PTSD and being incarcerated for so long has been very difficult for him.”

“Grayson is such an integral part of our family. We are ALL suffering a loss with him being gone,” she wrote.

Slow march through the justice system

In 2018, in the months after the shootings, Berkeleyside published several stories related to developments in the case as well the landscape of gang activity in Berkeley.

Read more about the gang rivalry that sparked the 2018 shootings

Gordon, then 18, was among the first to be arrested. In May 2018, police took him into custody after identifying him in part through surveillance footage. Police said they recovered a gun at the time of Gordon’s arrest.

Police wrote in court papers that they had found the gun, which had an extended magazine, in Gordon’s backpack. Ballistics testing on the pistol found that it was a match to some of the casings on Russell Street, according to police.

David Russell, then 19, was the next to be arrested. When police picked him up in August 2018, according to BPD, he admitted he had been part of both shootings on Russell Street, in March and April.

Russell also told police he had thrown a Glock 9mm — which detectives believe was used in the shootings — off the Bay Bridge after Gordon’s arrest, according to BPD.

Malik Harrison, then 20, was the last to be arrested. Phone records, photographs and a Honda helped police zero in on him, Berkeleyside reported in 2018 after reviewing court papers. When Harrison was arrested and charged in December 2018, Berkeleyside became the first news outlet to report the alleged Babas link to the Richmond freeway shooting.

Since then, Berkeleyside has tracked the case through the justice system — as per our standard practice with the most serious cases in the city — to see how it would one day resolve.

“A good choice” among limited options

Malik Harrison. Credit: CDCR

Harrison was the last of the three to be arrested and was ultimately the first to be released, in part due to health concerns related to COVID-19 and an asthma diagnosis, according to court papers. His attorney petitioned for his release on those grounds in mid-2020 and Harrison was released on bail in August of that year.

At some point after the initial filing, the court split off Harrison’s case from Russell and Gordon’s. In April, Harrison entered no-contest pleas to two felony counts of carrying a concealed firearm along with a gang enhancement identifying himself as a Babas member. The conviction counts as a strike against him, according to court papers.

During a hearing in April, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson told Harrison the plea deal seemed to be a wise move.

“It’s a good choice that you are making amongst the choices that you have,” the judge told him.

As part of the deal, all the other charges filed against him were dropped, including new felony charges from November 2020 in Alameda County related to evading authorities. Harrison had already been facing felony evasion charges from 2018, as well as allegations he had fired a gun April 12, 2018, in addition to other Alameda County charges and the Contra Costa County case.

During the hearing, Harrison asked the judge what kind of police contact would get him in trouble between the plea hearing and a sentencing hearing in July.

“I’m going to say be perfect. In this period of time be perfect, okay,” the judge told him, according to a court transcript reviewed by Berkeleyside. “If you get in another car chase with the police, that’s not going to be good. If you mind your business that way, monitor yourself, you are a man, take care of yourself, take care of your business, okay.”

“Yes, sir,” Harrison told the judge. Harrison completed a 70-day ankle-monitoring program in mid-July, according to court papers. He was ordered to report to his parole agent in early August.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told Berkeleyside by email that, in August, Harrison had been “sentenced to three years, eight months in state prison for two counts of carrying a concealed weapon with one enhancement due to the street gang act. The sentencing court gave him 1340 days of pre-sentenced credits (usually given for time served in prison.) Per law, he was also eligible for 50% credit earning (one additional day of credit per each day served.) Since his credits exceeded his sentence, he was processed and released to parole supervision in Alameda County for 2 years.”

According to Harrison’s probation report, he “never denied being one of the shooters” at the Rosewood. Detectives also found photographs, according to the report, “of Harrison, Gordon, and Russell holding pistols with other Babas gang members.”

When questioned during his probation interview, Harrison denied the accusations.

“The defendant stated that he is innocent and took a plea deal because he did not want to serve 10 years in state prison. He denied being a gang member,” a probation officer wrote. “The defendant stated that he is not a gang member but was labeled because of the people he associates with. He stated that his friends are his high school football teammates. He denies knowing of a gang called ‘Babas’ or the meaning of it.”

During the probation interview, which took place before Harrison was sentenced, the probation officer recommended that he be sent to prison.

“The defendant’s denial of his involvement in these egregious acts of gang violence renders him a continued threat to the community,” the probation officer wrote. “The defendant and his gang jeopardized the lives of innocent citizens as their violent behavior wreaked havoc on city streets. The severity of this case warrants a prison commitment.”

Harrison’s assessment listed no mitigating circumstances: He “reportedly had a good childhood,” the probation officer wrote. 

But Harrison also told the officer he had started smoking marijuana at age 12 and continued to do it daily, according to court records. He said he had been allowed to participate in his graduation ceremony from Berkeley High despite being 10 credits short of his diploma. He never completed those credits, the probation officer wrote.

Harrison also shared that his older brother, Lamont Johnson, had been fatally shot in Oakland in 2020.

He told the probation officer that, despite the challenges he had faced, he had dreams for the future. He was looking for a full-time job but also aspired to one day own his business “and expressed interest in opening a cannabis club and owning a food truck,” according to the report. 

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.