AP NEWS

Mastermind, shooters get life in prison in deadly revenge shooting of Cleveland bartender

August 24, 2018

Mastermind, shooters get life in prison in deadly revenge shooting of Cleveland bartender

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The convicted mastermind of a deadly 2016 heist at Cooley Lounge and the two men who shot dead a beloved bartender there were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison Thursday.

Anita Hollins, 42, her 21-year-old paramour Nigel Brunson and 30-year-old Dana Thomas each received life sentences with no possibility of parole after they were convicted in July of aggravated murder and other charges in the October 2016 killing of Melissa Brinker.

Friends and family of Brinker’s held each other’s hands in the back of the courtroom and exhaled with tearful elation when Common Pleas Court Judge Pamela Barker announced the first life-without-parole sentence.

“If we didn’t get that sentence on those three, we wouldn’t have been very happy,” Brinker’s boyfriend, Matthew Soos, told cleveland.com after the hearing. “I just hope we can find some kind of closure now.” 

Dwayne Sims, who pleaded guilty in the middle of the trial to aggravated robbery charges, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Sims went into the bar and participated in the robbery but did not fire his weapon, prosecutors said. 

 

Barker, who presided over the jury trial for Hollins and Brunson and found Thomas guilty after he waived his right to have his case heard by the jury, said she found many of the details that came out in trial testimony haunting. 

Hollins, a Cooley Lounge regular, was the victim of an assault at the bar in 2015 and blamed another bartender after the two people who attacked her were acquitted at a trial in 2016, prosecutors said. Hollins solicited Brunson, who prosecutors said is a member of the Heartless Felons gang, and the others to rob the bar as payback.

Hollins drove the trio, as well as a fourth man, Garry Lake, to the bar in her SUV and waited as three of them – Brunson, Thomas and Sims – went into the bar to carry out the robbery.

Surveillance video showed two of the men ordering a drink from Brinker and sharing it before they pulled out pistols and forced everyone in the bar to the floor. The third man joined.

Brunson kicked one of the customers, Malissa Morton, in the back of the head so hard that she later had to have brain surgery to repair damaged nerves.

“I was just waiting for him to shoot me,” Morton said in court Thursday.

Thomas forced Brinker from her spot behind the bar to the office, where he kicked the locked door until it flung open and tossed Brinker into the office. Thomas fired two shots, hitting Brinker once, dropping her to the floor.

She was still alive, until Brunson came over and saw as much. The video showed him kneel over her, stand back up and fire a single, fatal shot directly into Brinker’s body as she lay on the floor. The men ran back into Hollins’ car.

Lake, who pleaded guilty to a single robbery count in a deal that saw him turn state’s witness and implicate the others, testified that he stayed in the car during the ordeal and, when Thomas and Brunson jumped back in after the deed, they bragged about shooting Brinker.

Investigators pulled cellphone records that showed the group travelled to the area near the bar at the time of the shooting, and then left within minutes. They also found DNA evidence on the cup that the two attackers shared that matched Brunson’s and Thomas’ DNA. Each have extensive criminal histories.

Sims was the only of the four to speak in the courtroom Thursday. He apologized to Brinker’s loved ones as they sat in the back of the courtroom. Once Barker announced she was giving him the maximum sentence, his tone changed.

“This is bull----,” Sims said as his family broke out in sobs. “I want to take my plea back.”

Hollins shook her head as Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Daniel Cleary told Barker that, even though Hollins didn’t touch a gun, Brinker would still be alive if it weren’t for her.

A woman in the back of the courtroom stood up as Cleary spoke and decried the proceeding.

“How can you believe a bunch of Heartless Felons,” she asked before sheriff’s deputies shooed her out of the courtroom.

Thomas made his own protest when he asked Barker to lift restrictions on his phone calls and visitation rights in his jail cell after she sentenced him. Barker did not do so, saying once he is shipped from the Cuyahoga County Jail to a state prison, she will no longer have control over him. 

“You took my life away from me in front of all these people and I can’t talk to my family?” Thomas asked. 

Brinker’s family and friends audibly scoffed in disbelief.

Cleary reserved his harshest comments for Brunson.

He questioned what kind of person could walk up to a completely innocent person and shoot them dead, at point-blank range, for no reason.

“I hope that you never have an individual as callous, as dangerous and frankly as evil as Nigel Brunson walk into your courtroom ever again,” Cleary said.

To comment on this story, please visit Thursday’s crime and courts comments page.

AP RADIO
Update hourly