FREEHOLD – Bloods gang members Avery Hopes and Vernon Sanders are on trial in Superior Court, charged with the murder of rival Crips member Denzel Morgan-Hicks in Asbury Park in 2017.
The trial, which began Feb. 9 before Superior Court Judge Jill Grace O’Malley, has exposed some of the inner workings of the Bloods in Asbury Park.
Prosecutors allege Hopes and Sanders ambushed Morgan-Hicks when he returned to his Ford Expedition after visiting a friend in an apartment on Prospect Avenue in Asbury Park about 10:30 pm on Nov. 22, 2017, the night before Thanksgiving.
Morgan-Hicks died on the spot in a hail of gunfire.
Here’s what we know about the case:
Who is the victim?
Denzel Morgan-Hicks, according to trial testimony, was a former Asbury Park resident, a drug dealer and member of the Crips who was living in Barnegat at the time of his death at age 27, just months after he was released from a five- year state prison term he served for a weapons offense.
Who are the defendants?
Avery Hopes, 27, of Asbury Park, is a member of the Neighborhood 20 set of the Bloods in Asbury Park, according to trial testimony. Vernon Sanders, 37, of Brick, is an “OG,” or high-ranking member of the Queens Street Double I set of the Bloods in Asbury Park, according to testimony.
How did Morgan-Hicks die?
Prosecutors allege Hopes and Sanders lay in wait for Morgan-Hicks to emerge from the apartment building and return to his vehicle after visiting his friend. When he did, the pair ran up on either side of the victim’s vehicle and repeatedly fired at him, cooperating codefendants have testified.
Morgan-Hicks was dead on the spot. There were two bullet holes in the windshield of his vehicle and additional bullet holes on the front, passenger-side quarter panel and front passenger door, as well as one in a side mirror that dislodged the light inside the mirror.
Three bullets were recovered from the victim’s body during his autopsy, from his right arm, right humerus and right shoulder, according to trial testimony. Four bullet fragments were recovered from the victim’s head.
The victim was unarmed.
What was the motive for the killing?
Accomplices have testified that the Double I set of the Bloods were seeking revenge on Morgan-Hicks because they believed he had killed one of their fellow gang members, 21-year-old Edric Gordon of Neptune. Gordon was fatally shot at Dewitt and Springwood avenues in Asbury Park in May 2011 by a gunman riding a bicycle. Caitlyn Sidley, assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, insisted in her opening statement at the trial that prosecutors never had evidence to charge Morgan-Hicks in Gordon’s murder, and that any talk that he was responsible was only a rumor.
Despite that, accomplices who cooperated with authorities in the Morgan-Hicks killing have testified that the Double I set was waiting for Morgan-Hicks to get out of prison so that they could exact their revenge.
Who are the state’s star witnesses?
Steven Taylor, 40, of Asbury Park, testified he was a member of the Double I set of the Bloods until he “resigned” in January. That’s when he decided to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit the murder of Morgan-Hicks and testify for the state.
He told the jury he first learned the Double I set wanted revenge on Morgan-Hicks at a cookout in Asbury Park attended by all the members of the set in August 2017. Steven Taylor testified he only knew Morgan-Hicks to see him in the neighborhood and didn’t know Gordon. Despite that, when he saw Morgan-Hicks pull up on Prospect Avenue on Thanksgiving Eve 2017 and go into an apartment building, he told his brother, Michael, to call Hopes and tell him to bring a gun. Steven Taylor said he was selling drugs in the alleyway outside his grandmother’s apartment in the Frederick Douglas housing complex when he called Sanders to tell him he had Morgan-Hicks “boxed in.” Hopes and Sanders showed up on Prospect Avenue shortly afterward, he said.
Steven Taylor said he left the area with Dazmiere Bellamy, another gang member who would provide him with an alibi because Bellamy was wearing a court-ordered ankle bracelet with GPS tracking. The ankle bracelet would show he wasn’t at the murder scene, Steven Taylor said.
Michael Taylor, 38, of Asbury Park, a member of the Bounty Hunter set of the Bloods, also testified under a cooperation agreement with the state after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. Michael Taylor testified that he called Hopes to summon him to the area when his brother asked him to.
Michael Taylor testified that when Hopes showed up on Prospect Avenue with a gun, wearing a white, hooded sweatshirt, his brother said that it was too bright an article of clothing to wear to commit a murder. So, Michael Taylor said he went inside his grandmother’s apartment and retrieved a gray sweat suit, which Hopes changed into in the alleyway.
Michael Taylor testified he was going to leave to buy pie crusts that his grandmother asked him to get for her to make sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving when he realized he left his wallet at the apartment. He said he was heading back to the apartment to get his wallet when he heard gunfire.
At that point, Michael Taylor said he ran to a drug dealer’s blue Honda that he was driving that night, but he had trouble starting the car. That’s when he said Hopes ran up and told him how to start the car, and the pair fled in it.
Michael Taylor said they were chased by an unknown black vehicle until he pulled down a dead-end street in Neptune. He said they ditched the car at a nearby junkyard, and Hopes discarded his gun in a garbage can in the back of a firehouse. Then, they walked to his girlfriend’s house in Neptune, where they met up with his brother and Bellamy, Michael Taylor testified.
Michael Taylor told the jury he got a pie crust from his girlfriend’s house before his brother drove him back to Asbury Park.
What about other testimony?
Sgt. Joe Leon, who was the lead detective on the Morgan-Hicks murder case for the Asbury Park Police Department, acknowledged during cross-examination that a red sport-utility vehicle Michael Taylor told him Sanders was driven to and from the murder scene in did not show up on any surveillance video from the area.
Leon also acknowledged that the only eyewitness to the murder gave a vastly different description of the gunman whom authorities allege is Hopes. The eyewitness said the gunman on the passenger side of the victim’s vehicle had long dreadlocks, while Leon acknowledged Hopes had short hair at the time, as he does now.
What is coming next?
Sgt. Keith Finkelstein, a gang expert with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, is expected to testify when the trial resumes Tuesday.
Kathleen Hopkins, a reporter in New Jersey since 1985, covers crime, court cases, legal issues and just about every major murder trial to hit Monmouth and Ocean counties. Contact her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Bloods gang members on trial for Asbury Park murder: What we know