San Francisco Chronicle
February 10, 2021
By Jim Herron Zamora

Nut Cases' wide swath of destruction

Oakland gang ran 'wild,' killing, robbing at random, police say

  Oakland -- They got high and played video games during the day, the young men later told police. Their favorite was one called "Grand Theft Auto III," in which players win points for committing violent crimes.

When darkness fell, they told investigators, they did it for real on the streets of Oakland.

They called themselves the "Nut Cases" and roamed the city in an old Buick, looking for targets at random, police say -- robbing dozens and killing five people in the largest single crime wave last year as Oakland reeled from its highest homicide toll since 1997.

Two days after Christmas, two members sprayed bullets into a house party, killing two celebrators inside, including a 14-year-old boy.

Five days after New Year's, they allegedly jumped a young father on the street, took his wallet and killed him as he begged for his life.

A witness to one of the robberies remembered part of the Buick's license plate, and police tracked down the car. Then investigators tracked down six suspects. Police announced the last two arrests last week.

Some of the Nut Cases bragged to investigators about driving up Oakland's homicide rate and relishing the media coverage of their crimes.

"They are a lot more violent and callous than even we are used to," said homicide Sgt. Tim Nolan, a 12-year police veteran.

The five men and a woman, who police say admitted she set up one of the slayings, are in jail facing charges in four of the city's 113 slayings in 2002 and one of the first this year.

They also are charged with nine robberies, and investigators say they may be responsible for 100 violent muggings.

"These individuals were running wild," Police Chief Richard Word said.

The accused are alleged ringleader Leon Wiley, 25; Joe Ralls, 26, and his two younger half-brothers, Demarcus Ralls, 18, and Jhomari Sutton, 20; their cousin, Deonte Donald, 17; and their sister-in-law, Aminah Shanta Dorsey- Colbert, 25. Donald is being charged as an adult.

Each of the six, all raised near 98th and Edes avenues, is charged with one or more counts of murder.

Most killings in Oakland involve people with some connection to the illegal drug trade, but these were different. Investigators believe the group began their spree by robbing street-corner drug dealers but later targeted slaying victims at random.

Investigators began linking the crimes shortly after the death of Sunny Thach, who was robbed of $31 and shot to death on Jan. 6 as he carried his toddler's laundry from his car to his home on Sixth Avenue near Lake Merritt.

A witness to an earlier robbery in the Oakland hills had given Officer Rayomand Sethna a description of several digits of the Buick's license plate. Sethna's research showed the car was registered to a Hayward woman, Dorsey- Colbert, with no apparent connection to any violent crimes.

But Sgt. Ersie Joyner III told Sethna the Buick may have been used by several young men who pulled up to a crowded West Oakland street corner on Dec. 18 and sprayed lethal gunfire, killing Douglas Ware, 19.

Joyner said he pulled over the same Buick near Castlemont High School, on the other end of Oakland, earlier that day, with Demarcus Ralls, Sutton and Donald inside the car.

"Once we realized that they might be responsible for more than one murder, it just snowballed," said homicide Sgt. Mark Dunakin.

Police obtained a search warrant for the car and found two handguns and a shotgun. On Jan. 16, Dorsey-Colbert and Sutton admitted their involvement in the killings, police said. A few days later, Demarcus Ralls and Donald also admitted to numerous crimes.

"I've never seen anything like it before," Dunakin said. "They just started admitting to all kinds of robberies, too. They were totally nonchalant. They acted totally desensitized."

The first slaying took place Oct. 24. Police said Demarcus Ralls admitted to killing Joseph Mabry, 36, a youth basketball coach who was having an affair with Dorsey-Colbert, who admitted she helped set up the shooting.

Next was the killing of Ware on Dec. 18. Donald told investigators he was one of two gunmen who opened fire on the street corner for reasons that remain unclear, police said.

"It appeared that they fired at everyone who was out there," Nolan said. "They were just firing into the crowd without necessarily singling out Mr. Ware."

The Nut Cases allegedly struck again two days after Christmas.

Wiley, who had moved to the 800 block of Campbell Street in West Oakland, apparently got in an argument with a neighbor. On Wiley's orders, Demarcus told police, he and Joe Ralls opened fire into the front door of an apartment at 871 Campbell St., where a holiday celebration was taking place, Sgt. Gus Galindo said.

"They just went to the residence, knocked on the door and opened fire with an assault rifle," Galindo said.

Keith Macki, 14, was shot in the head and became Oakland's youngest homicide victim of the year. Jerry Duckworth, 24, a family friend who tried to save the boy as a hail of gunfire burst out, died when he was struck six times.

Deborah Colbert, the aunt of three of the accused men, said the charges against them are "too bizarre to be true" and completely out of character for the "good-hearted young men" she helped raise.

"They are not Nut Case killers," Deborah Colbert said. "They don't rob people. They never have. My boys don't play those violent video games. They don't play them during the day. They don't live them out during the night."

But investigators who interviewed the accused men see them in a different light.

"The amount of damage they did here was just staggering," Nolan said.