Would you still have a job after thirty days in the cooler? Would you still have a home after losing a month’s income? Would friends and loved ones stand by you when facing a murder rap? Would that “for better or for worse” vow really be fulfilled when legal bills mount, and your name is dragged through the mud in the media?
And what if the agony doesn’t end after thirty days, but drags on for months…for a year…for more?
When I looked into the sad eyes of the older-beyond-his-years man across the table from me at Detroit’s Dime Store restaurant, those questions flooded my mind. He had nearly lost his life because he wanted to help a lady in distress, and then nearly lost his freedom and his good name due to the politics of the moment.
His name is Marcus Weldon. He is 28 years old, and in 2014, he used a gun to save lives.
On the night of December 20, 2014, Marcus was working in downtown Detroit. Although he spent his days working as a lighting engineer for one Motown’s hotel casinos (a good job with solid benefits for someone without a four-year degree,) he moonlighted doing promotional events for a company that supplied high quality alcoholic beverages to Detroit’s well-heeled.
Christmas was only a few days away, so for this event he dressed as Santa Claus, accompanied by a cohort of young women dressed in skimpy “Mrs. Claus” costumes. A few hours’ work hamming it up as St. Nick, handing out presents and hanging out with beautiful ladies for $300? Not a bad gig.
As he was heading home for the night (past midnight, befitting a party highlighting fine champagne cognac,) he received a call from Erica Johnson, one of the “Mrs. Claus” ladies from the party. She had a flat tire, and was stuck at the Speedway gas station on Jefferson Avenue downtown. Could he help?
Detroit can be a hard city. You can be in an area of wealth and prosperity and walk to one of poverty and desperation faster than you can say “Vous sortez du secteur Américain.”
One of the first rules newcomers to Motown learn is: don’t go to a gas station after dark. While that rule contains more wisdom than literal truth, Marcus was a lifelong resident and it didn’t feel right to let a young lady fend for herself on the streets after hours. He turned around.
He was still wearing the Santa Claus suit. Maybe Chivalry isn’t dead after all.
“After I got to the gas station, I was trying to get Erica’s tire situated,” Marcus recounts. “I was kneeling by the side of the car, checking it out.”
It definitely had a leak. While he was fiddling with the tire, Erica walked up to the counter, apparently to get a snack or a drink. 29-year-old Omar Pady, who had just driven up in his own car, approached her.
Erica (whom the gas station clerk would describe as “light-skinned…pretty”) was still wearing her Mrs. Claus outfit, too. She apparently caught Pady’s attention; he made a pass at her. Erica rebuffed him, but Pady got more aggressive. He shoved her. “Hey, back off!” she yelled.
Marcus came up to investigate. “What’s going on?” he demanded. The other man had bloodshot eyes and looked to be under the influence of something. (Alcohol, Marcus says, per a later medical report.) The two exchanged words, got in each other’s faces. Got a little physical. When Pady shoved Marcus, he started backing away, feeling a cold, heavy lump of steel shift in his belt as he did so.
It was a Springfield XDM, chambered for .40 S&W, carried Mexican-style. (“I had a holster for it at one point, but it broke,” he says with a shrug.)
“I’m carrying,” he warned Pady. “Get back.”
“I got something for you!” Pady yelled. The smaller man pivoted and ran to his car, parked a few yards away with the passenger’s side door open. Pady started rooting around underneath his car seat.
“Basically,” Marcus says, “the universal street sign that you’re going for a weapon. I was like, this is it.” Worse, he saw someone else in the driver’s seat of Pady’s car, too. This might be a two-on-one-fight.
Marcus reached under his coats (a thin man, he needed multiple layers to look the part of a jolly old elf,) and drew.
When Pady spun around with a snub-nosed revolver in his hand, Marcus was at the ready.
“After the first shot, I paused for a second and heard return fire. Anxiety was just running out of me, I felt like it was a nightmare…. I started pulling the trigger. I didn’t know how many times. Found out later it was four times. I didn’t even know if I’d hit the guy.” He was running on pure adrenaline.
Pady fell to the ground.
“I heard Erica scream — I thought she’d gotten hit, so I ran to see if she was okay.” The woman was unharmed, but it was time to leave. She started running down nearby Larned Street.
“She was hysterical,” Marcus says. He was worried about her, but agreed that getting the hell out of Dodge was smart. He ran after her.
That’s when he heard the screeching tires, and his heart sank. For a terrifying moment, he thought Pady and his companion were coming to run them down in the street like dogs.
The sirens and flashing lights came on. It was Detroit PD. They drew down on Marcus and arrested him.
And that’s when his troubles really began.
Detroit’s finest took Marcus to the Detroit Detention Center, still known by locals by its old name, the Mound Correctional Center. His Santa attire caused much merriment in the eyes of both the jailers and the inmates.
No one really messed with him on the inside, though. “The way I looked–they thought I was crazy!” Marcus says, laughing.
It’s a rule of thumb that any law-abiding gun owner should expect a little bit of time in custody after a defensive gun use, but Marcus faced some serious problems. The Speedway clerk had called 911, but so had Pady’s companion, a man named Salaf Rifai. Rifai claimed that Pady had just bumped into Erica at the counter, when Marcus had then flown into a rage and shot them both, completely unprovoked.
The optics were against Marcus from the start. Pady was soon on life support at the hospital. Rifai had been wounded by a bullet and appeared on the news with his arm in a sling. Although he and Erica were just coworkers, never involved romantically, the narrative spun up that the Santa Shooter was a jealous lover gone crazy when someone bumped into Mrs. Claus. It was pure gold for social media clickbait writers while everyone was at home for Christmas.
Worse, it was a high-profile incident in a city with a high crime problem whose government was not always friendly to law-abiding gun owners.
“Prosecutors always want to be tough on guns, and this case was prominent because it was a guy dressed as Santa who shot two people at Christmas. It was international news,” says Rick Ector, a Detroit-area firearms expert who testified on Marcus’ behalf at trial.
Indeed, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has called in the past for more regulation on legal gun owners. Last year, she endorsed a law making it a crime to have an unsecured firearm in a home with small children. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also has vowed: “we may not have the resources to get everybody right now, but we do have the resources to go after anyone who chooses to use a gun.” (Police Chief James Craig, who argues that armed citizens reduce crime is the odd man out in local government.)
They charged Marcus with six felonies, including assault with intent to murder and a felony firearm charge.
He was held on $50,000 bond, and although he only needed to present $5,000 in cash, he wasn’t a rich man and needed help to pay it. It wasn’t enough for assistant prosecutor Kelly Casper. She wanted more money.
“Mr. Pady is in the hospital with a machine breathing for him and there is only a 50/50 chance of him coming out of it,” she said. The Court declined her request, but agreed that Marcus was a flight risk, and ordered him to stay at his home under house arrest, his every move monitored by an ankle tracking device.
The fact that Marcus had never had any serious run-ins with the law, and the fact that he’d had a Michigan Concealed Pistol License for years did not seem to weigh heavily on the court.
It was humiliating. He was dismissed from the marketing job. His boss at the Casino was more understanding and held his job open, but since Marcus couldn’t leave home, he was put on leave.
He had no income. He had sole custody of a five-year-old daughter. His nest egg, which he’d worked hard to save, was quickly being spent on rent and food. Plus, he needed to pay for a lawyer, and all of the things needed to prepare for a criminal trial: legal research and writing for motions, private investigators to track down witnesses, fees for expert witnesses, court fees, deposition transcripts, and so on.
The next few months were tough. Although his family and close friends held a press conference to speak out on his behalf with both Erica and his pastor, the Rev. David Allen Bullock, his once-huge circle of friends shrunk dramatically.
People he had once talked to every day stopped calling. Incredibly, some were jealous of the attention he was receiving. Folks he’d hoped would offer some help, or even a kind word, didn’t have time for him.
On the other hand, people he barely started offering help. Unsolicited.
“Strangers will be your biggest supporters in times like this,” Marcus says. “One thing about a stranger, they don’t know you, they’re compassionate about it. They don’t judge your past, they look at it from the perspective of: you need help. So here’s help.” His eyes narrow a little, recalling something.
“Some friends…judge you. Back in 1999 you did something they didn’t like, and they still hold that against you today.”
Marcus also started networking online with the gun rights community. C.J. Grisham of Open Carry Texas quickly became a social media advocate for the young man.
C.J. fiercely defends Marcus to this day.
“The fact that a law-abiding citizen [who] defends himself is suddenly forced into a cage and forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to an attorney to clear his name is repulsive,” he said in correspondence with me. “Marcus is a good man, a good father and the system was trying to railroad him.”
C.J. started broadcasting the story of Marcus Weldon far and wide. An online fundraising page was set up to help pay for food, housing, and legal bills.
Money started coming in — from gun rights supporters in Texas and elsewhere. The proverbial “old fat white guys” of the gun rights community were showing up to help a young black man from Detroit that they didn’t even know.
It wasn’t a ton of money — maybe five or six thousand in total, a pittance compared to his mounting debt. But it was something. The thought that people around the country cared about his case and wanted to help him in his darkest hour, was huge.
Marcus also got a lot of help from his parents. Both hard workers, they had carefully saved socked away a decent amount of money for their retirement. Mom and Dad were able to cover a lot of expenses when Marcus was flat broke, even though it left their own retirement fund depleted.
He vowed to repay every penny.
After four months of in-house incarceration, things started to get a little better. The court agreed to let Marcus leave home to go to work at the casino (and a few other places.) Still, that ankle bracelet was an ever-present reminder that he was not a free man. There was a trial looming over his head, and the outcome was still uncertain.
The prosecutor, backed by the resources of the city, pressed the case.
Settlement offers were made: plead guilty and serve no more than one year in prison, probably less with good behavior. Start your life all over again. Stop the debt from building up.
When you’re struggling to put food on the table and pay for a lawyer while under a cloud of suspicion, it’s easy to see why people agree to just cop a plea, even if they’re innocent. The sooner everything’s over, the sooner you can start rebuilding your life. Even Rick Ector calls the prosecutor’s offer a “sweetheart” deal, when you compare it to the typical offers made to the accused.
There was one string attached: Marcus would have to plead guilty to multiple felonies. If he pled guilty, he’d be branded a felon. For life.
His felony convictions would come up on every job application. He’d be barred from ever possessing a gun again — the tool that had just protected his life. What would his family, his friends, his supporters, his daughter think if he said he was guilty?
Marcus turned down the plea deal. He was innocent.
Perhaps the prosecutor wanted a deal because she was nervous about the trial. Although Detroit PD never found Pady’s gun (they “never searched the scene,” Marcus says,) the case was never that solid to begin with, and it had become weaker over time.
Pady had fled to his native Yemen after recovering from his injuries, and wasn’t coming back to testify. The Speedway clerk who witnessed the fight had also disappeared, leaving behind a trail of unanswered messages and disconnected phone calls. Pady’s companion, Rifai, was still around, and would testify at trial, but his credibility was a little suspect.
When the police arrived on the scene, Rifai told them that Pady went back to the car to get a baseball bat. But at a preliminary hearing he recanted, claiming that he wasn’t thinking clearly at the time because of a loss of blood and because he was “so pissed that he [Marcus] would shoot us. I wanted to smash his head.”
And even though there were security cameras all around the gas station, the tape was supposedly unplayable.
He only needed reasonable doubt to avoid a conviction…but would this be enough?
A turning point came when a chance encounter with one of the arresting police officers led to the discovery of a working copy of the security cam footage. Marcus’ attorney, David Cripps, soon had his hands on the tape.
In the video, Marcus is visible in his red Santa suit; Pady is seen running to his car, bending over into the passenger side and springing up and aiming something in the direction of Marcus afterward, then is felled by the hot lead delivered by Marcus’ true aim.
The video isn’t slam-dunk evidence. The quality is poor, it’s a wide angle, and the first part of the confrontation happened in a blind spot.
The judge refused to let any audio into evidence because the Speedway clerk couldn’t be found to testify. Still, the parts that were visible seemed to confirm parts of Marcus’ story. It was another much-needed boost.
By the time the trial started in June of 2016, the government’s case was unraveling. Marcus even took the unorthodox step of testifying on his own behalf. Normally this is a huge risk, and he was warned against it by his attorney, but “all I had to do was tell the truth,” he says. The trial lasted a week. He was on pins and needles.
The jury returned its verdict: Not guilty, on all counts. He was a free man again.
Marcus has since been rebuilding his life. He still works at the casino. He’s been taking classes to get certification to work on industrial refrigeration appliances. He’s thinking about going back earn his Bachelor’s Degree (he currently holds an Associate’s Degree in electrical engineering). Gotta pay the bills after all — the legal fees totaled around $50k. He still needs to pay back his parents.
His heart isn’t quite in his work like it used to be, though. He’s changed.
Marcus now spends time connecting with people to tell his story. He talks about guns, crime, and the justice system whenever possible. He just published a book titled The Santa Shooter: Guilty Until Proven Innocent, which tells the story of how his life was changed by the gun fight and trial.
Marcus has also become active in the gun rights movement, giving the keynote speech at the Michigan Second Amendment March this year, doing interviews at the NRA Convention, and talking at events for Maj Toure’s Black Guns Matter tour, which promotes education about gun rights, training, rights, and self-defense to people in the country’s inner cities.
Last month, he appeared on Let It Rip, a no-holds-barred Detroit news commentary show, debating former Chief of Police Ralph Godbee.
Marcus has a fiercely independent streak. He credits people as diverse as Ron Paul, Malcom Gladwell, Malcom X, and Cornel West with influencing his thought. He also attributes his ability to tough it out in part to his own faith.
“I’m a spiritual person,” Marcus says. “I grew up in a Christian family. I know this was grace,” he says.
“Anything else you want people to take away from this?” I ask.
A slight smile. “De-escalate situations when you can.”
He thinks for another moment.
“I wish I’d had carry insurance. It would’ve made things easier.”
I pay for lunch.
It seems trivial. But it’s the least I could do.