Woman guilty of choking a grandma in post-wedding brawl

TAMPA — The family of the groom sat on the left side of the courtroom. Those who knew the bride sat on the right.

Half a dozen deputies stood guard as the verdict approached, just in case it happened again.

The feud stemmed from the night of Nov. 8, when a wedding reception tumbled into a parking lot melee that ended with a 74-year-old grandmother in a choke hold.

On trial Thursday: Sandra Dean, the 27-year-old, four-time felon who executed the squeeze. By the day's end, a jury handed Dean her fifth felony conviction, for battery on a person older than 65, but acquitted her on a second battery charge, deciding she didn't punch the groom's father in the face.

Even after all the witnesses had testified, much remained a mystery about a night when cash rained and punches flew.

• • •

It was a beautiful wedding at the Rusty Pelican. Markeith Brown and Tasha Johnson exchanged vows. Then deep into the party, about 9 p.m. police said, trouble began.

Someone took issue with the groom, who was throwing dollar bills onto the dance floor as kids scurried to gather them — "makin' it rain," defense attorney Marc Gilman called it.

A juror stifled a laugh.

Words between a few led to a brawl involving up to 40 guests whose loyalties followed family lines: groom's side vs. bride's, prosecutors said. By the time police arrived to break it up, someone had been hit in the head with a brick. It was Dean's cousin.

Dean wasn't at the wedding. She wasn't even invited. She and her boyfriend were home watching a friend's baby when they got the call.

"As soon as they get word that there's trouble brewing, they're the first ones on the scene," said prosecutor Kimberly Low. "They were looking for trouble. And that's exactly what they got themselves into."

Guests ended up 4 miles away, at the Residence Inn at 4312 Boy Scout Blvd. The groom's father, Andrew Thompson, was there. So was the groom's grandmother, Mary Wright, when Dean arrived with her boyfriend.

Witnesses conflicted on what happened next.

"That's the daddy!" Thompson said he heard Dean yell. He testified she charged toward him and punched him in the face.

Another prosecution witness said she saw the punch. But all the defense witnesses denied it. Wright said she saw Dean throw a punch, but she ducked out of the way, so she didn't see it make contact.

Dean's boyfriend and others got in on the fight, witnesses said, and the groom's father ended up on the ground, shielding his face. Thompson said he heard a necklace drop to the floor, looked up, and saw Wright in a choke hold.

A police officer never saw the choke hold. Dean said she never touched the grandmother or the groom's father, but that she was pulling on her boyfriend, trying to get him to stop fighting. The defense highlighted conflicts among the prosecution's witnesses about when exactly the grandmother was choked.

Wright testified that she had turned her back on the fighting.

"Y'all need to stop!" she yelled.

Then, she felt Dean's arms reach around from behind and trap her.

"Momma, I'm a choke you out," she heard the woman say.

Wright was not injured.

She said Dean only let go when police arrived and someone nicknamed Little Bitty yelled that one of the fighting men had a gun.

That man, Malcolm Anthony Hepburn, was arrested and awaits trial on charges of felony battery, carrying a concealed firearm, grand theft of a firearm and felon in possession of a firearm.

Dean was arrested four days later and was bailed out of jail that afternoon. Three days later, she and her boyfriend got married.

• • •

The trial didn't offer all the answers. The only two people arrested that night weren't even at the Rusty Pelican when everything began.

"You don't put 20 people in jail for fighting," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. The goal was to break everything up, figure out who was injured and address the most egregious offenses.

In the end, those deputies standing guard didn't have to contend with much. A single clap from the groom's side was the only outward reaction to the verdict of guilt. On May 17, Dean will be sentenced. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

It's still unclear who threw the brick at Dean's cousin and what was so bad about makin' it rain.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Woman guilty of choking a grandma in post-wedding brawl 04/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 16, 2010 12:48am]

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