Gulfport murder suspects belong to rap group with alleged criminal ties, investigator says

Harrison County Justice Court in Gulfport on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Hannah Ruhoff/
·2 min read

A 14-year-old boy and a co-defendant accused in an execution-style slaying in Harrison County are suspected associates of a group of rappers tied to criminal activity involving guns and drugs, according to testimony in a first-degree murder case Friday.

Sheriff’s investigator Michael Giardini testified Friday in a preliminary hearing in the first-degree murder case against the Gulfport minor charged in the Dec. 17 shooting death of Lazarius Smith, 16.

Since the investigation began, he said, investigators have tracked down social media posts and pictures that show the minor and his co-defendant, Johnte Pouerie, 21, in videos performing in a rap group called “Wicked.”

In the footage and other images, Giardini said, the suspects are seen with various firearms and, at times, in ski masks that look like the same masks U.S. marshals seized when they arrested the pair on Dec. 27.

In other footage, he said, the suspects are holding guns and appear to be in the same field on Highway 15 in Harrison County where the group was known to gather to shoot guns.

After the hearing, Judge Brandon Ladner agreed to reduce the minor’s $1 million bond to $200,000 with a condition that he cannot carry a firearm or be around someone who has one if he bonds out of jail.

The Harrison County public defender’s office had argued for a lower bond after questioning whether the evidence implicates the minor in the shooting. In addition, they said, the minor is of small stature and had already been allegedly subjected to an assault since he’s been in custody.

In other testimony Friday, the investigator said, authorities have tracked down social media posts between the minor and Smith that confirms the two planned to get together and go target shooting.

Smith’s girlfriend placed Smith with the minor the day Smith disappeared.

Smith’s girlfriend told authorities she last saw him shortly before 1 p.m. on Dec. 17 when he got into Pouerie’s white Hyundai Sonata to go target shooting with both of the suspects.

Other witness statements, the investigator said, point to the minor and the co-defendant as suspects in the killing.

Phone records, for example, tracked Pouerie’s vehicle to the location where Smith was picked up and near the crime scene just south of Posey Bridge.

Phone records also tracked Pouerie’s white car bearing a “Carmax” personalized tag to Biloxi, where a witness had followed the car after spotting men in ski masks and black shorts walking in the area of the crime prior to someone finding Smith’s body.

Other evidence in the case is still being collected, the investigator said, and results are pending on DNA and forensic tests.

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