Their friendship developed in high school as they managed life around Baptist dogma hostile to their sexual orientation and gender identity and relatives who initially were wary.
There was not a place for them in Texarkana, the east Texas city where they grew up.
In the years that followed, Jason Bradley and London Watson became roommates, first at an apartment in Arlington and later on a street off of Bluebonnet Circle in the Westcliff section of Fort Worth. They rented a 2,000-square-foot house and hung in the bedrooms wigs they wore in drag performances.
They also sold sex there.
They were together in the living room when they were shot.
During a robbery in December 2017, a sex customer shot Watson and Bradley, according to the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office theory. Bradley died on the hardwood floor. Watson survived for four and a half years in nursing facilities and a hospital, unable to feel or move her body below her middle chest because of quadriplegia caused when a bullet damaged her spine. She died in July 2022.
At the end of six and a half hours of deliberation a jury in the 371st District Court in Tarrant County on Friday found the customer, Fayaka Dunbar, not guilty of capital murder. The jury also rejected murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault and deadly conduct, the other crimes Judge Ryan Hill included in instructions to the jury under a defense request. If he had been found guilty of capital murder, the 32-year-old defendant would have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the offense’s automatic punishment when the state, as it did in the Dunbar case in February 2018, waives the death penalty.
Dunbar was released from custody an hour and half after he was acquitted.
The verdict was an extraordinary state court trial outcome. Most defendants indicted in Tarrant County on capital murder are at trial found guilty of that offense or of a lesser included crime.
Defense attorneys Mark Daniel and Matthew Smid argued the shooting was justified by self-defense and an advisory on the law of that defense was included in instructions to the jury. Bradley and Watson were shot when they placed Dunbar in abject fear, attempted to extort money from him and used their large bodies to assert control, Daniel argued.
The cause of Watson’s death was an element of dispute at the 10-day trial. It was of particular importance in the case because one of the three capital murder counts alleged that Dunbar killed more than one person during the same criminal transaction. Dunbar was also indicted under the capital murder component that each killing occurred during the course of a robbery attempt.
The trial’s exploration of evidence occurred five years and nine months after the shooting in the 3500 block of Rogers Avenue.
Among the witnesses who testified was a third roommate who was inside the house when the shooting occurred; a detective who interviewed Watson in the hours after the shooting while the victim was in a trauma intensive care unit bed; DNA and firearm analysts; and a crime scene unit officer who recounted collecting an ejected cartridge casing from the fireplace mantel and others elsewhere, towels and a ball of cash from under a mattress.
Dunbar, who operated a forklift in a series of jobs assigned by temporary staffing companies after failed college and military stints, found a balm for depression in sex for which he paid cash. After a night shift on Dec. 8, 2017, Dunbar scanned the internet (whether he used a dating app or responded to a prostitution advertisement was in dispute) for sex opportunities. He found Watson, who offered to perform an act at a house about 100 yards from Bluebonnet Circle and about a half-mile south of the Texas Christian University campus in Fort Worth.
Though most of Dunbar’s previous paid sex encounters were with cisgender female escorts, Watson was a transgender woman.
“He knew I was trans,” Watson told homicide Detective Tom O’Brien in an interview after she was shot. Dunbar confirmed it from the witness stand.
Bradley was a 35-year-old gay man who was a prominent drag performer known at shows as Bianca Starr.
Dunbar testified that when he arrived at the house, he was met at the door by Watson, who was upset by her customer’s tardiness. She grabbed Dunbar’s wallet and withdrew all of the cash inside it. Watson flung the billfold now missing five 20-dollar bills at Dunbar and led him through the house to a bedroom, he said.
Watson stepped into a bathroom to retrieve a wig and makeup.
After a completed sex act and a second act he rebuffed, Watson gripped Dunbar’s neck in a chokehold and lifted him from the floor, the defendant testified. Bradley and Waston weighed about 300 pounds. Dunbar weighs about 130 pounds.
Using a technique he learned in Marine Corps training, Dunbar freed himself from the hold and ran toward the front of house, he testified. The defendant was stopped in the living room by Bradley’s body, he said.
According to Dunbar’s testimony, Bradley said, “Got him. You’re gonna die. You ain’t going nowhere.”
Bradley was attempting to rip Dunbar’s Adam’s apple from his throat when, facing away from Bradley and Watson, he fired aimlessly in order to escape, the defendant testified. Ejected cartridge casings collected from the house and projectiles from the bodies indicated Dunbar fired four rounds.
As Bradley held Dunbar’s neck and arm, the defendant pulled from a jacket chest pocket a Bersa pistol he began to carry after he was roughed up during other paid sex acts forays, Dunbar testified.
“I couldn’t fight these guys off,” he said.
The defendant’s account was a lie and was in conflict with other evidence, Assistant Criminal District Attorney Allenna Bangs told the jury in a final argument. Dunbar sought prostitutes as robbery victims because he, “expects nobody cares about them,” she said.
After his arrest four days after the shooting, Dunbar was exasperated when presented with the arrest warrant.
He announced he did not, “do it. And if I did it, it was self defense.”
Bangs prosecuted the case with Assistant Criminal District Attorney Samantha Fant, who argued in her closing that Dunbar was guilty in each of the three ways the indictment alleged he committed capital murder.
Dunbar shot the victims when, after the sex act, the defendant wanted his money back, the prosecutor said. Watson and Bradley’s sex work should not be a factor in determining the defendant’s guilt or innocence, she suggested.
“Were they prostitutes? Yeah. We know that,” Fant said.
Beyond the self-defense and cause of death defense arguments, prosecutors confronted three other hurdles.
▪ A bullet tore through Watson’s scapula, and she suffered a complete spinal cord injury. She died on July 2, 2022, at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. She was 36 when she was shot and 40 when she died.
Watson’s death nearly occurred without anyone in a position to determine its cause being alerted to it. The hospital did not report it to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. A detective reading a social media post in which the the third roommate referred indirectly to Watson’s death led the medical examiner’s office to confirm it.
But by then her body was at a funeral home in Texarkana and had been embalmed, a process in which fluid is injected into a body so that it, “is not decomposing in front of everyone” at a viewing, testified Dr. Stacey Murthy, a forensic pathologist who is the deputy medical examiner who performed the autopsy.
The body was returned to Tarrant County, and Murthy conducted an autopsy under a less-than-ideal circumstances. The bullet that caused Watson’s paralysis and misery was removed. Murthy concluded Watson’s death was caused by complications of a gunshot and its manner was homicide.
▪ Jeremy Rhoden, whom Bangs called a “damn good detective” in her closing argument, was the initial lead homicide investigator in the case. He died of a medical problem in July 2018. The case file that contained paper copies of reports for which there were also digital versions is missing. Daniel and Smid suggested the file may have held notes or other material. Rhoden’s colleagues searched the homicide unit office, a vehicle Rhoden used and his widow looked through his home office, but did not find the file.
▪ In March 2018, Tarrant County prosecutors filed an application to take a videotaped deposition of Watson. She died without being deposed.
The defense suggested there was evidence to show the cause of Watson’s death was a condition other than a gunshot wound complication. She was morbidly obese and had HIV and diabetes. Watson also suffered deep bed sores for which she at times declined treatment and may have received substandard care, Smid argued.
But for the quadriplegia caused by the gunshot wound, Watson would not have died, the state countered.
Norman Fields, a third roommate at the Rogers Avenue house, was the only person beyond the deceased and the defendant who was inside the house at the time of the shooting, though there were conflicting accounts of what he saw or heard.
Fields testified that he woke to hear voices that were hostile or “off.”
He said he found in the living room Watson and Bradley insisting that a person whom Fields did not know should leave.
Fields testified the person suggested he was not going anywhere and soon was waving a gun as Bradley and Watson held up their hands.
The man pointed the gun at Watson, and she grabbed either the weapon or the hand of the person holding it, Fields said.
Fields testified that he turned to go to his bedroom to retrieve a vase. He heard shots and returned to the living room and saw his roommates on the floor and that the shooter had left. He called 911, and a recording of the call was twice played for the jury.
“None of us wanted to die,” Fields testified.
The state did not ask Fields whether he saw in the courtroom the person who shot his roommates.
After the verdict, a cousin of one of the shooting victims sat alone in a section of the gallery. Bangs turned from the prosecution table to apologize.
The relative grew upset and yelled across the courtroom to Dunbar.
“He’s a murderer. That’s what you are,” the woman said before she was ushered outside.
Dunbar did not break his forward gaze.