Those who knew him said James Elijah Dickson was pretty sensitive about who handled his camouflage-colored 12-gauge shotgun.
It turns out he was more sensitive about being taunted as gay.
It was that taunting, testified Levi Almonte, that touched off the April 17, 2016, massacre in a Kensington rowhouse that left three dead and Dickson, 45, charged with their murders.
“Aw, cuz, it’s like that?” asked Kenneth Stowe, according to Almonte, testifying Monday in the first day of Dickson’s nonjury trial before Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson.
Dickson, who has a long criminal record and a history of mental illness, agreed to waive a jury trial if Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano did not seek the death penalty.
Dickson’s lawyers, Mythri Jayaraman and Wendy Ramos, said Dickson will testify in his defense and claim he shot in self-defense.
Almonte, 26, who escaped the bloodshed, described Stowe as a childhood friend of Dickson and his family who often identified himself as Dickson’s cousin.
But at the get-together at Dickson’s house in the 600 block of East Westmoreland Street that stretched into the predawn hours of April 17, 2016, the relationship between the two men was frayed to the breaking point.
Almonte said Stowe had been arguing with Dickson since the day before but the dispute took a nasty turn after someone whom Almonte described as a transgender woman arrived at the house and went upstairs with Dickson for 30 to 45 minutes.
When the visitor left and Dickson returned downstairs, Almonte testified, Stowe began calling him by homosexual slurs.
Ultimately, at 3:37 a.m., Almonte said, Dickson came downstairs again with his shotgun and blasted Stowe once in the face. He then turned toward Ziyon Laboy, 25, who was struggling to escape through the front door, and shot and wounded him in the left side.
Almonte said Dickson then moved to the rowhouse dining room and shot and killed Laboy's father, veteran street criminal Edwin “Capone” Laboy, 46, before Almonte said he followed the younger Laboy out the front door.
Outside, Almonte said, he heard two more shotgun blasts and assumed that his brother, Yoel, 24, and Yoel’s girlfriend, Christine Chromiak, 33, the mother of three, were dead.
Chromiak was found shot to death in the kitchen, but police said Yoel Almonte escaped after grappling with Dickson in the kitchen and then bolting through the house and out the front door.
Dickson’s cousin, Alfonso “Snoop” Liverpool, 46, testified that everyone involved knew each other and that the Almonte brothers, Ziyon Laboy, and, at times, the elder Laboy and Chromiak lived in his house in the 2000 block of Castor Avenue.
But because his house had no electricity, Liverpool said, they frequently went to Dickson’s house to “chill out,” cook a hot meal, and shower.
Liverpool described two days of rising tension between his cousin and Stowe, and said others in the group worried enough about Dickson that first Edwin Laboy and then Yoel Almonte unloaded the shotgun when Dickson wasn’t looking. Liverpool said his cousin believed the others were plotting to kill him.
Liverpool said that Stowe’s hectoring of Dickson was relentless and that when he began using gay slurs, “I could see something change in my cousin’s eyes. It’s hard to explain. It was disgust and pain in his eyes when [Stowe] said what he said.”
Liverpool, at times struggling to maintain his composure, said he spent much of the night trying to defuse the relationship between Stowe and Dickson until Dickson pointed the shotgun at him and pulled the trigger.
The shotgun wasn’t loaded, and Liverpool said he left the house telling Stowe, “You have to leave right now.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Stowe replied.