Odell Roberson Jr., a transient who kept to himself, was shot and killed on a July evening as he walked the streets of North Oakland.
Four nights later and a few blocks away, Michael John Wills Jr., a gregarious sous chef, was shot to death a few minutes after he left his home.
The attacks initially seemed unconnected, just two more killings in a city plagued by street homicides.
But Oakland police soon found that the same AK-47 assault rifle was used to kill both men. That weapon, they learned, also had been fired seven months before in an attack associated with members of Your Black Muslim Bakery, according to documents in the case.
Oakland investigators were already preparing to search the bakery for evidence in the kidnapping and torture of a mother and daughter in May.
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The AK-47 connection to the two homicides added a new urgency to their efforts – they said they feared bakery members were trying to “cleanse” the area around their San Pablo Avenue headquarters of undesirables.
But as investigators prepared to raid the bakery, word spread within the group that Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey was working on a story about its troubles. On Aug. 2, three days after police obtained search warrants for the bakery, Bailey was gunned down as he walked to his office.
The next day, police stormed the bakery and arrested its leader and two members of his entourage in the kidnap-torture case. They also arrested a bakery handyman in Bailey’s killing.
Shell casings from the lethal AK-47 were found on the bakery’s roof, but no arrests in the Roberson and Wills slayings have been made. While the motive or motives for the July slayings remain unclear, police are now investigating several intriguing connections between the two men and the bakery.
A death on the street
Police found Odell Roberson’s body early on the morning of July 8 in the 1000 block of 60th Street, near the Golden Gate recreation center. He had been shot repeatedly at close range. It appeared to be a targeted killing, but police did not know the motive.
Roberson’s family said he was addicted to crack cocaine but was not aggressive and had no known enemies.
“He didn’t bother anybody,” said Roberson’s uncle, R.C. Roberson. “He wasn’t harassing people.”
Roberson, 31, had grown up in Oakland and Berkeley. His mother was a cosmetologist, and his father worked as a dry cleaner. As a boy, Roberson contracted diabetes and dropped out of high school, his uncle recalled, and he began using crack cocaine after his father died. He struggled with his drug problem for the rest of his life.
“I was telling him that he should try to get his life together,” his uncle said, recounting a conversation he had with him two days before his death. “He said, ‘OK,’ but it was sort of, ‘I am what I am.’ ”
While growing up, Roberson was close to his half sister, Zepherine Roberson, the uncle said.
In October 2005, Zepherine Roberson’s then-18-year-old son – Roberson’s nephew – was arrested in the slaying of Antar Bey, 23, then the head of Your Black Muslim Bakery.
Police said that Alfonza Phillips III noticed Bey’s $80,000 BMW as Bey was pumping gas at a North Oakland service station. Police said Phillips shot Bey with a .44-caliber Magnum revolver in an attempted carjacking.
A month after the crime, Phillips was arrested. He has since pleaded not guilty, and his trial is expected to start this week in Alameda County Superior Court.
Roberson’s uncle said he wonders whether Roberson was killed to avenge the slaying of Bey.
“It could be a coincidence, it couldn’t be a coincidence,” the uncle said. “I don’t know if they did (know of the family connection) or not, but it’s food for thought. All the family has thought about that being a possibility.”
A fatal errand
Michael Wills, the other victim of the AK-47 linked to the bakery, was killed early on the morning of July 12, after leaving his apartment to go to the store to buy cigarettes or something to eat.
A poet and a musician as well as a cook, Wills, 36, had recently been promoted to sous chef at Di Bartolo’s cafe on Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt.
“He did a lot of creative work. He just put all he had into it,” said Troy Hayes, the executive chef at Di Bartolo’s. “We would create dishes, use our artistic talents, together, we had a great time with it.”
After a long night at work, Hayes drove Wills home to the apartment at 63rd Street and San Pablo Avenue where Wills lived with his girlfriend. Wills knew the area had its problems.
“He heard gunshots five times a week,” Hayes said. But the apartment was near where his girlfriend went to school in Emeryville. Besides, Hayes said, Wills got along with everybody.
“He was really nice to the people who were less fortunate – he would give them food, cigarettes; make sure they were doing all right,” Hayes said.
Across the street from Wills’ apartment was the former campus of Golden Gate Elementary, which in 2005 had become the site of two charter schools, one for elementary kids and the other a middle school, California College Preparatory Academy.
Last year, the prep academy hired guards from Your Black Muslim Bakery to protect the children from gang members after school.
Wills’ girlfriend, Liz Gross, said Wills knew of the bakery guards there, but she didn’t think he had any interaction with them. “He was a bit scared of them, as was everybody in the neighborhood,” she said.
But Wills’ father, Michael Wills Sr., said he had heard from people in the area that his son had befriended some of the guards.
“They would stand there for hours,” the father said. “He would see them standing there and ask if they wanted something to drink. He would go and sit down and have a cigarette, shoot the bull.”
The night he died, while Gross read a novel, Wills went out about 2 a.m. He could have wanted to buy cigarettes, Gross said. She said she later found an unopened pack in the house – she now thinks he went on a food run.
“Mike was a total sugar bug,” Gross said.
About 2:30 a.m., she heard gunfire. “I yelled his name,” she said. “I was really surprised he wasn’t there.”
Wills was killed on San Pablo Avenue next to the charter school yard, which is about three blocks from the bakery. His father said police told him Wills was shot at long range – the gunman was more than 100 yards away.
His family and friends can’t imagine why someone associated with the bakery would have wanted to kill him.
“They were out there to get somebody – they probably didn’t know who he was,” his father said.
A vengeance weapon
According to court records, the assault rifle used in both killings was used in an attack in December. In that attack, police said, someone used the AK-47 to shoot up a car owned by a man who once had dated the wife of Yusuf Bey IV, who became CEO of the bakery after Antar Bey was killed.
The man, whose name has not been made public, was not injured.
Police have been tight-lipped about the investigation into both killings. They have said they did not find the murder weapon in their raid on the bakery.
But ballistics tests show that shell casings recovered on the roof of the bakery buildings also were fired by the AK-47.
During the raid, Bey IV, 21, was arrested on kidnapping charges. When questioned by homicide investigators, he said he had no idea how the shell casings got on the bakery’s roof and he had no idea who did the shootings in July, according to a tape of one of the interviews and investigators’ notes of the interview.
But Devaughndre Broussard, the bakery handyman charged with killing the editor, told police he last fired an AK-47, known as a “kayda,” on the roof July 4.
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