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Long IslandCrime

Woman admits role as she takes the stand at alleged co-conspirator's robbery trial

Justice Brunson leaves Nassau County Court in Mineola

Justice Brunson leaves Nassau County Court in Mineola on Monday. Credit: Howard Simmons

Two masked gunmen burst inside a Floral Park jewelry store and carried out a daytime heist four years ago in the village’s downtown with her help, a Brooklyn woman admitted Monday in court.

Keisha Payton testified as a cooperating prosecution witness during the second week of testimony in the robbery trial of alleged co-conspirator Justice Brunson, saying she thought she’d make thousands of dollars by taking part in the crime.

"He was telling me he wanted me to hold a door open for him and that I was going to receive money for doing it," recalled Payton, 28, describing Brunson’s alleged recruitment pitch to her outside the Brooklyn hair salon where she used to work.

Brunson, 43, of Brooklyn, is on trial in Nassau County Court for charges that include first-degree robbery in a proceeding being held 20 months after the pandemic forced a mistrial in his case.

The weekend robbery at Atelier Jewelers netted more than $80,000 in stolen valuables and left store workers terrified and shaking, prosecutor Michelle Lewisohn told jurors last week in her opening statement.

The crime took place at about 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2017, when two employees and the owner were inside the Woodbine Court business, which is steps away from both the village’s main street and the local Long Island Rail Road platform.

Payton told jurors Monday she visited the jewelry store the day before the crime, posing as a customer by dropping off a bracelet for repair while helping Brunson to become familiar with the scene ahead of the robbery.

The witness said Brunson and their other co-conspirator, Darkel Davis, 35, of Queens, came in behind her the next day with guns after she returned to pick up the bracelet and was buzzed inside the store’s locked door multiple times.

Prosecutors have alleged that Brunson and Davis then ordered employees to the floor at gunpoint before making off with jewelry and wristwatches from display cases.

But village police arrived quickly at the scene after the store’s owner was able to hit a panic alarm, according to authorities. Police arrested Payton at the scene, but Davis remained on the run until January 2018 before law enforcement officials also caught up to Brunson and arrested him that February.

During his escape, Davis dropped a bag with stolen valuables inside it, along with his gloves and mask, while also tossing his gun onto the nearby railroad tracks, according to Lewisohn. She told jurors that DNA was among evidence linking Davis to the crime.

The jury didn’t hear that Davis already pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery before a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison for the crime.

Lewisohn also previously told jurors that the evidence against Brunson was overwhelming. She said it included text messages between Davis and Brunson, and texts Brunson sent to multiple people about a news story detailing Payton's arrest, along with phone records, surveillance video and Payton's testimony.

But Brunson's attorney, Christopher Devane, has tried to portray Payton as a liar who is only testifying against Brunson to avoid prison.

"Without Keisha Payton, they don't have a case," Devane told jurors as he tried to cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution's case in his opening statement.

Court proceedings showed Monday that Payton previously pleaded guilty to a felony and a misdemeanor in the case. But the felony will be dropped and the witness will get three years of probation for her cooperation with the prosecution if the Nassau district attorney's office decides that she testified truthfully. Otherwise, prosecutors will recommend a 5-year prison sentence for Payton.

Devane got Payton to admit during a cross-examination Monday that she had withheld information from the police after her arrest before she later lied when testifying before a grand jury.

Payton also said during Devane's questioning that she was an innocent victim before he got her to agree that she had been captured on store video taking part in the robbery and that she already had pleaded guilty to the crime.

"You are not an innocent victim?" the defense lawyer then asked.

"No," she conceded.

The trial is set to continue Tuesday.

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