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Witness says teen planned robbery

| Thursday, June 26, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

A Langley High School athlete mysteriously shot to death May 8 as police chased a suspect in a restaurant robbery told a friend hours before he died that he planned to rob a pizzeria.

Justin Grayson, 17, testified Wednesday at an open inquest into the death of Dion Hall, 17, of Sheraden, that he couldn't get Hall to change his mind.

"He told me what he was going to do, and I guess he went ahead and done it," said Grayson, who attended Langley with Hall.

But no conclusions were reached at yesterday's inquest about whether Hall committed suicide or whether a police officer fired the fatal shot. Several witnesses, including a Pittsburgh police officer who fired his gun at the scene of Hall's death, were unavailable to testify.

Retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Nicholas P. Papadakos -- presiding over the inquest at the request of Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht -- is to resume the hearing July 17.

Hall, a football star at Langley, died inside a parked van about a block from a Chartiers Avenue pizzeria that had just been robbed at gunpoint. He had been shot twice.

Police say Hall robbed Little Rico's Pizza. Police maintain he shot himself either accidentally or deliberately as police closed in on his hiding spot in the back of the van parked on Hillsboro Street.

Officers testified at yesterday's inquest that police did shoot, but only after Hall shot first.

Police testified yesterday that they found a .357 magnum pistol resting on Hall's chest after his death, the barrel pointing at his head.

Hall's friends, relatives and community activists have said they do not believe Hall robbed the restaurant, and they accuse police of shooting him for no reason. They say Hall's two bullet wounds cast doubt upon the suicide theory.

Wecht said yesterday that the bullet that went through Hall's head, killing him, has not been found. Investigators later found a second bullet wound in Hall's lower back.

Wecht has criticized the police, blasting investigators for allowing the fire department to hose down the crime scene on the night of the incident, possibly washing away evidence.

Pittsburgh police Officer Jeffrey Palmer, an evidence-gathering specialist, testified yesterday that crime scenes are often hosed quickly, and said he and his team closely inspected the scene before pumper trucks arrived.

Palmer said he and his partner even raked a pool of Hall's blood with a wooden plank to see if contained any evidence. They found nothing.

Coroner's office officials said ballistics experts will testify when the case resumes in July.

Palmer, questioned by First Assistant District Attorney Edward Borkowski, said the gun found on Hall contained three live rounds and three spent casings, which would be consistent with the police theory that Hall robbed the pizzeria, then shot himself.

Police testified earlier that a pizzeria employee told them the robber fired two shots. A bullet grazed the arm of one pizzeria employee, who did not testify yesterday.

But other questions remain.

Officers testified that a colleague, Pittsburgh Police Detective Steve Kramer, fired his gun near the van after someone else shot first. Kramer also did not testify yesterday.

Bryan Campbell, a Fraternal Order of Police lawyer, said Kramer was in California yesterday on a previously scheduled trip, and will testify July 17.

Hillsboro Road resident Charlene Fortson, who owned the van, testified that the day after Hall died, she and other neighbors found bullet casings and parts of a police "flash bang" grenade used to stun crime suspects.

Under questioning by Borkowski, Palmer said it is hard to do a perfect search, especially at night.

Renee Wilson, a leader of the community group People Against Police Violence, said after watching yesterday's inquest that no witnesses testified seeing Hall rob the pizzeria, and she wondered why Hall was found under a blanket in the van, with his shoes off.

"I think he was asleep," Wilson said. "I don't think he was the robber at all."

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