FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Strobe lights circled, music was on high volume, strippers danced on the stage and the place was packed when “Nut” came into the former Bleu Diamond nightclub, headed for Marcus Rogan and shot him 10 times before firing more shots into the crowd.
That was the testimony of Ashley Drudge, the club manager who only ever told her therapist what reportedly happened, until last year.
On Wednesday, at the second day of the murder trial for James Ellis Starks, III, now 29, Drudge testified she was standing a couple of feet away from Starks when he opened fire just before 4 a.m.
She didn’t see a gun until Marcus was down and she saw Starks fire into the crowd, she said. Partygoers were “cowering” by the stage, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Starks was charged in November 2021 with murder, criminal recklessness and carrying a handgun without a license. If convicted of the April 9, 2017 homicide, he will also be charged with using a firearm in the commission of an offense that can add 20 years to a sentence.
Drudge never shared her story with law enforcement until she was sitting at the Allen County Jail last summer, facing four years in prison for burglary. She got in more legal hot water because she’d violated the conditions of probation.
In August, Allen County Chief Counsel Tesa Helge approached her to see if she’d talk about the homicide, but never offered a deal until Drudge brought it up, according to court testimony.
If it all looks a bit too tidy, that was what William Lebrato, the county’s chief public defender, wanted the jury to believe when he cross-examined Drudge. Twice he got her to say the deal was what got her on the stand.
“Ashley, if you don’t testify, you go to prison, correct?” Lebrato asked her point blank.
Drudge, who began her employment at the strip club seven years prior to the homicide, stood just a couple feet away when Rogan was shot, she at first tried to act like it didn’t happen, then sought the help of a therapist.
However, she did call the homicide detectives at the Fort Wayne Police Department a few days after the shooting and told detective Scott Tegtmeyer about a Snapchat message she’d seen from “Nut”, bragging that he’d killed Marcus Rogan. At that time, Snapchat messages lived for a few hours and disappeared forever. She couldn’t take a screen shot of it because the sender would automatically know who took the screenshot and she didn’t have another phone on hand to take a photo of the message, she said.
But she never told police what she witnessed. By the time she was interviewed at the Allen County Jail, she’d done wrong, committed burglary and violated her probation, and she was desperate to stay home with her kids.
So she talked.
There was always security at the Bleu Diamond and that night, the club used its own. It consisted of a wand, sometimes called a metal detector, and sometimes a pat down, Drudge testified.
She was walking the room, checking things out when “Nut” approached the stage. She knew him from Facebook, but not well and at first, she didn’t see him with a gun until he was firing into a crowd. Three more people were wounded, including Deshaun Rogan, Marcus’s brother who did not testify.
Quinton Scott, a local promoter who made the party arrangements, testified that he wanted to provide his own security, as he often does, but Drudge wouldn’t allow it.
On Wednesday, the prosecution brought forth five witnesses who were at the party. They’d answered a court subpoena and it was obvious they didn’t want to be there.
David Masterson said he didn’t even like going to packed places like the Bleu Diamond, now closed and gone forever, but Marcus was his cousin, they saw each other every day and so he went along. He was hanging out in the smoke room when the shots occurred.
As shots were fired, he “did what anybody else would do, drop to the floor.” He got up from the floor and went to his cousin’s side and stayed with him to protect his body.
C.J. Hogue was another one who claimed not to know Starks, but knew Marcus.
“We grew up together. We were very close,” Hogue said. When the chaos started, he noticed there was a hole in his shirt and took off running. Just like everyone else, he didn’t see anyone fire the gun.
“I just saw a flash,” Hogue said. “When you hear gunshots, you got to get out the way.”
Hogue testified that he ran out to the parking lot and tried to take over a car that had already been started, but the driver ended up taking him to the hospital.
Gataree Smith, whose name was mentioned in the first day of the trial, testified that he met up with Marcus and his cousin and a friend and didn’t realize he was hit until he saw a bullet hole in his blue hoodie. Suffering a chest wound, Smith drove himself to the hospital and admitted talking to police, but said he didn’t know who did the shooting.
Retaliation is a real thing, according to police testimony, and a big reason why Drudge didn’t want to snitch. Since she agreed to testify, her life has been difficult, she said, changing her schedule daily and shielding her kids.
Marcus’s sister, Zaikesha Rogan, said Starks sent her threatening messages and a year after the 2017 homicide, she ran into him at Piere’s Entertainment Center. Then on Facebook messenger he told her to “keep his name out of her mouth,” that “he had nothing to do with her brother’s murder,” and “that he would do the same things to me as he did to my brother.” She didn’t go to police with this information, but shared it with her mother and other relatives.
On Thursday, there will be more evidence of a 9mm Ruger handgun that Indiana State Police laboratory technicians traced to Starks and linked to shell casings found strewn on the dance floor that night.
The gun was retrieved at a traffic stop in November 2017. The serial number had been obliterated, but the ISP lab was able to “raise” the number. Information revealed that Starks purchased the gun from Freedom Firearms in March 2016.
The prosecution is leaning on the gun, grainy video that allegedly shows Starks at the club and leaving quickly after the shooting, and his social media posts.
In all, the jury heard 16 witnesses Wednesday and likely have a half dozen more to hear Thursday, which would leave closing arguments before the case goes to the jury for deliberation and a verdict.