Attorney: Teen charged in pizza driver's murder 'stupid,' not guilty

In March, a Facebook photo of 14-year-old Reginald Lofton holding a gun was presented in Gwinnett County court during a hearing in the murder of a pizza delivery driver. (Credit: Channel 2 Action News)
In March, a Facebook photo of 14-year-old Reginald Lofton holding a gun was presented in Gwinnett County court during a hearing in the murder of a pizza delivery driver. (Credit: Channel 2 Action News)

When Gwinnett County police responded to the parking lot of the Wesley Herrington Apartments that night, they found a two-liter bottle of soda and a shell casing.

They found 28-year-old Shane Varnadore, cold and without a pulse, curled in the fetal position. They found his car and his cash and his cellphone and an empty Papa John's pizza carrier. Moments later, then-14-year-old Reginald Lofton would calmly stroll into his nearby apartment carrying the corresponding pies.

The teenager's defense attorney and Gwinnett County prosecutors agree on that much — but little else.

"He may be guilty of being stupid," Lofton's attorney, Leanne Chancey, told a jury Tuesday. "But he’s not guilty of participating in this armed robbery that led to Mr. Varnadore's death."

Lofton has been charged as an adult in Varnadore's March 1 killing and is facing counts of murder, felony murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault. Authorities believe he and 21-year-old Jermaine Young (who has not yet been tried) made repeated calls to the Papa John's where Varnadore worked, ordering food to lure him to the apartment complex where they both lived with Lofton's sister.

At some point, Varnadore was shot once in the chest and killed.

As Lofton's trial got underway Tuesday morning, Assistant District Attorney Sabrina Nizam admitted that authorities still don't know who pulled the trigger. But, she argued, it doesn't matter — both were involved in the robbery and, under Georgia's party to the crime laws, are equally responsible.

"It took two people to kill Shane Varnadore," Nizam said in her opening statement.

Nizam further detailed the Gwinnett County police investigation, hinting that detectives had connected the phone number used to call Papa John's that night to Lofton and Young's Facebook pages — pages that, just hours before the fatal shot was fired, showed both posing with the weapon that killed Varnadore.

Those Facebook pages, Nizam said, also linked Lofton and Young to an apartment two buildings over from where Varnadore was killed. Less than 24 hours after the killing, SWAT officers served a search warrant at the apartment, finding pizza boxes from the fateful delivery and the murder weapon stashed in a box of pancake mix.

Nizam said Lofton's sister — who he moved in with after his mother died in Chicago — will testify this week that she heard the teen ordering pizza that night and later watched as he walked into the apartment with the pies, "cool as a cucumber."

Chancey, meanwhile, repeatedly pointed to Young as the shooter and the only person involved in the armed robbery. She asserted that her client played no role in the incident, watching the initial interaction from a second-floor breezeway before foolishly picking up the pizzas and walking back home.

"When you filter the state's case through the intentions and the knowledge and the maturity of a 14-year-old child," Chancey said, "the evidence is just not going to be there."

The prosecution presented several witnesses Tuesday afternoon, including police officers, a crime scene specialist and Gwinnett County Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Terry. Tristan Zeder, Varnadore's general manager at Papa John's, also testified.

The store received three separate calls in connection with the delivery that ultimately cost Varnadore his life, Zeder said — one with two male voices "trying to figure out the specials," a second asking if they accepted $100 bills and a third checking on the order's status.

Zeder said he grew worried when he didn't hear from his driver for 40 minutes or so after he departed.

"I just kept calling him back to back," the manager said.

Lofton's trial will continue Wednesday and is expected to be completed this week.