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Motive foggy in man's slaying with gang ties

LAWRENCEVILLE — While the manner of Tommy Branch’s brutal March 12 slaying was aired in a public hearing Wednesday, a burning question remained for all parties involved:

Why?

Police believe teenage acquaintances of Branch, 58, strangled him with a belt in his Lawrenceville apartment off Langley Drive, then plunged a knife into both sides of his neck. His cause of death was strangulation, testified Lawrenceville police Detective A. Blake.

The two adult murder suspects — Chris Emery, 18, and Victor “Blue” Ramirez, 18 — appeared in a probable cause hearing Wednesday, where a judge found sufficient evidence to bind their malice murder charges to Gwinnett Superior Court.

An unidentified 14-year-old boy, also charged with murder, is being held at a juvenile facility.

Ramirez and the teen were known associates of street gang called “Rollin 60s,” a branch of the national Crips gang. Blake testified that Emery is likely involved with the gang, too. All three suspects knew Branch and had lived at his apartment complex.

Blake said a series of interviews led police to believe Ramirez and the boy were hanging out with Branch and drinking beer when the situation turned violent. The teen hit Branch with a frying pan, then helped Ramirez strangle the victim with a belt, Blake testified, citing interviews.

No one interviewed implicated Emery as being in the apartment, but Blake said evidence showed he ran to his apartment to retrieve a knife, and left the instrument outside Branch’s door. No one copped to even seeing Branch being stabbed, Blake said.

Blake said the frying pan was recovered in nearby woods, but the knife hasn’t turned up. The belt and clothing Ramirez and the teen were allegedly wearing are being forensically analyzed.

Friends at the hearing described Branch as a free-spirited divorcee and drinker who would party with anyone but didn’t carry a malicious bone in his body. A lifelong local, Branch had graduated from Central Gwinnett High School in the early 1970s, friends said.

In interrogations, suspects referred to Branch as “the old man,” Blake said. During weekends, Blake described the apartment complex as having a free-flowing party atmosphere.

Blake estimated the victim’s weight at 200 pounds, noting that hair samples recovered from his fingernails could indicate he fought back.

Police have said there’s no evidence the killing was part of a gang initiation or retaliation. Blake said some open drawers in the home could be indicative of robbery, but no property has been recovered that definitely belonged to Branch.

“One of the things I like to do is find out why,” Blake testified. “That’s still something I’m looking for.”

Emery and Ramirez remain jailed without bond.