Wake Forest is the only remaining defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed over the fatal shooting of a Winston-Salem State University student on Wake Forest’s campus more than three years ago.
According to court papers filed April 1, Rhino Sports & Entertainment Services LLC is no longer a defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed in May 2019.
Najee Ali Baker, a WSSU football player, was shot to death on Jan. 20, 2018, after a party that was held at The Barn on Wake Forest University’s campus. Jakier Shanique Austin was initially charged with murder in Baker’s death, and Malik Patience Smith, who was 16 at the time, was accused of pointing a gun at someone else while Austin shot Baker.
Baker’s mother, Jemel Ali Dixon, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wake Forest University, the school’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Rhino and several unnamed defendants. The school’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta hosted the party and Rhino provided private security.
Delta Sigma Theta was dismissed from the lawsuit after reaching a confidential settlement.
Steven C. Lawrence, an attorney for Rhino, said there was no settlement with the private security company.
“Once they (plaintiff’s attorneys) took depositions, there was absolutely no basis for keeping Rhino as a party,” he said. “Their work for security had nothing to do with the unfortunate shooting that occurred in the parking lot.”
Jonathon Fazzola, an attorney for the plaintiff, did not return a call seeking comment.
A trial in the wrongful-death lawsuit is now scheduled to start the week of Nov. 1.
Austin, 24, is serving up to seven years and five months in prison after pleading guilty last year to voluntary manslaughter and a slew of related and unrelated charges. Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to a number of charges for his role in the fatal shooting and was sentenced to about two years in prison.
The lawsuit alleges that Wake Forest University administrators were negligent and had lax security for the party at The Barn, including allowing non-students to enter the campus. Austin and Smith were not students at Wake Forest, WSSU or any other university or college in the area.
Wake Forest University’s attorneys have denied the allegations in court papers said school administrators had no way of preventing the fatal shooting or even predicting that such an incident could happen.
But in court papers, attorneys for Dixon have argued that university administrators should have known something could happen and that they ignored warnings from a school police officer who oversaw special events.
They also have said that Wake Forest University officials reduced police presence at large campus events.
Before 2014, the university had a combined force of nine university and Winston-Salem police officers who monitored events at The Barn, which is located near Piccolo and Palmer residence halls.
In 2014, according to court papers filed by the plaintiff, Black and other minority students raised concerns that university police were racist in how they handled events hosted by minority students versus those held by white students. The criticism came after Wake Forest police shut down a party hosted by the Black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. A town hall was held and that led to the university police chief commissioning an independent study by Developmental Associations. Two law-enforcement veterans from the company did the study.
The study made a number of recommendations, including that large events such as The Barn should be heavily policed and that Wake Forest should spend more money on policing overall to ensure all events are policed as much as the ones at The Barn. The study also recommended against students solely planning and organizing major events, according to the lawsuit.
Dixon’s attorneys allege that Wake Forest University officials ignored the study. The lawsuit also said that after Austin, Smith and an unidentified man fought with Baker inside The Barn, a Wake Forest University police officer and two private security guards failed to detain Austin and Smith, who walked down a single roadway back to their cars and retrieved guns.
The lawsuit said that Austin and Smith were able to run away after the shooting because of the lax security.