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Minnesota man part of burglary ring targeting marijuana dealers admits killing father of two

Brandon Lamar Cooper, left, Bradley James Cook and Ernest Donald Atchison Jr. have been charged in the death of Justin Niles Wright of Maplewood. (Courtesy of Ramsey County sheriff)

MAPLEWOOD, Minn.—A St. Paul man who was reportedly part of a burglary ring that targets marijuana dealers pleaded guilty this month to killing a Maplewood father during a robbery gone wrong.

Brandon Lamar Cooper, 30, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree unintentional murder during a hearing in Ramsey County District Court Jan. 10, according to court records.

His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He was charged in November 2015 with two counts of second-degree unintentional murder and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm in the death of Justin Niles Wright. Wright, 31, was found dead on his living room floor shortly before 5 a.m. Nov. 7 after his girlfriend called 911 to report a shooting.

Two others were also charged in the incident: Bradley James Cook, 36, and Ernest Donald Atchison Jr., 33.

Cook pleaded guilty in July to first-degree burglary after reaching a deal with prosecutors.

He previously faced charges of aiding-and-abetting murder for his role in the shooting. The less egregious conviction came in exchange for Cook's commitment to testify against his accomplices in the crime.

During his plea hearing, he said Cooper had admitted to shooting Wright after Wright unexpectedly confronted him while the men were attempting to burglarize his home.

The three devised the burglary plan after Atchison told them about 50 pounds of marijuana allegedly being held inside the house, Cook said.

According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, Wright's girlfriend told officers she and Wright had been asleep when she awoke to a strange voice just outside the bedroom saying, "Tell me where it's at."

Wright also was in the hallway, she said, and she saw him lunge toward a dark figure. Then she heard a single gunshot and saw Wright stagger through the house, eventually collapsing in the living room.

Wright's two children were away at a sleepover at the time. His girlfriend was not injured.

The woman admitted to police that she and Wright sold marijuana from the house at 2272 Hazel St. and some of her customers knew they kept "significant amounts of marijuana" there, the complaint said.

Police found signs of forced entry in the garage and a 9mm shell casing in the bedroom hallway. Later that day they found a Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun two blocks away. DNA from the handgun reportedly matched DNA on file for Cooper.

Police also tracked Cooper's cellphone to the area.

An informant told police that Cooper was part of a burglary ring that targeted known marijuana dealers.

More than a month after the fatal shooting, investigators got a warrant to put a GPS tracker on Cooper's vehicle and tracked it to Minneapolis. There they saw Cooper and an accomplice burglarize a home on the 4700 block of Park Avenue, according to the complaint. The investigators followed the vehicle back to St. Paul, where they took Cooper into custody.

Wright bled to death after the bullet struck his left carotid artery, according to the Ramsey County medical examiner.

Cooper has previous felony convictions for theft, robbery and assault.

All three men are expected to be sentenced in the coming months.