The trial of three co-defendants accused of murder in the Piazza slayings continued with testimony from key witnesses presenting what the prosecution called overwhelming evidence of guilt — and a defense attorney saying that testimony isn’t worth the debris on the bottom of his shoe.
Keith Epps, also known as Will “Pooh” Hook, Edward Daniels, and Antonio Wright are on trial for the murders of Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore. Thal and Gilmore were gunned down inside the Piazza at Schmidts apartment complex on June 27, 2009 in what prosecutors said was a bungled drug robbery.
Wright is being represented by Thomas L. McGill, Epps’ defense attorney is Christopher Warren and Daniels’ case is being handled by Mythri Jayaraman. Daniels has been charged with two counts each of criminal homicide, robbery, conspiracy and weapons offenses.
Epps is charged with two counts of criminal homicide, robbery, conspiracy and first-degree murder; specifically felony murder.
Antonio Wright has been charged with two counts of criminal homicide, conspiracy, criminal conspiracy and firearms offenses.
All of the defendants have pleaded not guilty.
One of the witnesses in the case is Katoya Jones, who resided at the Piazza during the time of the murders. Jones, a former acquaintance of Epps, told the jury that the defendant asked her to let his partners into the secure premises and promised her a cut of the money in return.
She pleaded guilty to third degree murder last year.
“Each tenant needs a pass code,” said assistant district attorney Jennifer Selber. “So what does he (Epps) do? He calls Katoya and tells her ‘I need to get in — there’s a lot of money, you’ll get a cut.”
According to Selber, Jones went to the lobby on the day in question and let in three men, Donnell Murchison, now a witness for the prosecution, Antonio Wright and Edward Daniels.
Except — Jones had no idea that people would be killed. She was seen on surveillance cameras letting in the gunmen and eventually folded under questioning by detectives.
A second prosecution witness is Donnell Murchison, one of the alleged triggermen in the case. Last week, in an effort to save himself from facing the death penalty, Murchison pleaded guilty to two counts of murder in the first degree. Warren said Murchison’s testimony is worthless.
“Last month Donnell tried to tell prosecutors that Thal was in on the robbery, a despicable lie, that she brought this on herself,” Warren said in his opening statements. “Murchison, Langdon Scott, Katoya Jones — just because they pleaded guilty doesn’t mean you should believe them. Murchison just pleaded guilty a week ago. That’s their witness, the guy who actually committed murder.”
Thal, a well-known party planner and club promoter was an alleged drug dealer, supplying cocaine to the upscale party crowd in Philadelphia. Gilmore, a former Detroit firefighter and long-distance truck driver, transported cocaine from Texas into Philadelphia.
At some point they came to the attention of Epps and his pals, who, prosecutors said, decided to rip them off. In the first attempted robbery, Epps and a partner, identified as Robert Keith, went to the wrong apartment. In a second attempt, one of the alleged accomplice’s turned witness Langdon Scott learned he wasn’t just buying drugs but was participating in a robbery. He backed out. The third time was to be the charm, except that Wright, according to Epps, went crazy and turned “Wild Bill” setting off the deadly shootings.
The trial is expected to continue for the rest of the week.
Closing arguments began yesterday for the three co-defendants accused in the Piazza murders, with defense attorneys saying that the evidence doesn’t connect their clients to the slayings of Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore.
Thomas L. McGill, defense attorney for accused murderer Antonio Wright, said in his closing arguments that prosecutors, Jennifer Selber and Carlos Vega had not proved their case. One of the most glaring examples of that lack of evidence, McGill said, was that no one can definitively identify Wright in the surveillance tapes.
“My client pleaded not guilty, because he is not guilty,” McGill said. “My client has not testified on his own behalf and that is his Constitutional right, that’s the law. Now let’s talk about the evidence. First, the surveillance cameras, I contend that it’s not Antonio Wright in those videos. No matter how many times you view those recordings, no matter how many times you view the tapes - you can’t say for certain that it’s Antonio.”
According to McGill’s arguments, cell phone records allegedly belonging to Wright don’t have his name on them and that the confession he gave to police was given involuntarily.
“There is no DNA evidence linking my client to these murders and no fingerprints. You must find him not guilty,” McGill told the jury.
On trial in the case are Will “Pooh” Hook, also known as Keith Epps, Antonio Wright and Edward Daniels. The three have been accused of two counts of criminal homicide apiece, conspiracy and robbery with the intention of committing bodily harm. Daniels and Wright are also accused of weapons offenses and Epps is also facing a felony murder charge.
The defendants have all pleaded not guilty, and Epps has others speaking on his behalf.
“I’m saying that Keith Epps was set up, just as the defense said,” said Lewis Nash, pastor of Faith and Deliverance Outreach Ministries. “The assistant district attorneys knew that Donnell Murchison was going to refuse to testify, and the judge should have declared a mistrial. There’s a different standard of justice for a Black man – there should be equal distribution of the law.”
Murchison, a confessed gunman, pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and struck a deal with the prosecution to avoid the death penalty. He was a key witness in the case and his statements were read to the jury last week by Vega. But those statements were stricken from the record after he refused to answer questions during cross-examination and Judge Jeffrey Minehart instructed the jury to disregard them.
On Saturday, June 27, 2009, just before 5:45 p.m. police responded to a report of a shooting inside the Piazza at Schmidt’s apartment complex, an upscale collection of residences, art galleries, restaurants and nightclubs.
The victims, Thal and Gilmore, were shot multiple times. When investigators gained access to Thal’s apartment on the seventh floor, they found four kilos of cocaine with an estimated street value of $400,000 and over $100,000 in cash. Right away investigators believed it was a drug robbery gone wrong; except the robbers got nothing for the lives they took and the entire incident was recorded by the many surveillance cameras that were strategically placed outside and inside the building.
Jury deliberations are expected to begin immediately following closing arguments.
After barely two days of deliberations, a jury found three men guilty of homicide in the second degree in the 2009 Piazza at Schmidt’s murders yesterday.
Will “Pooh” Hook, also known as Keith Epps, 43, Antonio Wright, 30, and Edward Daniels, 44, were convicted on Thursday of murder in the second degree, criminal conspiracy and related offenses. Judge Jeffrey Minehart sentenced the three co-defendants to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the double murders of Rian Thal, 34 and Timothy Gilmore, 40.
The trial lasted almost two weeks, with Assistant District Attorneys Jennifer Selber and Carlos Vega presenting evidence that Hook was the mastermind behind the attempted robbery of Thal; whom prosecutors alleged was a drug dealer moving significant amounts of cocaine.
Hook and his confederates entered the Piazza apartment complex Navarro building on June 27, 2009, with the alleged intent to rob Thal. Instead, as soon as Gilmore and Thal stepped off the elevator, Wright and Donnell Murchison opened fire, killing them. Murchison pleaded guilty before the trial.
During the trial, defense attorneys attempted to convince the jury that cell phone records didn’t prove that Epps was at the scene of the crime, or that Wright was identifiable in the surveillance recordings. Epps’ defense maintained that his client has been played, that he had been set up to take the fall for the “executions” of Thal and Gilmore, since nothing was stolen.
During the investigation that followed the murders, detectives found $100,000 in cash and several kilos of cocaine in Thal’s apartment.
In an unrelated criminal issue, the latest homicide statistics for 2011 show that as of Thursday, for the week of Nov.26, 2011, there were no homicides in Philadelphia; however, as of Tribune press time there was a total of 302 murders year to date.
Further, a snapshot of the first six months of 2011 shows that Black males between the ages of 18 and 24 remain the segment of the population most likely to perish from gunfire. Police Department statistics also show that African Americans lead the city in the number of homicide victims.
In the six-month period from January to June 2010 there were 21 white victims of homicide in Philadelphia. For the same six-month period in 2011, there were 22. For African Americans, the number jumps to 12 and 134 for the same years. The statistical reports also show that from January to June 2011, 80 percent of the city’s homicide victims had at least one prior arrest before their deaths. Sixty five percent of the homicide victims had prior arrests for violent crimes.
In another unrelated criminal investigation, a Philadelphia attorney and nonprofit founder was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for engaging in sexual relations with minors.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Kenneth Schneider, 46, of Philadelphia, was sentenced for charges of sex tourism. Schneider was convicted by a federal jury on October 1, 2010.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said that in the summer of 1998, Schneider, the founder and president of the Apogee Foundation, traveled to Moscow, Russia where he told two ballet instructors at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography that he was willing to provide assistance to students attending the academy. The instructors identified a 12-year-old student whose family could no longer afford to pay his board. Schneider convinced the boy’s parents to allow him to live with him in an apartment a few blocks from the school.
But federal prosecutors allege that Schneider had much more in mind than just helping the 12-year-old. Prosecutors alleged that between Aug. 22, 2000 and Nov. 22, 2001, Schneider engaged in an ongoing sexual relationship with the victim. He allegedly brought the boy to Philadelphia for a summer program in 2001, and then flew back to Moscow with him in August 2001 to continue the sexual relationship.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting children from sexual predators,” Memeger said. “When a criminal, such as this one, exploits a vulnerable and innocent child for his own gratification, we will take every step to remove the criminal from the community so that he cannot victimize other children and so that other potential criminals are put on notice that the justice system will not tolerate this type of behavior.”
In an unrelated law enforcement announcement, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board presented District Attorney Seth Williams with a check for $150,000 this week to investigate and prosecute illegal gambling activity. The money is from the board’s Local Law Enforcement Grant and will be used for the salaries of members of the district attorney’s Gaming Control Task Force. The special task force is operated under the office’s Special Investigations Unit.
“This money will help us to continue to not only be tough but also smart on crime,” said Williams. “The crimes associated with illegal gambling have grown over the past few years in Philadelphia, and it is extremely important that we track down those criminals and bring them to justice.”