A man police say gunned down people at a Wilkinsburg cookout wanted to continue the slaughter at the victims’ funerals, according to two informants on whom police relied to bring charges in the case Thursday.
“I’m trying to treat them like the Jews; I’m trying to eliminate their whole Blood lines,” suspect Cheron Shelton told his co-defendant, Robert Thomas, according to a jailhouse informant. Thomas talked Shelton out of the second shooting, according to court paperwork.
Allegheny County police charged Shelton, 29, of Lincoln-Lemington, and Thomas, 27, of Homewood, with killing five adults and an unborn child during a March 9 cookout at a home on Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg. They face multiple charges of homicide, homicide of an unborn child, aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit homicide. They are to have preliminary hearings on July 1.
Officials have said they believe the shooting was connected to an unsolved killing in Pittsburgh.
Lamont Powell, 24, who survived the Wilkinsburg shooting, is a suspect in the killing of Calvin Doswell, who was shot in Lincoln-Lemington in 2013, according to court records. Those same court records indicate that Shelton and Doswell were “best friends.”
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said during a news conference Thursday that investigators believe Powell was the “primary target” of the Wilkinsburg shootings.
“Lamont Powell was somebody they had been looking for,” Mr. Zappala said.
The case against Shelton and Thomas relies on phone records, surveillance video, observations from officers and statements from inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, where Shelton and Thomas have been held in recent months on other charges.
Defense attorneys for the men said they are baffled that the case would include jailhouse informants, because they both thought their clients had been in solitary confinement.
Casey White, who represents Thomas, said, “It’s my understanding he had limited, if any, contact with other inmates or even jail personnel.”
Randall McKinney, who represents Shelton, said, “If the district attorney’s office intends to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Cheron Shelton is guilty of this horrific crime based on unnamed jailhouse ‘witnesses’ who had no access to my client, a complete lack of forensic evidence or firearms connecting my client to the crime and no eyewitnesses to the event, I’m confident Mr. Shelton will be found not guilty.”
Officials have said Shelton and Thomas received a call March 9 alerting them to a Facebook post that showed Powell at a party at a home on Franklin Avenue.
There were two volleys of gunfire that night, officials said. One person armed with a handgun fired 18 shots from the back of the lot, sending people running toward the home’s back porch, where someone armed with an assault-style rifle fired 30 shots into the crowd, police said.
Five adults, one of whom was pregnant, died. Three were shot and survived. At least one bullet went into the home, police said, and pierced a couch where a child was sleeping.
Mr. Zappala said all of the fatal shots were fired by the rifle, which police suspect Shelton used. He said they suspect Thomas used the handgun. Police have not found either gun, one of which they believe was used in a separate killing that resulted in a conviction.
After the shooting, police received tips that the suspects were from Homewood’s “Hilltop” section, which police sources have identified as being home to a branch of the Crips gang.
Detectives viewed surveillance footage from the area, which they said shows Shelton and Thomas coming and going in various cars on the night of the shootings. At one point, Shelton “recovered a long, slender, ridged object that appears to be covered by a piece of clothing,” according to a criminal complaint.
Three days after the shooting, detectives searched a home where they believed Shelton had stayed and found ammunition for an assault-style rifle and a bullet-resistant vest. Later that month, they arrested him on charges stemming from the search and a probation violation. Thomas was arrested the next month on charges stemming from a 2013 case in which Shelton is also charged.
Much of the homicide case is built around events that happened while the two were in jail.
On April 1, detectives, having heard Shelton refer to writing a letter in a recorded phone call from the jail, seized a letter he had written to his girlfriend’s father, Adrien Falls, 52.
HERE IS A TIMELINE OF EVENTS:
Shelton said in the letter, addressed to “Pops,” “round the corner at Bubbie house, I got something there that I was workin’ on getn rid of. … It’s downstair next to the lawn mowers wrap & ready to be toss.” Shelton then gave Falls a phone number for Thomas, police said.
He concluded the letter by saying, “burn this when done reading LOL.”
Then, on April 6, investigators got a search warrant that allowed them to place a small video-recording device in a jail visitation room to record Shelton’s visit with his father, Robert Shelton.
“Throughout the course of the approximately hour-long visitation, Cheron Shelton used various hand signals, and/or appeared to mouth various things to Robert Shelton. The visitation room is equipped with a hand-held telephone receiver that is essentially a two-way talking device that is monitored by the Allegheny County Jail,” the complaint said.
During the visit, Shelton picked up the receiver and set it down, never entering his pin so the audio recording system would not start, the complaint said. About 10 minutes in, Shelton made a hand motion like he was writing. Police said they believed he had become aware that his letter had been intercepted.
Police wrote that he got an “obvious shocked look on his face. Shelton then becomes noticeably agitated (standing up quickly and gesturing and appearing to throw things in the face to face visitation room).”
He then “appeared to pantomime the holding of a rifle, to include the squeezing of the right index finger, in the position that would be the trigger, multiple times as if firing a semi-automatic weapon.”
Shelton then made a motion like he was starting a lawn mower, and then made a tossing motion, police said, like throwing a rifle.
Also listed in the complaint were details of conversations that allegedly took place between the suspects and fellow inmates.
One person, identified as Witness No. 1, said that on April 6, Thomas showed concern that his DNA was collected related to the Wilkinsburg case.
According to the complaint, Thomas told the inmate he had urinated in a garage right next to the scene, and that “he’s worried” that he left his DNA there. The witness told investigators that he and Thomas went to a computer on the jail pod used as a “law library” and tried to find information about getting DNA from urine.
Witness No. 1 said he continued to talk to Thomas about the crime, asking him whether his conscience was bothering him.
At one point, Thomas allegedly told him, “Yeah, it’s killing me, crushing me every day. I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying not to become a vegetable. I’m trying to wrap my head around it.”
Thomas allegedly told the witness that he got rid of the handgun he used, “They gonna have to go deep sea diving for mines,” the complaint said. But the assault rifle used by Shelton, the witness said, was still “out there.”
The witness told investigators Thomas told him he wanted to leave the scene before the shooting that night, but Shelton wanted him to wait. Thomas told Witness No. 1 that he and Shelton waited for 30 minutes. Then, when they saw Powell, Thomas started firing, believing he had hit Powell, and then the shots came from the assault rifle.
“Cuz, he had intentions on killing everybody, but I didn’t really think he was going to do it.”
According to the complaint, a second person, Witness No. 2, spoke with Shelton at the jail.
That person said Shelton asked him if he had heard about Doswell’s death. Witness No. 2 said that Shelton told him that he and another person went to the Franklin Avenue address and “ambushed them.” Shelton also told the witness, the complaint said, that “he wanted everyone gone and didn’t [care] who got hit or who didn’t. Witness No. 2 said that Cheron told him that he wanted the family to go through what he went through.”