Three months after gunmen descended upon a family barbecue in a Pittsburgh suburb, opening fire on nearly a dozen people with an assault rifle and a handgun in an orchestrated attack, authorities have charged with homicide two men they have suspected nearly all along.
On Thursday, Allegheny County officials announced at a news conference that Cheron Shelton, 29, and Robert Thomas, 27, each face five counts of homicide, six of aggravated assault, six of recklessly endangering another person, conspiracy and criminal homicide of an unborn child.
One of the fatal shooting victims was eight months pregnant.
Shelton and Thomas, both from neighboring Pittsburgh suburbs, have been detained in the Allegheny County Jail on unrelated charges for two months. Earlier this week, attorneys for both men tried to get them out of jail, claiming they were being unfairly held in solitary confinement so authorities could “squeeze” more information from them, reported the Associated Press.
At the news conference Thursday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala told reporters that pressure from the lawyers was part of the reason authorities decided to charge Shelton and Thomas with the deaths, even though some evidence was still being processed by the crime lab.
“As long as they were in jail, they were no threat to the public,” Zappala said.
In part because of the complexity of the horrific crime scene, and also because of a lack of cooperation from the community, Zappala said it took authorities on the local, state and federal level the full three months to build a case against the suspects.
“It was kind of disappointing given the gravity of these offenses and the fact that so many innocent people, their lives were taken, that we did not get more cooperation from the public,” Zappala said. “Most of this has been developed through police work.”
The “no snitch” culture is one law enforcement authorities are battling across the country, but with the help of phone records, cellphone pings, text messages, surveillance footage and information from witness accounts, authorities were able to piece together what they believe happened the night of March 9.
Zappala told reporters at the news conference that just before 11 p.m. that Wednesday, Thomas and Shelton arrived at the Wilkinsburg home looking for a primary target, LaMont Powell. Shelton blamed Powell, one of the three people wounded, for killing his best friend three years ago, reported the AP.
Thomas swooped upon the cookout gathering from behind the back yard and began shooting from a .40-caliber pistol, Zappala said, firing at least 18 bullets. As the victims fled in fear toward the back of the house, Shelton was there waiting for them, allegedly opening fire with an assault rifle and blasting at least 30 shots from only feet away.
Four bodies were found on or near the back porch, Zappala said. The woman who was pregnant, 25-year-old Chanetta Powell, and the baby she was carrying died later at a hospital. Three others were injured. Three children inside the home at the time were not hurt, according to authorities.
“The crime scene was horrific. It really was,” Zappala said.
He added that the assault rifle, which police say Shelton was carrying, fired all the fatal bullets.
“Aside from Lamont Powell, everyone else that was a victim here. They don’t appear to have done anything wrong, much less to bring that type of merciless vile in their direction,” Zappala said.
Officials identified the victims as siblings Jerry Shelton, 35, Brittany Powell, 27, and Chanetta Powell, 25. Their cousin, Tina Shelton, 37, and a family friend, 26-year-old Shada Mahone, were also killed.
Eric Powell, who lost his three children and unborn grandchild, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he woke up to the news of the charges early Thursday.
“They called me at 6 a.m. and had everything wrapped up,” Powell told the newspaper. “I’m just hoping and praying for justice.”
LaMont Powell, a brother of the three siblings killed and the primary target, was critically injured, reported the Tribune-Review. Another woman was treated and released and a neighbor, John Ellis, 48, is now paralyzed from the waist down because of his gunshot injuries, the Tribune-Review reported.
“They don’t realize how many lives they touched,” Ellis’s mother, Aleta Livsey, told the newspaper. “I hope that now that they see the TV and know what they’ve done, maybe. … I don’t know if it would change them, but if you were after one person, that’s who you should have gone after.”
Aside from the cold, calculating details of the deadly rampage, the Wilkinsburg mass shooting case drew national attention weeks after the initial blood spill when a white award-winning TV anchor took to Facebook to bemoan the slayings.
About two weeks after the March 9 attack, WTAE-TV anchor Wendy Bell, who had covered the shooting and the city of Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years, opined in a post on her professional Facebook page about the profiles of the shooters. At the time, police had not released suspect descriptions or names.
“You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday,” Bell wrote on Facebook, words that were later deleted.
“They are young black men, likely in their teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested.”
Bell continued, writing in her post that she found “HOPE” after watching a young African American busboy hustling at his restaurant job while out to dinner with her husband and sons. She complimented the teen through his manager, who passed along the praise to him.
“It will be some time before I forget the smile that beamed across that young worker’s face — or the look in his eyes as we caught each other’s gaze,” Bell wrote. “I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special.”
The anchor, who was beloved by viewers and regularly praised by her bosses for her leadership at the TV station, received an immediate backlash from enraged community members claiming her comments were demeaning and grounded in racial stereotypes. Others defended her, praising the journalist for her willingness to be honest about how she felt.
Bell quickly took the post down and issued an apology. Within a week, on the day station management met with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, the veteran reporter was fired.
The station and its parent company, Hearst Television, said in a statement reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it “ended its relationship” with Bell because her Facebook comments “were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
On Monday, nearly two months after she was fired, Bell and her attorney filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against WTAE-TV and Hearst Television, claiming that if she were black, the comments she made on Facebook would not have been considered a firing offense.
“Had Ms. Bell written the same comments about white criminal suspects or had her race not been white, Defendant would not have fired her, much less disciplined her,” the suit claims.
After Bell was fired in March, she told the Associated Press she didn’t get a “fair shake” from the station.
“It makes me sick,” she said at the time. “What matters is what’s going on in America, and it is the death of black people in this country. … I live next to three war-torn communities in the city of Pittsburgh, that I love dearly. My stories, they struck a nerve. They touched people, but it’s not enough. More needs to be done. The problem needs to be addressed.”
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