Family, friends of Wilkinsburg victims hope for closure with arrests
Eric Powell did not expect Thursday to start with a pre-dawn phone call from police, but he was glad it did.
“For a while, I thought it had gone cold,” Powell said of the investigation into the murder of two of his children, an unborn grandson and three other adults at a barbecue March 9 in Wilkinsburg.
Powell, 51, of Washington said he'd believed investigators did not have enough evidence against Cheron Shelton and Robert Thomas, both of whom police suspected in the immediate aftermath of the attack and who have been in jail on unrelated charges for months.
“They called me at 6 a.m. and had everything wrapped up,” Powell said. “I'm just hoping and praying for justice.”
Allegheny County's top police officials announced charges against Shelton and Thomas later Thursday morning.
Siblings Brittany Powell, Jerry Shelton and Chanetta Powell; Chanetta's unborn son, Demetrius; their cousin, Tina Shelton; and family friend Shada Mahone were killed in a hail of gunfire during the backyard gathering at Brittany Powell's Franklin Avenue home in Wilkinsburg.
LaMont Powell, brother of Brittany, Chanetta and Jerry, was critically wounded. Police said he was the intended target.
Neighbor John Ellis, 48, also was shot. He spent two months in the hospital and is paralyzed from the waist down. His mother, Aleta Livsey, said her family is glad the men suspected of shooting her son are being held responsible.
“They don't realize how many lives they touched,” Livsey said. “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.”
She said her family has been taking life one day at a time since the shooting.
“I try not to … think about it, and I start crying, and my son says, ‘Stop crying,' so I try not to do it around him,” she said. “He hasn't cried yet.”
Breona Evans lived across the street from Brittany Powell's rented home.
“I'm glad it's over. I'm glad the family has closure — or maybe some type of closure,” said Evans, 21, who said she was speaking on behalf of her family, which has close ties with the Sheltons and Powells.
Evans said she often spent time at the house across the street. The realization that she could have been at the cookout — coupled with the loss of her friends — hit her hard, she said.
“It's something you never see coming,” she said.
Robby Booker was friends with Brittany Powell and lived a few houses away from her.
“She never did anything to anyone,” he said. He was also friends with Ellis.
Booker, 31, said he woke to the sound of gunfire the night of the shooting.
“I'm happy they got caught. I hope they never get out,” he said of the suspects. “It's still hard — just walking past that house.”
Tina Shelton's sister-in-law, Audrey Thomas, called the news emotional.
“It's not going to bring any of the victims back, and it's something that we're always going to have to deal with,” said Thomas, 33. “At least we know things are being handled.”
Jessica Shelton — mother of Brittany and Chanetta Powell and Jerry Shelton and aunt of Tina Shelton — could not be reached for comment but spoke previously about how close her family was.
“Anything could be a holiday for us — sunny day, rainy day — we make anything a holiday, especially holidays,” she said in March.
The unseasonably warm weather in early March prompted Brittany Powell to host the cookout.
In the affidavit of probable cause filed to support the charges, police indicated Cheron Shelton had no qualms about destroying the family. In fact, he wanted to ambush the funerals.
“I'm trying to treat them like the Jews,” he said to a witness, according to police. “I'm trying to eliminate their whole blood lines.”
That won't happen, Audrey Thomas said.
Tina Shelton had five children, and Audrey Thomas now has custody of two of them. Members of the family been trying to support each other since the massacre, she said.
“We know that this is going to be a long process,” she said. “It's going to be a long road, but we have each other, and that's all that matters.”
Staff writers Madasyn Czebiniak and Carl Prine contributed. Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer.