Vengeance fueled men charged in Wilkinsburg massacre, police say
Cheron “C-Wiz” Shelton raised a semi-automatic rifle from the shadows between two Wilkinsburg houses and fired at terrified people fleeing toward him March 9, killing five adults and an unborn child in a failed attempt to kill LaMont “Murder” Powell, authorities said Thursday.
Shelton, 29, and the man who allegedly peppered 24-year-old Powell with four gunshots — Robert “Milhouse” Thomas, 27 — face multiple homicide and related charges in one of the worst episodes of gun violence in Allegheny County's history. The pair are suspected members of the 581 HillTop Crips gang.
Detectives suspect the motive for the two — who have been housed in the Allegheny County Jail for two months on unrelated charges — was payback for Powell's alleged role in the Oct. 15, 2013, slaying of Calvin “Calio” Doswell. Doswell, 30, a low-level drug peddler, was working in the same Homewood North public housing complex, nicknamed “Mohler projects,” where all the men grew up.
An unnamed woman allegedly told Shelton about Powell's planned presence at a backyard party, setting into motion a plot to kill him that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said had been percolating for 2½ years.
“They were looking for him, and they found him,” said Zappala, adding that Powell has refused to cooperate despite being critically wounded and losing five relatives in the shooting.
Zappala said that Shelton's gun, which likely resembled an AK-47, fired the shots that killed Powell's sisters, Brittany Powell, 27, who was renting at the home where the massacre occurred, and Chanetta Powell, 25, whose unborn son died in the attack; his brother, Jerry Shelton, 35; his cousin, Tina Shelton, 37; and Shada Mahone, 26.
Along with LaMont Powell, two others were wounded — Tanjia Cunningham, who was treated and released, and John Ellis, a McKees Rocks man left paralyzed. None of the slain Sheltons is related to Cheron Shelton.
The criminal complaint filed Thursday paints Shelton as a man so bent on vengeance that he was willing to fire into a crowd of more than 20 partygoers to kill Powell — while a reluctant Thomas wanted to leave before the shootings but was talked into kicking off the ambush with a .40-caliber handgun.
It's a case Zappala conceded is based on circumstantial evidence. Authorities have not recovered the two murder weapons and have no confessions. They do have intercepts from mobile telephones that have not been found; coded written and pantomimed messages; the testimony of jailhouse informants; video surveillance footage; ballistic tests tied to two missing weapons; and DNA results that have yet to come back from the crime lab.
Thomas and Shelton have long rap sheets for drug dealing, gun charges and other crimes.
Shelton had been released from jail the night before the Wilkinsburg massacre. Handed a cellphone by his girlfriend, a flurry of calls and text messages between the men began, authorities said.
About 10:30 p.m. March 9, Shelton placed what appeared to be a “long, slender, ridged object” draped in clothing into a car and drove away from Nolan Court, part of the public housing complex where he had grown up.
Twelve minutes later, a video camera recorded a car matching its description arriving at Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg. The first gunshots were heard at 10:54 p.m.
Video footage allegedly shows Shelton and Thomas returning to Nolan Court at 12:23 a.m. March 10. The men place a black bag into the trunk of a different car, then drive to the Heart Court section of the same Hill Top public housing complex, according to the criminal complaint.
Two hours later, Penn Hills police responding to a “suspicious persons in a yard” report found Shelton talking on his cellphone by a vacant house on Hebron Drive. There were no outstanding warrants or reasons to hold him, so they let him go. Shelton returned to Nolan Court at 2:57 a.m., authorities say.
On March 12, Allegheny County Police served search warrants on the Nolan Court apartment and Shelton's home in Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, retrieving a trove of ammunition magazines bearing the same rounds that could have been fired from an AK-47, what's called a “chop” or a “chopper” on the street.
Shelton's convictions prevent him from possessing firearms, and a partial thumb print on a Colt rifle that could not have been used in the massacre seemed to tie him to an unsolved theft of a gun collection near Uniontown, so a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The Allegheny County Sheriff's Department's Fugitive Task Force caught Shelton on March 25. Allegheny County Police detectives caught Thomas on April 5.
Once jailed, Shelton allegedly wrote to a relative asking him to get rid of the rifle, but the letter was intercepted under warrant. Shelton later used hand signals during the relative's videotaped visit to the jail to explain the need to dispose of the gun, the complaint said.
Zappala said ballistic tests connected the weapon Shelton allegedly used in Wilkinsburg to the 2011 New Year's Eve killing of 23-year-old Donald Russell in Arlington. Dana Javon Johnson was found guilty of first-degree homicide in that case, but the gun was never recovered.
On a different cell block, meanwhile, Thomas was becoming increasingly nervous about having urinated in the corner of “the garage near the scene of the shootings,” which would have left DNA material police potentially could recover, according to the criminal complaint.
Thomas initially shrugged off the Wilkinsburg killings, telling a jailhouse witness that he was “cool” with it, but later he said that it was “crushing me every day,” authorities say.
Shelton's defense attorney, Randall H. McKinney, said he had not read the entire criminal complaint against his client, “but I will say that our position as to Cheron Shelton's lack of involvement in these alleged crimes does not change because formal charges have been filed.”
Defense attorney Casey White said Thomas “maintains his innocence” in the face of “a very circumstantial case.”
Carl Prine is a Tribune-Review investigative reporter.