PITTSBURGH—Two men ambushed a backyard cookout near Pittsburgh, killing a pregnant woman, her 8-month-old fetus and four other adults, because they wanted retribution for the 2013 slaying of a friend, authorities said.
Cheron Shelton, 29, and Robert Thomas, 27, have each been charged with six counts of criminal homicide for the March 9 ambush in Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. announced Thursday.
Thomas fired 18 shots from a .40-caliber pistol into about 15 partygoers, prompting them to run toward a rear porch, Zappala said. That’s where Shelton, hiding behind a fence, peppered them from five feet away with 30 shots from a rifle similar to an AK-47, killing the victims, Zappala said.
Shelton blamed Lamont Powell, one of three people wounded, for killing his best friend three years ago, Zappala said. Nobody’s been charged in the 2013 killing, though police have called Powell a suspect.
Two unnamed jailhouse witnesses, who spoke with the suspects after they were taken into custody on unrelated charges weeks after the shooting, described Shelton’s alleged bloodlust, according to criminal complaints.
One of the witnesses said Thomas indicated Shelton wanted to shoot more people at the cookout victims’ funerals, but Thomas claimed to have talked him out of it.
“I’m trying to treat them like the Jews; I’m trying to eliminate their whole blood lines,” Thomas told the witness, quoting Shelton’s intentions, according to police.
A second witness said Shelton “told him he was ‘hitting them’ with the ‘chopper'” — street slang for an AK-47 — “and that he wanted everyone gone,” investigators said.
Thomas also expressed remorse to the witness, authorities said. The witness quoted Thomas saying: “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.”
Thomas’ attorney, Casey White, said he wouldn’t comment on the accusations until after he reads the complaint and talks to his client.
He and Shelton’s lawyer previously said their clients were innocent.
Earlier this week, the men’s attorneys attempted to get Shelton and Thomas out of jail, claiming both were unfairly being kept in solitary confinement to “squeeze” them for information on killings they knew nothing about.
The slain victims were Brittany Powell, 27, who was renting the home and living there with her child, and her siblings: Chanetta Powell, the 25-year-old pregnant woman, and Jerry Shelton, 35. The county medical examiner ruled Chanetta Powell’s unborn son died because of her death. The others killed were the siblings’ cousin, Tina Shelton, 37, and their friend, Shada Mahone, 26.
Cheron Shelton is not related to the victims and planned the shootings with Thomas after a friend called to tell them a Facebook post indicated Lamont Powell was at thecookout, police said.
“Nobody else was involved in this. They planned it. They carried it out,” Zappala said of the two suspects.
Police said they also have surveillance video from about 25 minutes before the shootings showing Shelton in a car after carrying a long, slender object. They say other video from a nearby home shows the same car turning onto the street where the shooting occurred minutes later. Police said they also have information from 31 calls or text messages between Shelton and Thomas’ cellphones that night, but didn’t release details.
Both men are also charged with six counts of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment for the three others wounded, and three children in the house but unharmed when bullets pierced its walls. They are also charged with criminal conspiracy.
Police haven’t found either weapon, but they believe Shelton gave someone instructions to dispose of the rifle using hand signals during a recorded jailhouse visit.
They said Thomas also told one witness he had ditched his gun.
“I’m cool,” Thomas is quoted in court papers. “They gonna have to go deep sea diving for mines.”
The Allegheny County Police Department issued a press release:
County Police Make Arrests in March 9 Wilkinsburg Shooting
PITTSBURGH – Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough announced today that charges have been filed against 29-year-old Cheron Shelton and 27-year-old Robert Thomas in the March 9 shooting of six people, including an unborn child, on Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg.
At 10:54 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9, Wilkinsburg Police were dispatched to 1304 Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg Borough in response to a 911 call regarding a shooting at that address. A backyard party/cookout was being held at the rear of the home when shots were fired by two individuals from an alley to the rear of the house. Partygoers tried to run into the residence at which point a person on the side or backyard adjacent to the residence fired at the back porch.
Once on the scene, officers found eight people suffering from gunshot wounds. Four of the victims, three females and one male, died at the scene. Four others, two males and two females, were transported to local hospitals. One female died at the hospital. The victims were Brittany Powell, age 27; Tina Shelton, age 37; Shada Mahone, age 26; Jerry Shelton, age 35; and, Chanetta Powell, age 25.
Surviving victim Lamont Powell suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was treated and released from the hospital. Surviving victim John Ellis suffered multiple gunshot wounds and is currently paralyzed and in a rehabilitation facility for his injuries. Surviving victim Tanjia Cunningham sustained a gunshot wound to the leg and was treated and released from the hospital.
The fifteen-week investigation was led by the Allegheny County Police Homicide Unit, with assistance from Wilkinsburg Police, the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office, City of Pittsburgh Police, Penn Hills Police, Pennsylvania State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In addition to witness statements, police also received numerous anonymous tips and were able to obtain information from surveillance video, suspect interviews and search warrants. Numerous items of ballistic evidence were also recovered from the scene including thirty (30) spent 7.62 x 39 caliber casings and eighteen (18) .40 caliber casings and numerous projectiles.
During the course of the investigation, several tips received suggested that the actors lived in an area commonly known as “Hill Top” located in the Homewood North section of the City of Pittsburgh, and that the shooting was in retaliation for a previous murder. It was learned that one of the victims, Lamont Powell, was a suspect in a murder that occurred in the Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh in October of 2013. The victim was Calvin Doswell. No one has been arrested in connection with that crime, and the case remains open. Doswell and Cheron Shelton were close associates.
It is believed that Shelton and Thomas were looking for Powell and were tipped off by a caller that Powell was at the home on Franklin Avenue on March 9. After getting the call, the two men went to the cookout and waited in a garage that was nearby. Once they saw Powell, they opened fire before going to their car and returning back to Shelton’s home. As a result of search warrants executed in mid-March, guns, ammunition and a bullet proof vest were found in Shelton’s home. He was charged with receiving stolen property and possession of a firearm (due to prior criminal charges, he was ineligible to possess a firearm in Pennsylvania). On March 25, the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department Fugitive Task Force received information on Shelton’s whereabouts and apprehended him. He remains housed at the Allegheny County Jail.
Evidence obtained by a subsequent search warrant led detectives to Robert Thomas who was arrested at his home on April 5. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant and remains housed at the Allegheny County Jail. Shelton and Thomas have been charged with five counts of criminal homicide in the five shooting deaths. Additionally, the two men have also been charged with one count of homicide of an unborn child for the death of the unborn male child of Chanetta Powell. For the shootings of Lamont Powell, John Ellis and Tanjia Cunningham, the men have been charged with three counts of aggravated assault/serious bodily injury and three counts of aggravated assault/bodily injury with a deadly weapon.
Additional charges include six counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.