Risky) Business As Usual
It was a race against the clock.
Two out-of-town boys had four kilos of coke and hundreds of thousands in cash stashed at a white girl’s apartment in Northern Liberties. Will Hook, a North Philly drug boss known as Pooh, wanted to steal it all. He’d been casing the white girl’s apartment for three days. Now it was Saturday afternoon and the out-of-town boys were set to leave.
Pooh tried breaking in himself after his girl, Katoya, who lived in the white girl’s building, had let him inside. But he’d busted the lock to an empty apartment on the wrong floor. Now, Pooh and some of his gunmen sat in a van parked on New Market Street, where he could see the out-of-town boys’ truck. The new plan was to hit them outside as they left.
Pooh was nervous other crews were planning to steal the stash, so he had an old-head in a Pontiac scouting the area for suspicious cars. The old-head called Pooh with a plate number. Pooh called some girl who runs tags for him. The girl gave him attitude saying she was “tired of doing this shit for free.” Pooh haggled, said he’d cut her a check. The car came back owned by someone from Sixth and Norris. North Philly. Could be some other boys moving in on the stash. It was time to go inside and get the stuff. Better safe than sorry. Pooh called Katoya Jones again and told her to open the doors for his boys.
And that’s how the Piazza killings played out during last week’s preliminary hearing. Nothing glamorous. Just a fumbling drug robbery, a mess from the start, which left Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore dead in the seventh floor hallway of the Piazza’s Navona building. It’s the nature of things that double- homicides that take place at swanky new apartment complexes will attain a certain polish or glamour. But besides the posh setting—and potentially substantial take—this was, sadly, just a common occurrence of Philadelphia’s deadly drug game. Business as usual.
Drug dealing is a high-return-high-risk venture and free supply is the best supply. Police say, in recent weeks alone, there have been three home invasions where drug dealers lost their stashes at gunpoint.
In Philly, drug hustlers routinely kill each other for the crumpled cash in their pockets. Thal, the pretty party girl/drug dealer and Gilmore, the ex-Detroit fire fighter, were in over their heads.
The first set of gunmen went in around mid-afternoon. They soon moseyed back to the van where Pooh and a guy named Caesar Holloway were waiting. Things had gone wrong. The lead gunman failed to pull his gun and the others left without trying anything. Caesar was furious.
“Too much money for someone to be bitching out,” he yelled. A replacement gunman was called in, a young boy by the name of Antonio Wright, who showed up wearing a T-shirt that failed to conceal the piece in his waistband. Pooh gave him a baggy red shirt from the van, and around 5 p.m., the gunmen were sent back inside.
In courtroom 306, Prosecutor Jennifer Selber prepared small monitors so the surveillance video could show what happened next. The defendants—Pooh, Wright, Murchison, Edward Daniels (a gunman) and Langdon Scott (the lead gunman from the first robbery attempt)—leaned in towards the screen—all of them, that is, except Wright, 28. He told police that as he walked the seven flights of steel steps leading to Thal’s apartment, the newness of the building struck him as a nice place to live. Now, he reclined in his chair and scrunched his face into what seemed like a practiced expression of toughness and self-satisfaction as he watched himself pump a bullet into Gilmore’s already bullet-ridden body and then mistake a broom closet for the stairway as he ran away.
Next to Wright sat Murchison, who in the surveillance video walked with a leisurely, almost feminine saunter, and who, after the murders, calmly stepped aside for a man navigating an ottoman through the building’s main entrance.
Now in court, he sat up on his chair, folding one leg underneath the other, so he could better see himself stand over Gilmore, fire once at his head, miss, and fire again. In his statement, Murchison told police that Thal helped set up the robbery, that she expected a cut of the money. Homicide Lt. Philip Riehl said there’s no evidence yet substantiating that claim.
Murchison could, of course, just be trying to diminish Thal’s death. Thal died out of camera view, a bullet entering her head, passing downward and exiting her neck. None of the eight defendants are talking about who pulled the trigger, but according to Murchison, Daniels—who laughed in court when identified as being one of the men on tape—held her at gunpoint while he and Wright shot Gilmore.
Pooh sat looking frustrated throughout the proceedings. Some press reports have described him as a kingpin. Police wouldn’t discuss his finances or the expanse of the North Philly drug corners he allegedly controls, but he does have a kingpin lawyer, Christopher Warren, who represented Kaboni Savage, the convicted multi-million dollar drug-trafficker.
The gunmen left the money and the drugs behind with the bodies, and Pooh and Caesar were furious. But, when it was all said and done, how big of a score would it have even been? Pooh enlisted nearly a dozen people for the heist. Surely, they had to be paid. What was the street value of Thal and Gilmore’s lives?
Pooh was telling everybody there was $500,000 in the apartment. (Police recovered $110,000, but Gilmore’s associate—whose name has yet to be released—hid inside the apartment and escaped carrying a three-foot-long duffel bag, possibly filled with cash and drugs.) Murchison told police he was promised $100,000 and a kilo—worth about $30,000—for his efforts. Katoya Jones—who agreed to cooperate with detectives after seeing the crime scene photos of Thal and who has since pleaded guilty to third degree murder—testified that she expected $50,000 just for opening the doors.
Jones talked money with Pooh a few hours after the murders, at Champagne Restaurant, a place on Chelten Avenue in Germantown. They sat in a booth along the wall. “They panicked,” said Pooh. “They was rookies. That’s why you can’t tell niggas how much money involved.”
A waitress brought drinks. “I may have to get rid of some of the people involved,” Pooh continued.
There was another man, standing at the bar, who authorities believe helped plan the robbery. He was complaining that with his cut he had planned on buying a new Aston Martin sports car—they sell for about $200,000. “He was real salty he wasn’t getting his car,” Jones testified.
Formal arraignments will be held Oct. 14
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