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2 suspects in Wilkinsburg mass shooting charged with homicide

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WILKINSBURG, Pa. - Two men who were named suspects in the cookout ambush that killed five adults and an unborn child in Wilkinsburg earlier this year were charged in the case on Thursday.

Cheron Shelton, 29, and Robert Thomas, 27, were both charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, criminal conspiracy and attempted homicide.

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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said that Shelton and Thomas planned the attack and carried it out, and that no one else was involved. Shelton had been released from jail on a probation violation one day earlier.

Until Thursday, both men were being held only on charges stemming from heroin and stolen weapons allegedly found at a home in Wilkinsburg in February 2013.

County detectives in April labeled Shelton and Thomas as suspects in the ambush. They were brought into Allegheny County police headquarters shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday.


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“I don’t want people to be concerned that someone who’s capable of committing these type of crimes are out on the streets, because they’re not based on the conclusions we’ve reached from the evidence we’ve developed,” Zappala said.

Chanetta Powell, a 25-year-old who was eight months pregnant, and four others -- Jerry Shelton, 35; Tina Shelton, 37; Brittany Powell, 27; and Shada Mahone, 26 -- were killed in the ambush in the backyard of a home on Franklin Avenue on March 9. Powell's unborn child also died. Cheron Shelton is not related to Jerry or Tina Shelton.

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Three other people were wounded, including LaMont Powell, who Zappala said was the primary target of the shooting.

Zappala said Thomas walked up an alley and fired shots from a pistol toward about 15 cookout guests. When the guests ran toward the house's back door for cover, Zappala said they were mowed down by Shelton, who fired the fatal shots from an AK-47. He was just four to five feet away from the victims, Zappala said.

The gunmen fired 48 shots in 22 seconds, according to Zappala, who described the crime scene as "horrific."

One of the bullets hit a couch inside the house where a child was sleeping, Zappala said. The child was not hit.

Investigators determined that the same AK-47 used in the Wilkinsburg shooting was used in the murder of a man, Donald Russell, five years ago at a New Year’s Eve party in Pittsburgh’s Arlington neighborhood.


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“Note that the 762 casings match a prior homicide from 2011. That homicide was prosecuted and the defendant's name was Dana Johnson,” Zappala said.

It is unclear how the AK-47 ended up in the hands of Shelton.

The weapons used in the ambush have not been recovered, but the evidence against Shelton and Thomas includes the shell casings, cellphone records, surveillance video and witnesses who are cooperating with investigators.

© 2017 Cox Media Group.

It was revealed by Zappala that Shelton and Thomas exchanged 31 calls and text messages before and after they carried out the deadly attack.

Zappala said Shelton and Thomas had been looking for LaMont Powell since 2013.

According to investigators, Shelton and Thomas got a tip that he would be at the cookout. They suspected him of being involved in the 2013 murder of a friend, Calvin Doswell, in Pittsburgh’s Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood.

No one has been charged in Doswell’s death, but LaMont Powell’s name did surface during the investigation.

A criminal complaint detailed conversations that Shelton and Thomas had inside the Allegheny County Jail with two witnesses of the cookout ambush.

Thomas spoke to one witness about targeting LaMont Powell, saying, “I went out there, nobody died with the gun I had, I hit dude, I know I hit dude,” the complaint said.

The following is an exchange between Shelton and another witness, according to the complaint:

“Cheron told him that he was 'hitting them' with the 'Chopper' and that he wanted everyone gone, and didn’t give a (expletive) who got hit or who didn’t get hit…he wanted the family to go through what he went through.”

Randall McKinney, Shelton’s attorney, released the following statement:

“If the District Attorney's Office intends to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Cheron Shelton is guilty of this horrific crime based on unnamed jailhouse ‘witnesses’ who had no access to my client, a complete lack of forensic evidence or firearms connecting my client to the crime and no eyewitnesses to the event, I'm confident Mr. Shelton will be found not guilty.”

A timeline of events that night, which was created by investigators, indicates the suspects saw a social media post about the cookout hours before the shooting. The post included a photo of LaMont Powell.

As the case moves forward, the death penalty is on the table.

“When you take multiple lives, you’re going to get scrutinized as to whether the community should consider, as a jury, whether or not the death penalty should be imposed,” Zappala said.

A $20,000 reward is still being offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Community members are encouraged to come forward if they have additional information about the case.

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