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July 12, 2014, 10:14 am

Trial begins for Piazza murder suspects

Rian Thal was 34 when she was murdered inside her apartment building, a trendy digs known as Piazza at Schmidts. Thal was a club and restaurant promoter referred to in some circles as “the white girl.”

She got to know an individual named Timothy Gilmore, who was murdered with her. Gilmore, a former firefighter out of Detroit, was also a truck driver who allegedly transported kilos of cocaine out of Texas and into Philadelphia.

“The victims in this case were not innocent bystanders,” said Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, in her opening arguments yesterday morning. “When you’re moving large amounts of illegal drugs, as Thal was, the word gets out. You could have a target on your back.

The three co-defendants in the case are: Edward Daniels, Keith Epps, the alleged mastermind, and Antonio Wright. They have been accused of two counts of criminal homicide apiece, conspiracy and robbery with the intention of committing bodily harm. Daniels and Wright are also accused of illegal weapons offenses and Epps is also facing murder in the first degree — felony murder to be specific.

The defendants have all pleaded not guilty.

On Saturday, June 27, 2009, just before 5:45 p.m. police responded to a report of a shooting inside the Piazza at Schmidt’s apartment complex, an upscale collection of residences, art galleries, restaurants and night clubs.

The victims, Thal and Gilmore, were shot multiple times. When investigators gained access to Thal’s apartment on the seventh floor, they found four kilos of cocaine with an estimated street value of $400,000 and over $100,000 in cash. Right away investigators believed it was a drug robbery gone wrong; except the robbers got nothing for the lives they took, and the entire incident was recorded by the many surveillance cameras that were strategically placed outside and inside the building.

Selber described in exacting detail how investigators believe the plan to rob Thal was formed. She ran down the names of all the players — three of whom pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the prosecution. The prosecution’s case rests on those now incarcerated witnesses, surveillance camera recordings and cell phone records, which allegedly show Epps communicating with his cast of co-conspirators.

Those individuals are identified as Katoya Jones, Langdon Scott and Donnell Murchison — all have pleaded guilty for their connection with the murders.

Selber, in her opening arguments, told the jury that the original plan was to wait until Thal was out of her home. Then, break in and steal the money and the drugs. But that’s not how it went down.

“Each tenant needs a pass-key in order to get into the buildings. Epps had an inside person, Katoya Jones. He called her, told her he needed to get in, that there was a lot of money involved and that she’d get a cut,” Selber said. “She goes to the lobby and lets in Epps and Robert Keith. This is the first attempt to get in. But instead of going to Thal’s apartment on the seventh floor, they went to an apartment on the sixth floor. But Epps is determined, he’s resourceful, he’s not going to give up. What does he do? He gets his robbery posse together.”

Again, Selber said, with Katoya Jones’ help, entrance was gained to the Piazza.

“How did they know when Thal was coming back to her apartment? Epps is sitting outside in his white van and he called Murchison when he saw Thal and Gilmore,” Selber said. “That’s when they ambushed them, they boxed them in. We know Gilmore resisted and Wright shot him not once, not twice, not three times but at least four times. Murchison shot Thal in the back of the head. She was killed instantly. But Gilmore was pretty strong, he tried to get away and ran to the elevator and was shot again in the leg. Wright ran him down. When they saw Gilmore was still alive, Murchison shot him twice in the head.”

Everything, Selber said, was caught by the surveillance cameras, from the times that Jones let the would-be robbers in, to the actual murders.

But, the defense counter argued, that’s not the whole story and just the prosecution’s perspective. Epps, according to his defense attorney, was set up.

“These men must be presumed innocent,” said Epps’ defense counsel, Christopher Warren. “And you can’t overcome the presumption of innocence by a good speech. Donnell Murchison, Langdon Scott and Katoya Jones are the prosecution’s witnesses. Epps was set up, he was sent to the wrong apartment the first time. The prosecution says he was outside the Piazza when the murders happened and that his cell phone location proves that. But the communication tower only serves a specific area. He was actually inside a bar, Delilah’s Den, when the murders took place. The word of the witnesses is not worth the debris on the bottom of my shoe.”