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July 22, 2014, 1:20 am

Piazza trio guilty, get life, no parole

After barely two days of deliberations, a jury found three men guilty of homicide in the second degree in the 2009 Piazza at Schmidt’s murders yesterday.

Will “Pooh” Hook, also known as Keith Epps, 43, Antonio Wright, 30, and Edward Daniels, 44, were convicted on Thursday of murder in the second degree, criminal conspiracy and related offenses. Judge Jeffrey Minehart sentenced the three co-defendants to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the double murders of Rian Thal, 34 and Timothy Gilmore, 40.

The trial lasted almost two weeks, with Assistant District Attorneys Jennifer Selber and Carlos Vega presenting evidence that Hook was the mastermind behind the attempted robbery of Thal; whom prosecutors alleged was a drug dealer moving significant amounts of cocaine.

Hook and his confederates entered the Piazza apartment complex Navarro building on June 27, 2009, with the alleged intent to rob Thal. Instead, as soon as Gilmore and Thal stepped off the elevator, Wright and Donnell Murchison opened fire, killing them. Murchison pleaded guilty before the trial.

During the trial, defense attorneys attempted to convince the jury that cell phone records didn’t prove that Epps was at the scene of the crime, or that Wright was identifiable in the surveillance recordings. Epps’ defense maintained that his client has been played, that he had been set up to take the fall for the “executions” of Thal and Gilmore, since nothing was stolen.

During the investigation that followed the murders, detectives found $100,000 in cash and several kilos of cocaine in Thal’s apartment.

In an unrelated criminal issue, the latest homicide statistics for 2011 show that as of Thursday, for the week of Nov.26, 2011, there were no homicides in Philadelphia; however, as of Tribune press time there was a total of 302 murders year to date.

Further, a snapshot of the first six months of 2011 shows that Black males between the ages of 18 and 24 remain the segment of the population most likely to perish from gunfire. Police Department statistics also show that African Americans lead the city in the number of homicide victims.

In the six-month period from January to June 2010 there were 21 white victims of homicide in Philadelphia. For the same six-month period in 2011, there were 22. For African Americans, the number jumps to 12 and 134 for the same years. The statistical reports also show that from January to June 2011, 80 percent of the city’s homicide victims had at least one prior arrest before their deaths. Sixty five percent of the homicide victims had prior arrests for violent crimes.

In another unrelated criminal investigation, a Philadelphia attorney and nonprofit founder was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for engaging in sexual relations with minors.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Kenneth Schneider, 46, of Philadelphia, was sentenced for charges of sex tourism. Schneider was convicted by a federal jury on October 1, 2010.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said that in the summer of 1998, Schneider, the founder and president of the Apogee Foundation, traveled to Moscow, Russia where he told two ballet instructors at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography that he was willing to provide assistance to students attending the academy. The instructors identified a 12-year-old student whose family could no longer afford to pay his board. Schneider convinced the boy’s parents to allow him to live with him in an apartment a few blocks from the school.

But federal prosecutors allege that Schneider had much more in mind than just helping the 12-year-old. Prosecutors alleged that between Aug. 22, 2000 and Nov. 22, 2001, Schneider engaged in an ongoing sexual relationship with the victim. He allegedly brought the boy to Philadelphia for a summer program in 2001, and then flew back to Moscow with him in August 2001 to continue the sexual relationship. 

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting children from sexual predators,” Memeger said. “When a criminal, such as this one, exploits a vulnerable and innocent child for his own gratification, we will take every step to remove the criminal from the community so that he cannot victimize other children and so that other potential criminals are put on notice that the justice system will not tolerate this type of behavior.”

In an unrelated law enforcement announcement, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board presented District Attorney Seth Williams with a check for $150,000 this week to investigate and prosecute illegal gambling activity. The money is from the board’s Local Law Enforcement Grant and will be used for the salaries of members of the district attorney’s Gaming Control Task Force. The special task force is operated under the office’s Special Investigations Unit. 

“This money will help us to continue to not only be tough but also smart on crime,” said Williams. “The crimes associated with illegal gambling have grown over the past few years in Philadelphia, and it is extremely important that we track down those criminals and bring them to justice.”