Norristown Man Is Found Guilty Of Ordering Murder Victor Manuel Rodriguez, A Reputed Gang Member, Was Sentenced To Life In Prison Without Parole.

Posted: March 26, 1998

Christopher McNelly, a 20-year-old factory worker, died on a sidewalk in Norristown with a 3-inch bullet hole in his chest, a pistol in his back pocket and a 6-week-old son at home.

Yesterday, a Montgomery County Court jury determined that the December 1996 shooting was not an act of self-defense and convicted Victor Manuel Rodriguez, a reputed New York gang member, of first-degree murder.

Rodriguez, 25, of Norristown, a tall man known as ``Skinny Vic,'' occasionally lifted his head and glanced at the jurors as each pronounced him guilty.

When Judge Samuel W. Salus 2d then sentenced him to the mandatory term of life in prison with no chance of parole, he only shrugged.

His attorney, Xavier Hayden, said he would appeal because jurors were allowed to hear about the Latin Kings, a New York-based gang to which prosecutors linked Rodriguez.

Hayden said the gang had nothing to do with the shooting.

Assistant District Attorney Mary Fittipaldi called the case a victory because, she said, the jury ``convicted Victor Rodriguez, who was clearly the mastermind behind the execution of Christopher McNelly.''

Although Rodriguez did not fire the shotgun, witnesses - including an off-duty Norristown parking officer stopped at a traffic light - said Rodriguez ordered his friend Jorge Munoz, 19, of Norristown, to kill McNelly, also of Norristown, who was backing away from the confrontation when he was shot.

Hayden argued that Rodriguez feared for his life when he told Munoz to shoot, because he had been beaten by McNelly before and knew that McNelly had a gun.

Hayden said Rodriguez had planned to buy a $75 car that night, not order an execution.

But on the witness stand, Rodriguez testified that he could have run from the confrontation but did not - a key to proving self-defense, according to prosecutors.

Also, only Rodriguez testified that the shooting was in self-defense.

Three other witnesses said it was not.

After the seven-day trial, which included witnesses who said they feared retribution and others who said they were familiar with the gang and said Rodriguez was its local leader, McNelly's family left the courthouse to visit his grave, saying justice was served.

``I am happy [Rodriguez] got what he deserved,'' said McNelly's mother, Carol Luis Schouwe, after waiting two hours while the jury deliberated.

But, said McNelly's widow, Heather Pierce, ``it is not going to bring my husband back.''

The family will be back, though, when Munoz is tried for first-degree murder.

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