Probe into musician's killing at standstill John Whitehead was killed four months ago, and no new leads have surfaced. Detectives turned over the case to a special task force.

Posted: September 11, 2004

When John Whitehead was gunned down while working on his Isuzu behind his West Oak Lane rowhouse this spring, news of his killing quickly traveled across the country and beyond.

His passing was mourned by the music world, and his viewing and funeral were star-studded events attended by Billy Paul, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and other celebrities. His neighbors held a rally demanding that his killers be brought to justice, and the Philadelphia Daily News editorialized that "the way John Whitehead's soul left this world seems tragically unfair."

But today - four months after one half of the Philadelphia songwriting and recording duo McFadden and Whitehead died in a hail of bullets - Whitehead's name no longer surfaces in his hometown newspapers, the rallies have stopped, and the investigative trail has gone cold.

And, unlike other high-profile slayings, a reward has not been put up in this case. The Citizens Crime Commission of Delaware Valley said no one had offered to put one up.

The original homicide detectives have handed over the case to a special task force with new eyes.

In an interview this week inside the home she shared with the singer, Whitehead's damp-eyed widow, Elnor Whitehead, said: "I feel like they have forgotten about him."

"It's like it's just taking too long," Whitehead said as she rocked in a recliner. "It's not like someone professional did this."

Whitehead, 55, was shot once in the neck while he and a godson were fixing the radiator in the singer's Isuzu SUV in the rear of his home in the 1900 block of Dallas Road around 5:30 p.m. Police said two gunmen fired more than a dozen shots, also wounding Ocmidd Johnson, 21, of the 5800 block of Stockton Road, in the buttocks.

The singer, whose biggest hit was "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," which he and McFadden recorded in 1979, died at the scene.

Police have acknowledged that the case has been frustrating. The investigation is still active, they said, adding, however, that it had been stymied by a lack of witnesses.

"It may seem like it has died down, but we are following up on it," said Homicide Lt. Michael Chitwood, head of the Drug Enforcement Homicide Task Force, which recently took over the case.

"The sad part is the apathy of the people in the neighborhood. They know who shot this guy. He didn't deserve this," Chitwood said.

It is not uncommon for homicide detectives to pass along a job, investigators said. If no leads break after about a month and a half, or if a slew of new jobs come in, job assignments can change, which is what happened in this case.

Police said they do not believe Whitehead, who had 13 children, was the target of the shooting, and they are not sure whether Johnson was the intended victim.

Nevertheless, Chitwood said Johnson was not being forthright with detectives.

"He knows who shot him and why," Chitwood said. "He's just not doing the right thing."

Johnson, in an interview outside his home this week, said that was not the case.

"Whoever did it knew what they were coming for and who they were coming for, and it wasn't me," Johnson said. "That wasn't for me. I don't care what the police say, what the detectives say, what the newspapers say. If it was for me, they were right behind me, they could have shot me in the back and in the head, but they shot him in the neck."

On May 11, Johnson said, he, his girlfriend, their infant daughter and a nephew had been heading to a carnival near Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue when his mother called to let him know that Whitehead needed a mechanic. The job was supposed to pay $80, so he decided to do that instead.

Johnson said that when he got to the house, Whitehead was not there, and he waited. When Whitehead appeared, the two went to a nearby AutoZone store to get a thermostat and hose. After returning from the shop, Whitehead was rushing him to finish the job, Johnson said.

Moments before the shooting began, Johnson said, he was in front of the vehicle with his head under the hood, and Whitehead was to his left.

Johnson said the first shooter fired from behind him to his right. He saw Whitehead hold his neck and fall.

"I didn't see who did it. They were shooting," Johnson said. "What was I going to do? Look behind me in the direction of where they were shooting?"

Johnson was hit twice in the buttocks while running.

Elnor Whitehead called the notion that her husband was the target nonsense.

"I keep hearing all these crazy things about my husband, that he owed somebody $5,000. If he owed someone some money, it would have been paid," she said.

"And they keep saying he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was home."

Elnor Whitehead said she had filed papers for a nonprofit organization called the John Whitehead There's No Stopping the Music Foundation. Her aim is to establish a performing-arts school in her husband's name that would accept handicapped children as students.

Contact staff writer Ira Porter at 215-854-2641 or iporter@phillynews.com.

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