After a shooting, fear haunts a family

Sharletta Ambey on the front porch of her house, now scarred by bullet holes. Police are investigating the shooting as an attempt to intimidate her son out of testifying against the person accused of shooting him in January.
Sharletta Ambey on the front porch of her house, now scarred by bullet holes. Police are investigating the shooting as an attempt to intimidate her son out of testifying against the person accused of shooting him in January. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 03, 2011

Sharletta Ambey was rushing home on her lunch break to meet the insurance adjuster. Her teenage daughter was with her, and two younger children were still at day camp.

She doesn't like them too far away since the shooting.

The insurance man waited in the late July sun, taking in Ambey's tidy Wynnefield rowhouse, its bright, meticulous garden, white awning, and country-style patio decorations. A pink wreath adorned the stained glass wooden door. A flag with a heart read: "Live, Love, Laugh." It was pierced by a bullet. A Tonka Toy truck rested near the garden.

He then began counting the bullet holes, which had made constellations in the siding and dug ragged burrows in the brick. He lost count.

Ambey squeezed her minivan into a space, smiled nervously, apologized for the smudge of dirt across her work shirt; she's a gardener at the Horticulture Center. From her hip purse she pulled a handful of bullet fragments, casings, and unspent rounds.

"We keep finding more," she told him.

Two nights before, her home had been strafed with bullets while she was inside with her fiancé, her three youngest children, and her toddler grandson.

Next month, her son Anthony Shelley, 19, is scheduled to testify against the man who police say shot him in the face in January. If he does not testify, the man may walk free.

That man has been held without bail since. Police are investigating the attack on Ambey's home as a possible act of retaliation connected to the son's shooting, or as an effort to scare him silent, said Lt. John Walker of Southwest Detectives.

Shelley was not home when the shots were fired, and no one was injured. He was living with out-of-state relatives.

His family must live with the consequences, the fear and silence that plagues neighborhoods, cripples courts, and perpetuates violence.

Shelley called his mother after the house was shot up, apologizing for the danger. He was not coming home, he told her, and he had changed his mind about testifying, adhering to a street code that prosecutors must overcome in almost every violent-crime case.

"Snitching is for punks," he said.

"Anthony, please," she said.

"Why, so they can kill y'all?" he replied.

Police recovered 11 shell casings outside Ambey's home the night of the July 20 attack. The family has since found about seven more bullet fragments and casings - in bedroom walls, tangled in bedding, and under the garden flowers. Barron, 11, found a bullet beneath the dining room table while playing with his Matchbox cars.

Police have deployed additional patrol cars and plainclothes officers to the neighborhood. They have no suspects or witnesses.

"We have a responsibility to protect her and her family, and we're taking this case very seriously," Walker said, adding that detectives have referred the case to the District Attorney's Office's witness protection program.

Ambey said she feels helpless. She lacks the money to move. She grew up in the neighborhood. Her friends and family are here.

She said the District Attorney's Office has not contacted her. She is angry, afraid to leave the house, and afraid to stay home. She is afraid for her children and tries to hide that fear from them.

"As a mother, you're supposed to be able to defend your children in everything," she said, rattling a half-dozen bullet pieces. "I can't defend them here."

Ambey led the insurance man inside, sticking her finger through a bullet hole in the front door.

Just before 2 a.m., Briana, 16, was in the dining room on the computer when the gunfire erupted. She had never heard gunshots before. A round whizzed by her face.

"You could feel the heat," she said.

She dove to the floor, screamed, "Stay down, they're shooting!" and called police.

Tiffany, 13, was asleep in her pink bedroom with her 3-year-old nephew. She held him close.

Barron was asleep in his mother's bedroom, in a chair by the window. That night, he had gotten glass in his foot and drifted off using his mother's foot massager. He awoke to the popping sounds, thinking the device had broken. As he ran to Tiffany's room, nine bullets passed above his head.

"I was scared," he said.

Ambey has raised seven children in her home. Her two oldest have moved away to families and jobs.

The younger ones also have dreams: Briana and Tiffany, sweet and polite, say they want to become doctors. Barron wants to be a lawyer.

Ambey warned her children of the dangers of the streets. Anthony didn't listen. She now fears her son Daniel, 18, could get caught up in his older brother's world. She has sent him away, too.

Anthony Shelley began acting out in grade school. He was put on behavioral medications, but his mood swings increased.

"He could be so sweet sometimes, and the next day try and beat you up," Briana said.

When he was 14, Ambey sent him to live with his biological father. His behavior worsened. By 17, he had been arrested on assault charges for a scuffle with a school police officer.

The shooting stemmed from a fist fight two years ago on a SEPTA bus, Ambey said.

Daniel and a cousin were coming home from a party when youths from 58th Street jumped them. The fighting carried over to Overbrook High School.

Anthony Shelley eventually stepped in. He argued with a 58th Streeter, Mikal Powell-Miller, who police said shot him two days later.

"Do you know who I am? I will kill you," Powell-Miller allegedly said, according to the police report.

Powell-Miller, 21, had already been arrested nine times, including for attempted murder, but had eluded lengthy prison time after witnesses failed to testify.

In 2008, police said he shot a man during a robbery outside a corner store. After the man went down, Powell-Miller allegedly stood over him, closed his eyes, and fired three more times, striking the victim in his arms and legs.

The victim did not show up in court.

Earlier that year, according to a police report, Powell-Miller had a handgun in his waistband when he threatened a West Philadelphia woman because her son was a "snitch."

That witness also failed to testify.

On Jan. 6, police said, Powell-Miller lured Shelley to a playground and shot him in the face, ripping through his tongue and just missing his carotid artery.

Police arrested Powell-Miller three weeks later. From his hospital bed, Shelley had signed a photo of Powell-Miller for detectives.

"He shoot me," he wrote.

After the arrest, Ambey said, her other children became targets.

She removed Briana from Overbrook High School for two months over the abuse she was taking from other students. To make up, Briana recently finished summer school. Ambey is trying to get her daughter transferred.

"I'd like to go to a better school," Briana said.

Near the end of his school year, Barron was beaten up by older boys from 58th Street as he rode the Route 42 bus home.

Sitting on his mother's knee, Barron made his hand into the shape of a gun and stuck it beneath his green polo to show how he had been threatened.

When Barron told Ambey what happened, she confronted the teens on a corner.

"One said, 'Keep your ass right here, I got something for you,' " Ambey said. She called the police. The youths ran.

Barron is afraid of them.

"They don't care who they shoot," he said.

"They don't care who they shoot as long as they dead," added his sister Tiffany, an eighth grader who hopes to attend the High School of Engineering and Science.

Since the shooting, Barron sleeps in his mother's room.

The other day, he asked his mother if they could look for a new house.

Briana is having trouble sleeping at all.

"When I go to sleep, I think, 'Are they outside? Are they going to shoot again?' " she said. "When I come downstairs in the night, I walk along the walls so I don't get shot."

In a video, Sharletta Ambey describes how her house was strafed with bullets in an attack police are investigating as an act of witness retaliation.

Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 215-854-2759 or or follow him on Twitter @MikeNewall


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