Three get life in Piazza at Schmidts killings

Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore were seen on surveillance tape at the Piazza at Schmidts just before they were shot to death.
Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore were seen on surveillance tape at the Piazza at Schmidts just before they were shot to death.
Posted: December 02, 2011

The trial in the 2009 slayings at the Piazza at Schmidts - a crime that cast a pall on the bright, new complex at an old Northern Liberties brewery site - ended Thursday with murder convictions and life terms for three men.

The Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury of seven women and five men had deliberated 10 hours since Wednesday before returning verdicts against Will "Pooh" Hook, Edward Daniels, and Antonio Wright in the June 27, 2009, shootings of party planner Rian Thal, 34, and Timothy Gilmore, 40, a friend and Ohio-based long-distance truck driver.

The verdicts were announced under high security - more than 30 sheriff's deputies ringed the Criminal Justice Center courtroom - and a warning that any outburst would clear the room.

That did not stop relatives on both sides of the room from starting to cry, and several of the defendants' relatives and friends got up and left.

Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart immediately sentenced each of the three to two mandatory life prison terms - one for each victim - without chance of parole and to be served consecutively.

"When drugs are involved with guns and with greed involved, nothing good can happen," Minehart said.

Daniels, 44, and Wright, 30, who prosecutors said were two of the three gunmen who shot Thal and Gilmore, said nothing before they were sentenced.

But Hook, 43, also known as Keith Epps, who prosecutors said was the mastermind behind a botched drug robbery, insisted he was innocent.

Hook turned and apologized to his family for getting arrested and "dragging you all through such trauma."

"I will pray for my freedom," Hook told the judge. "The picture painted was of me as a bad guy, but really I'm not. I am innocent, and God bless you all."

Hook's attorney, Christopher D. Warren, promised an appeal, saying a mistrial should have been declared after a key prosecution witness who pleaded guilty - Donnell Murchison, 35, the third gunman - refused to submit to questioning by the defense.

Minehart ordered the jury to disregard Murchison's testimony, but Warren said the damage was done: The admitted killer's statements incriminated all three defendants.

Thal's mother, Sandy Thal, and her sister Lauren were in court with other friends and family but maintained their public silence, as they have since the slayings.

Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega, who prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Selber, told Minehart the Thal family did not wish to make a victim-impact statement before sentencing.

"They just want to thank the court for a fair and just verdict," Vega said.

Prosecutors told the jury that Thal and Gilmore also dealt drugs on the side and that Gilmore had arrived in Philadelphia a few days before the shootings with cocaine from a drug supplier in Texas.

By all accounts, Thal was a successful event planner whose parties drew entertainment and sports celebrities and catered to the affluent, young Center City nightclub crowd.

But it was also clear from court testimony and the prosecutor's statements in court that she was deeply involved in the city's drug trade.

According to cellphone records admitted at trial, Hook tried to call Thal shortly before 4:30 a.m. on the day she and Gilmore were killed, although the four-second call was apparently not answered.

Hook's attorney, Warren, said after the verdict that Hook and Thal were friends and he argued that was one reason Hook would not have been involved in her killing.

And Murchison, in his statement to detectives, said he believed Thal was in on the robbery plans and would have received a cut of the drugs and cash that police found in her apartment.

Gilmore, prosecutors said, had arrived in Philadelphia several days earlier after bringing a load from Texas that included about 11 kilograms of Mexican cocaine.

According to testimony, Thal and Gilmore were leaving her seventh-floor apartment in the Piazza's Navona building at 5:17 p.m. when they were confronted in the hall by three gunmen intent on robbing them of drugs and cash.

Gilmore wrestled with one gunman and ran but was shot and wounded, then killed when he fell to the floor outside the elevators - his death captured on a Navona security camera.

Thal died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head and was found outside her apartment.

After the killings, the gunmen fled without taking what they came for: more than $100,000 in cash and 81/2 pounds of cocaine police later found in Thal's apartment.

The three on trial were among eight people arrested in the slayings. Four pleaded guilty before jury selection began Nov. 7.

A final defendant, Caesar Holloway, 35, an associate of Hook's who allegedly drove Wright to the Piazza the night of the slayings, was arrested a year after the shootings and will be tried later.

In addition to the testimony of defendants who pleaded guilty, the main evidence against Daniels and Wright was the video, which prosecutors argued showed Wright and Daniels fleeing after Gilmore was shot.

Hook was incriminated by cellphone records that prosecutors said showed him in contact with the gunmen before and after the killings.

Though none of the three testified and the defense presented no testimony, defense attorneys argued that the video was too fuzzy to positively identify Daniels or Wright and that there was no proof that any of the men were actually using the cellphone numbers attributed to them.


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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