Tears, bewilderment after woman killed in gunpoint robbery

Pamela Campbell, mother of Melissa Thomas, shot to death Sunday, in her West Phila. home.
Pamela Campbell, mother of Melissa Thomas, shot to death Sunday, in her West Phila. home. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 05, 2014

When the phone rang hours before dawn Sunday, Pamela Campbell, barely awake, ran to her daughter's bedroom and banged on the door so hard that she thought it would fall off its hinges.

But Melissa Thomas didn't answer.

The homicide detective on the other end of the line asked Campbell to describe her daughter. She had a tattoo of her niece's name on her arm, Campbell said, "MOM" splashed across her wrist, a pair of praying hands near her shoulder.

She had short hair, always dyed some wild color, changing from blue to green to red on a whim. She had a sweet voice and sang in her church's choir. She was 29.

"He said, 'I'm sorry,' " Campbell recalled Monday.

"And I couldn't speak anymore."

Thomas was killed early Sunday outside a bar at 53d and Market Streets, just a few blocks from the West Philadelphia house she shared with her mother. Police say she and another woman were approached about 2:30 a.m. by two men who robbed them at gunpoint.

And then - with the women's belongings already in hand, police said - one of the men began firing.

Thomas was hit twice in the left side of her chest and was pronounced dead at the scene.

The other woman, whom Thomas' family knows only as "Strawberry," was shot once in her left arm.

"She gave them everything they asked for, and they still killed her," said Thomas' sister, Tanya Mapp.

Thomas' killing comes after two other armed purse-snatchings that left one dead and one injured in as many weeks.

On Jan. 19, Amber Long, 26, was killed in front of her mother after two men attempted to steal their purses in Northern Liberties.

And Thursday, a 24-year-old man was shot in the chest after he chased down a man who had stolen his girlfriend's purse in North Philadelphia. Police have charged two men in connection with the theft and the shooting.

On Monday, Thomas' family was left to arrange a memorial service and hope for a lead in her case.

Someone, they say, must have seen something.

Thomas lived with her mother on 53d and Pine Streets and served as her caretaker. Campbell called her "Angel Heart."

Though she didn't have children, Thomas doted on her two godchildren, helping them with homework and putting them to bed at night.

She played basketball and pool, and took part in a neighborhood drill team. Thomas, who wanted to be a mechanic, was about to become a full member in a local car club.

Now, the club is set to hold a candlelight vigil for her Tuesday.

She loved to cook - bacon, rice and beans, Jamaican cuisine - and she loved to dance. On the night she was killed, she and her friends had been singing karaoke at the bar on 53d and Market.

Friends and family filed in and out of the house on Pine Street on Monday afternoon as snow fell outside in the street. In an upstairs bedroom where the walls are covered with photos of her children and grandchildren, Campbell passed around Thomas' baby pictures and made notes for her obituary.

Relatives said they were devastated by her killing and were searching for answers.

"Somebody knows something - just come forward," Mapp said, wiping away tears. "Imagine if this was one of your family members. For as good as a person that she was, she deserves better than this."

Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to call the Homicide Unit at 215-686-3334. The city is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.


awhelan@phillynews.com

215-854-2961

@aubreyjwhelan

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