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County Police Vow To ‘Build Bridges’ With Wilkinsburg Following Dispute Over Shelton Acquittal

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough speaks at a public safety forum in Wilkinsburg Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett (far right) invited him to the meeting.

Just over a week after engaging in a public spat over a not-guilty verdict in a case involving a 2016 mass shooting in Wilkinsburg, borough Mayor Marita Garrett and Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough came together for a forum on combating gun violence.

In a sharply worded Facebook post last Monday, Garrett said the county police department and district attorney’s office had bungled the case against Cheron Shelton. McDonough was quick to respond, criticizing Garrett in an emailed statement for not contacting him before airing her grievances publicly. In its own statement, the district attorney’s office went as far as to suggest that Wilkinsburg officials bore some of the blame for the 2016 shooting.

But at Tuesday’s forum, hosted by the Wilkinsburg Police Department, Garrett and McDonough said they had resolved to work together to address the borough’s high rates of crime and gun violence.

That partnership starts with county police officers “getting out of our offices, getting out and building those bridges with local officials,” McDonough told a crowd that packed into a storefront that houses Civically, a community development nonprofit in Wilkinsburg.

McDonough said he and Garrett spoke following their heated exchange of statements last week.

“It didn’t start out well, to be very candid,” the police superintendent said with a chuckle. “I asked the mayor, ‘Why didn’t you pick up the phone?’ And she said, ‘because I don’t know you.’ And I said, ‘You know what? Let’s get to know each other.”

Garrett said she and McDonough then “talked it out. We were direct. We had a productive conversation.”

“Maybe we weren’t on the same page in the beginning, but we got there,” Garrett said. “There wasn’t any finger pointing in our conversation, and from there, we have to move forward.”

Tuesday’s meeting was part of that effort, McDonough said. “Cops aren’t going to solve this problem. It’s got to be a groundswell of community action with all our partners involved.”

The police superintendent added that county law-enforcement officials also are “really trying to drill down into the data” to determine what drives violence in Wilkinsburg and take preventive measures. McDonough noted that, over the past 50 years, the borough has had the highest number of homicides of any municipality in Allegheny County, outside the city of Pittsburgh. (McKeesport surpassed Wilkinsburg on this score between 2010 and 2019).

Despite the conciliatory tone between Garrett and McDonough, tensions rose when a handful of protesters burst into the meeting, demanding to know the identity of the Wilkinsburg police officer who fatally shot 24-year-old Romir Talley in December. After police officers shoved the group outside, Wilkinsburg Police Chief Cookie Coleman delivered an impassioned, impromptu speech.

Talley’s death was “the only officer-involved shooting we’ve ever had [at the Wilkinsburg police department], and you know that,” Coleman said emphatically. “And my officers are damn good officers ... And I will call a spade a spade: If there’s a cop that needs to be put out, he will be put out.”

Moments before Tuesday’s forum, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for western Pennsylvania announced it had charged Shelton with illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition found in his home during an investigation of the 2016 shooting. Federal law had barred Shelton from owning a weapon because he had previously been convicted in state court for a drug-related felony. The firearms offense is punishable with up to 10 years in prison.

The federal charges come less than two weeks after Shelton’s acquittal of state homicide charges. Garrett had faulted county officials in her Facebook post Monday for their “reckless handling” of the case. Five adults, including a pregnant woman, were killed in the slaying, having been ambushed as they gathered with family and friends for a nighttime barbeque. Shelton was charged with six homicides and could have faced the death penalty, but a jury acquitted him on all counts on Feb. 14.

On Facebook, Garrett criticized the government for building its case, in part, on a cooperating jailhouse witness who prosecutors ultimately declined to call to the stand. Defense attorneys said that witness had offered testimony in other cases, allegedly confessed to playing a role in a 2013 drive-by shooting that killed a 15-month-old boy, and had received relocation and financial assistance from the county. The revelations, just days before trial, led Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski to dismiss homicide charges against Shelton’s co-defendant, Robert Thomas.

“Since the beginning, this case has been shrouded with uncertainty, inconsistencies, and now unsolved murders that further traumatizes the families and our communities,” Garrett wrote on Facebook last week.

She called on the county police department and district attorney’s office “to recognize their egregious missteps and take actions to ensure this does not happen again." And she added, the outcome of the Shelton case “only deepens the fracture of trust in law enforcement at a time when we are dealing with the gun violence epidemic.”

McDonough responded with his own statement hours later. While not naming Garrett, he condemned her comment as being based on “one version of events” presented by Shelton’s attorneys.

“I am disappointed the elected official did not contact me or members of my command staff with any question or concerns regarding the investigation before ... posting publicly,” McDonough wrote.

And while he agreed with Garrett that community trust in law enforcement is crucial, he added, that “to damage that trust without due regard for the truth is reckless and irresponsible.”

McDonough also objected to reports that a second jailhouse informant said county investigators had paid him to fabricate information about Shelton. The informant, Kendall Mikell, came forward on the first day of Shelton’s trial, according to defense attorneys. Mikell’s claims prompted Shelton’s lawyers to request a mistrial as jurors deliberated, but Borkowski denied that request.

McDonough said in his statement last week that Mikell had been disqualified from acting as an informant during a routine vetting process. “Thus, he was never a paid informant for the county police,” the police superintendent said. According to McDonough, Mikell only received relocation expenses to ensure his safety after cooperating with law enforcement.

In a separate statement last Monday, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office also weighed in on Garrett’s Facebook post.

“We are not sure what officials in Wilkinsburg are trying to communicate,” the statement said, “but we understand the sense of their failure to adequately protect their citizens and empower them to stand up against criminal conduct.

“That's why we should be beyond political rhetoric at this point and instead should be focused on formulating solutions."

“‘Political rhetoric?’” Garrett soon replied on Facebook, “These are people’s lives I’m referring to.”

“There has been continuous lack of consideration for communities such as Wilkinsburg … To isolate Black communities from justice and equitable treatment is the true failure,” Garrett continued in her Facebook post, before inviting the district attorney’s office to participate in the public safety forum Tuesday.

Several days later, she added on Facebook, “I stand firm in my statements. We did our part.” Garrett included a link in her post to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report that revealed prosecutors did not present evidence at trial that corroborates testimony that Shelton was near the scene of the 2016 shooting moments after the attack.

A county detective’s note to a supervisor and a 911 log show that a car linked to Shelton had been spotted, according to the Post-Gazette. The newspaper reported the evidence was inadmissible at trial because the government did not turn it over to the defense before Shelton’s trial.

The district attorney’s office did not end up sending representatives to Tuesday’s forum in Wilkingsburg.

“Investigations and enforcement are police functions,” Mike Manko, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said before the meeting. McDonough was “in the best position to comment on those issues,” Manko said.

While Garrett said she was “not surprised” by the absence of members of the district attorney's office, she said “it would have been nice to have them in this room … It’s not just one entity that’s best-suited to come out to a community public safety forum: Everyone invested in that community, invested in this region should be present and have their voice utilized in these conversations.”