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Two Charged In Wilkinsburg Backyard Shootings

Two men ambushed a backyard cookout near Pittsburgh, killing a pregnant woman, her 8-month-old fetus and four other adults, because they wanted retribution for the 2013 slaying of a friend, authorities said Thursday.

Robert Thomas, 27, and Cheron Shelton, 29, both face five counts of criminal homicide, one count of homicide of an unborn child, three counts of aggravated assault, three more of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, six counts of reckless endangerment and one count of criminal conspiracy to commit murder. 

Thomas fired 18 shots from a .40-caliber pistol into about 15 partygoers, prompting them to run toward a rear porch, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said. That's where Shelton, hiding behind a fence, peppered them from five feet away with 30 shots from a rifle similar to an AK-47. 

Zappala said the other victims didn't appear to have "done anything wrong." 

Shelton blamed Lamont Powell, one of three people wounded, for killing his best friend three years ago, Zappala said. Nobody's been charged in the 2013 killing, though police have called Powell a suspect.

Two unnamed jailhouse witnesses, who spoke with the suspects after they were taken into custody on unrelated charges weeks after the shooting, described Shelton's alleged bloodlust, according to criminal complaints.

One of the witnesses said Thomas indicated Shelton wanted to shoot more people at the cookout victims' funerals, but Thomas claimed to have talked him out of it.

"I'm trying to treat them like the Jews; I'm trying to eliminate their whole blood lines," Thomas told the witness, quoting Shelton's intentions, according to police.

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala explains what police believe happened at a Franklin Avenue home in Wilkinsburg on March 9 that led to the shooting deaths of five adults and an unborn child.

  A second witness said Shelton "told him he was 'hitting them' with the 'chopper'" — street slang for an AK-47 — "and that he wanted everyone gone," investigators said.

Thomas also expressed remorse to the witness, authorities said. The witness quoted Thomas saying: "Yeah, it's killing me, crushing me every day. I'm trying not to think about it. I'm trying not to become a vegetable."

Thomas' attorney, Casey White, said he wouldn't comment on the accusations until after he reads the complaint and talks to his client.

He and Shelton's lawyer previously said their clients were innocent.

Earlier this week, the men's attorneys attempted to get Shelton and Thomas out of jail, claiming both were unfairly being kept in solitary confinement to "squeeze" them for information on killings they knew nothing about.

The slain victims include Brittany Powell, 27, who was renting the home and living there with her child, and her siblings: Jerry Shelton, 35, and Chanetta Powell, 25 and pregnant.

The county medical examiner ruled Chanetta Powell's unborn son died as a direct result of her death. Pennsylvania's feticide laws are among the country's most stringent; at least six other men and women have been charged with fetal homicide in Western Pennsylvania since 2002.  

Others killed were the siblings' cousin, Tina Shelton, 37, and their friend, ShadaMahone, 26.

Cheron Shelton is not related to the victims. Zappala said he planned the shootings with Thomas after a friend called to tell them a Facebook post indicated Lamont Powell was at the cookout, police said.

"Nobody else was involved in this," Zappala said. "They planned it. They carried it out."

Police said they also have surveillance video from about 25 minutes before the shootings showing Shelton in a car after carrying a long, slender object. They say other video from a nearby home shows the same car turning onto the street where the shooting occurred minutes later. Police said they also have information from 31 calls or text messages between Shelton and Thomas' cellphones that night, but didn't release the contents of those messages.

Police haven't found either weapon, but Zappala said investigators believe Shelton gave his girlfriend's father instructions to dispose of the rifle in both a confiscated letter and later using hand signals during a recorded jailhouse visit.

Thomas told one witness he ditched his gun.

"I'm cool," Thomas said, according to the affidavit. "They gonna have to go deep sea diving for mines."

Graphic by Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
Sarah Kovash previously worked as a web producer for KDKA-TV, as a freelance journalist for the Valley News Dispatch covering local government throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley and at NPR station KPBS in San Diego.
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