Detective Names Suspect In Cookout Ambush That Killed 6

Apr 7, 2016


The house at 1304 Franklin Ave. where five adults, including a pregnant woman, were killed in March.
Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

A Pittsburgh man arrested a third time on drug and weapons charges stemming from a police search three years ago is a suspect in a cookout ambush last month that killed five people, including a pregnant woman, a detective testified Thursday.

Allegheny County Detective Steve Hitchings testified at a bond hearing that Robert Thomas is a suspect in the March 9 cookout shootings in Wilkinsburg and has been told he's a suspect, KDKA-TV first reported Thursday.

Common Pleas Judge David Cashman agreed with the prosecution and found that Thomas was a danger to the community and a flight risk and revoked his bond, meaning Thomas will be jailed while the drug charges are pending.

Hitchings' testimony was the first time any law enforcement official has named a suspect in the cookout shootings.

The 27-year-old Thomas and three other people were arrested Wednesday night on drug and weapons charges stemming from the search of a home in Wilkinsburg in February 2013. All four were questioned about the cookout shootings, but they haven't been charged in it.

Defense attorney Casey White told KDKA that Thomas and the others know nothing about the shootings. White didn't immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

Chanetta Powell, 25, who was pregnant; and four others, Jerry Shelton, 35; Tina Shelton, 37; Brittany Powell, 27; and Shada Mahone, 26, were slain during the backyard cookout. Powell's unborn child also died.

One gunman walked up an alley near the backyard and fired shots from a .40-caliber pistol toward about 15 cookout guests, who then ran toward the back door of the home for cover, authorities say.

They were then mowed down by a second gunman firing an assault-style rifle, which also critically wounded Lamont Powell, 24, who District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. has said may have been the intended target. His sister, Brittany Powell, was hosting the cookout.

No one's been charged with the shootings and, except for vague references that the shooting might stem from bad blood involving unspecified individuals from the nearby Homewood neighborhood, authorities haven't discussed a motive.

The drug arrests Wednesday stem from the Feb. 21, 2013 search of a home for two men wanted on probation violations. While there, county police say, they found an assault-type rifle, several other guns — all of which were stolen — as well as suspected heroin and drug paraphernalia.

Court records show a district judge in Wilkinsburg twice dismissed the charges against Thomas and the others — in March and in July 2013 — because prosecutors weren't ready to proceed with a preliminary hearing.

The charges were re-filed after authorities finally tested the substance found at the residence and determined Monday that it was heroin, according to court records.

White, Thomas' defense attorney, said it appears authorities are trying to squeeze the suspects for information on last month's shootings by arresting them a third time for the 2013 search.

"I think that some names were brought up, some old cases were looked at and the individuals that have been recharged now a third time were brought in and questioned" about the shootings, White told KDKA.

The drug suspects aren't cooperating in the shooting investigation "because I don't believe any of those individuals have any idea what happened, none of them are involved, especially my client," White said.