Anthony Reaves knew his life was in danger.
Drug dealers he had implicated while cooperating with police were caught on a wiretap plotting to kill him.
He had begun staying with family and friends outside Delaware County, worried that he’d be an easy target for retribution if he kept living at home in Brookhaven.
And when Reaves, 41, had to return to Delaware County Court in July for his own case, his lawyer was so afraid that Reaves would be seen that he tried to hide him in the hallways.
None of the precautions worked.
On July 31, less than an hour after Reaves walked from the courthouse, he was ambushed and shot dead in Southwest Philadelphia. Investigators believe he was targeted for his reputation as a snitch — and his attorney contends that authorities who tapped him as an informant did not do enough to keep him safe.
“They created a special relationship, put him in a position of danger — and when he stopped helping them, they wouldn’t help him at all,” said Leno Phillip Thomas, who represented Reaves before his slaying, which remains unsolved.
Police and prosecutors say they took steps to protect Reaves, including offering to relocate him, which he declined. Still, Reaves’ case sheds light on the complexities and challenges of relying on — and trying to protect — confidential informants, who often face threats if they are even perceived as aiding investigations.
This account of the events that preceded Reaves’ killing, based on an Inquirer and Daily News review of court documents and interviews with sources connected to the case, also highlights the unsettling balancing act that courts across the region regularly face: preserving a defendant’s right to a fair trial while ensuring an informant is protected.
“It’s dicey,” said former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, whose office faced a daily fight to combat witness intimidation during her nearly two decades in office. “The common man out in the street doesn’t know how convoluted and fraught these decisions can be.”
Car stop to cooperation
Thomas, Reaves’ attorney, said his client first encountered police in Chester about two years ago after he was pulled over with cocaine in his car. While acknowledging that Reaves sold drugs, Thomas said Reaves had a daughter, a job at a municipal water department, and a great relationship with his family.
“It wasn’t like he was standing on the corner slinging drugs,” Thomas said.
According to Thomas, state troopers seized Reaves’ cocaine and let him go, but they wanted his help in return.
He began working with state police, aiming to disrupt the Chester drug trade by making a series of “controlled buys”: meeting with troopers before and after purchasing cocaine, and buying the drugs with marked dollar bills.
Such cooperation is rare in Chester, a city perpetually saddled with poverty, crime, and a host of unsolved killings. In many cold cases there, police say, persuading anyone to come forward with information is a significant challenge — often because cooperators are scared of retaliation.
One of Reaves’ purchases for police, from an alleged dealer named Rasheen Caulk, took place on the 7800 block of Lindbergh Boulevard in Southwest Philadelphia, according to court documents — a block from where Reaves would be shot dead, near an apartment complex where he had been staying.
Buys with other dealers took place in Chester’s Bennett Homes housing project as part of a larger investigation that led the state Attorney General’s Office to charge 15 people last year. When prosecutors announced the arrests, they estimated that the Bennett Homes crew sold at least $5 million worth of cocaine in 2015.
Before investigators made their arrests, Reaves grew wary of his continued cooperation in the case and told authorities he wanted to back out, Thomas said. Although Reaves later would be charged along with the others, Thomas negotiated a plea deal so that his client could avoid prison and not have to testify in court.
“He was adamant,” Thomas said, “he was not going to testify or cooperate any further.”
Still, the roots of his cooperation would become obvious to others involved.
Part of the reason was necessity. Those charged with a crime have a right to know what they’re accused of. Even if an informant’s name is kept out of court papers, prosecutors have to say when and where the alleged dealer sold drugs to the informant. Connecting the dots can be easy.
Other lawyers involved in the Bennett Homes case knew that at least one of the case’s cooperators had been charged along with their clients. During a court hearing in November 2016, they argued that Judge James F. Nilon should reveal who it was, saying that discussions between defense lawyers and codefendants could be compromised if one of the defendants were talking to police.
“It creates all kinds of problems with [the] eventual trial, in the fact that we’re sitting here and discussing … with people that are cooperating,” argued one attorney, Michael Malloy, according to a transcript of the hearing. “I’m not asking for confidential informants, Your Honor. I’m asking for people that are literally sitting at my table, or sitting at this table, that have cooperated in this case.”
Nilon agreed that the argument was reasonable, but, citing safety concerns, later issued an order saying the identity of any informants could be disclosed only several weeks before trial.
Still, Reaves’ situation at the time made the courtroom discussion perilous. While most of his codefendants wore prison garb to the hearing — thanks to bail requirements of up to $1 million — Reaves was there in street clothes, free after paying 10 percent of $20,000 bail.
“They gave him a bail that was so obviously low that it was screaming, ‘Hey, this guy is a cooperator,’ ” Thomas said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that would be.”
A killing and fallout
The Attorney General’s Office, which initially prosecuted the Bennett Homes case, declined to directly address Thomas’ criticisms. But spokesman Joe Grace said in a statement that the office was “committed to and prioritizes the safety of anyone who assists law enforcement to make our community safer.”
A State Police spokesman, Ryan Tarkowski, also declined to discuss Reaves’ case in detail.
Grace said the office has a $1.2 million budget for relocating witnesses, a fund often tapped by local police and prosecutors’ offices. Reaves twice turned down offers to be relocated, Grace said, although he declined to go into detail.
Thomas disputes that account.
He said Reaves had been offered relocation just once — after police told Thomas that drug suspects they had been investigating had been caught on a wiretap last summer talking about assassinating Reaves.
In response, according to Thomas, authorities offered Reaves a one-night stay at a hotel in Allentown. He turned down the offer, opting instead to simply avoid setting foot in Chester.
Still, when Reaves returned to Philadelphia after receiving his probation sentence, he was shot in the head before he could even exit his car, according to a police source.
Federal authorities swept in two days after Reaves’ death, adopting the Bennett Homes drug case from state prosecutors less than a month before his codefendants were set to go to trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Katayoun M. Copeland and Clare Putnam Pozos declined to say whether Reaves’ slaying had anything to do with their office’s decision to get involved. Lawyers in the Bennett Homes case said federal authorities had shown interest in the case in the past.
Still, the prosecutors successfully argued before a judge to keep the gang’s alleged ringleaders in federal custody. Each of them — James Townsend, David Toney, and Cheron Jackson — had previously been out on bail awaiting trial in the state case.
The prosecutors cited Reaves’ death in their motion, writing that “the continued safety of individuals in this case, including any potential witnesses, is of paramount concern given these recent horrific events.”
The decision also means Townsend, Toney, and Jackson could face stiffer penalties if convicted.
Hugh P. McElhenney, who represented Byron Parker, another codefendant in the Bennett Homes case, said the presence of federal prosecutors seemed to make the state Attorney General’s Office more receptive to plea deals on counts with smaller penalties. Parker, for example, pleaded guilty to just two of the nine counts against him, receiving a prison sentence of 40 to 120 months.
“The feds took the cream off the top,” McElhenney said. “It may have loosened the attorney general’s zeal to convict everybody of everything.”
No one has been arrested in Reaves’ killing, and it remains unclear which, if either, of the two cases in which he cooperated led to the attack against him. His family, through Thomas, declined to comment.
What makes Reaves’ death especially tragic, Thomas said, is that it felt inevitable, given the string of warning signs he saw.
“My initial reaction was they finally actually went ahead and did it,” he said. “They killed him.”