Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Piazza Murders Trial

Cooperator Katoya Jones set for sentencing on Monday.

The Piazza Murders Trial

Katoya Jones: Star witness
Katoya Jones: Star witness

She’s spent more than two years in prison.

On Monday, Katoya Jones finds out how much longer she will live behind bars.

Jones, 27, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner on her guilty plea to two counts of third-degree murder in the June 27, 2009 slayings of event-planner Rian Thal and friend Timothy Gilmore at the new Piazza at Schmidts complex in Northern Liberties.

Jones, a pharmaceutical manufacturing worker trying to move ahead after growing up in one of Philadelphia’s poor inner-city neighborhoods, admitted letting the shooters into the security-coded Navona building where she lived five floors below Thal’s apartment.

The reason was money – the chance to get up to $50,000 to $70,000 of what long-time friend Will “Pooh” Hook told her was a stash of a half-million in cash and multiple kilograms of cocaine in Thal’s apartment.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Thal and Gilmore had a lucrative sideline in the city’s drug trade and that her apartment was headquarters for distributing a load of Mexican cocaine that Gilmore, an Ohio-based long-distance trucker, had just hauled northeast from a supplier in Texas.

It was supposed to have been an easy robbery – a “sweet beat,” she said Pooh called it – where nobody got hurt. Instead, two people wound up dead and Jones, weighted by guilt over the shootings, became the first of the eight defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.

Jones was excoriated as an opportunist on the witness stand by Hook’s attorney, Christopher D. Warren, when she testified Nov. 15 in the trial of Hook, 43, and Piazza gunmen Edward Daniels, 44, and Antonio Wright, 30.

Hook, also known as Keith Epps, Daniels and Wright were found guilty by the jury last Thursday of second-degree murder and related counts. Each was sentenced to two consecution life prison terms by Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart.

Jones could face life in prison without parole if sentenced according to the crimes she admitted.

In Pennsylvania, each count of third-degree murder carries a sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison, but two or more third-degree verdicts gives prosecutors the right to request a life sentence.

Assistant District Attorneys Carlos Vega and Jennifer Selber waived the life-term option as part of Jones’ plea deal. Jones’ sentence Monday will depend on what the prosecutors recommend, based on her cooperation at trial, and the decision of Judge Lerner.

Three others among the eight people charged in the killings of Thal, 34, and Gilmore, 40, pleaded guilty on the first day of jury selection in the trial that ended last Thursday: Langdon Scott, 28, who prosecutors say “chickened out” and left the Piazza before the shootings; and Robert Keith, 30, who joined Hook in burglarizing the wrong Navona apartment in the predawn hours of June 27, 2009, will be sentenced by Minehart on Jan. 4.

The third gunman, Donnell Murchison, 35, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder on Nov. 7, the first day of jury selection, to escape the possibility of a death sentence. Minehart sentenced him that same day to two consecutive life prison terms without chance of parole.

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About this blog
Inquirer reporter Joe Slobodzian covers the courts and writes about the people who find themselves there and what they face.

You can reach Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or Reach Joseph A. at

Joseph A. Slobodzian
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