Last Piazza defendant weighs guilty plea

The last person facing trial in the 2009 drug-related killings of two people at the Piazza at Schmidts development in Northern Liberties is considering a plea deal from the District Attorney’s office, lawyers told a Philadelphia judge Tuesday.

Caesar Holloway is still deciding whether to accept the District Attorney’s proposal and plead guilty or take the charges against him to a jury trial, defense attorney Donald Chisholm II told Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner.

Lerner, who handles pretrial issues for all city homicide cases, decided to add an element of encouragement: he wheeled the case to a trial judge.

“That way, if he decides to go to trial, things are already moving,” Lerner said.

Chisholm said he could not disclose the terms of the prosecutors’ proposed guilty plea. Chisholm and prosecutors will meet on Jan. 31 with the trial judge, Jeffrey P. Minehart, who also oversaw the trial or guilty pleas of seven others charged in the Piazza case.

There are good reasons to plead guilty. Right now, Holloway, 35, is charged with murder through he was not among the gunmen who shot and killed event planner Rian Thal, 34, and friend Timothy Gilmore, 40. Under the law of conspiracy, Holloway – if found guilty – is liable for the worst acts committed by any other conspirator.

Prosecutors allege that Holloway was the right-hand man of Will “Pooh” Hook, 43, whom a jury convicted of felony murder in December as the mastermind of the botched drug robbery that became a double murder.

Hook also did not shoot anyone but he is now serving a mandatory life prison term with no chance of parole – the same verdict and sentences as convicted gunmen Donnell Murchison, 35, and Edward Daniels, 44.

Seven people were arrested in the days after the June 27, 2009 slayings of Thal and Gilmore outside her sixth floor apartment in the upscale Piazza’s Navona building.

Holloway, however, was on the lam for almost a year and thus was not part of the December trial that saw the jury verdicts against Hook, Murchison and Daniels and the guilty pleas of four others.

Lerner noted that Holloway’s indecision was making it impossible to sentence three of the four who pleaded guilty and who would be expected to testify at trial if needed.

The key witness against Holloway would be Katoya Jones, who lived in the Navona building and admitted letting the killers through the building’s security door after she said Hook promised her a cut from the cocaine and cash stored in Thal’s apartment.

Jones, the first to cooperate with prosecutors, is awaiting sentencing on her guilty plea to two counts of third-degree murder.

Prosecutors said Thal and Gilmore were active in the city's drug trade and that her apartment was being used to distribute a load of Mexican cocaine that Gilmore, an Ohio long-distance trucker, had just delivered from Texas. After the slayings, the killers fled without taking anything. Police later found more than $100,000 and 8-1/2 pounds of cocaine in Thal's apartment.

At the trial of Hook, Murchison and Daniels, Jones told the jury of a late-night meeting with Hook and Holloway at Club Champagne in Germantown where they tried to figure out how the planned robbery went so wrong.

Holloway, she testified, sat at the bar, angrily bemoaning that he would not be able to buy the Aston Martin luxury automobile with what he expected would be his share of the robbery proceeds.