To plead or not to plead

The last of eight people charged in the 2009 double murder at the then-new Piazza at Schmidts development in Northern Liberties is scheduled to go to trial on murder and conspiracy on March 27 in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Or not.

For the last month, Caesar Holloway, 35, and his lawyer Donald Chisholm II have been trying to negotiate a “non-trial disposition” – a plea bargain -- that would put Holloway in prison for some length of time other than the rest of his natural life.

The deal seemed close in early February but on March 7 Holloway said no and a hearing was set for Monday to decide on a trial date. Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega and Chisholm were in the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart but Holloway wanted to talk more with Chisholm about a possible plea agreement.

Two hours later, Chisholm returned to the courtroom.

It wasn’t a no; it was a “not yet,” Chisholm told the judge, adding that Holloway needed a little more time to consider the prosecutor’s offer. Minehart, looking peeved after another delay, set March 27 for another status check.

On Dec. 1, a Common Pleas Court jury of seven women and five men returned guilty verdicts on first-degree murder against Will “Pooh” Hook, 43, Edward Daniels, 44, and Antonio Wright, 30, in the June 27, 2009 shootings of party planner Rian Thal, 34, and Timothy Gilmore, 40, a friend and Ohio-based long-distance truck driver.

Under Pennsylvania law, all three men were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Four other people pleaded guilty before the trial; one has been sentenced to life but the other three are awaiting sentencing because they might be asked to testify for the prosecution at Holloway’s trial.

Holloway spent almost a year after the shootings on the lam. Now, he is the last facing trial. Holloway is not accused of being one of the shooters who killed Thal and Gilmore. At trial, prosecutors described him as mastermind Hook’s right-hand man and the person who drove Wright to the Piazza that night for what was supposed to have been a drug robbery.

Although details about Holloway’s proposed plea deal are not known, three other non-shooters who pleaded guilty and testified at the trial were allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges that gives them some chance of freedom and a private life when they finish their prison terms.

Prosecutors told the jury that Thal and Gilmore dealt drugs on the side and that Gilmore had arrived in Philadelphia a few days before the shootings with about 11 kilograms of cocaine from a drug supplier in Texas. As word of the cache of drugs and money circulated on the street, Thal became the target of a robbery scheme.

According to testimony, Thal and Gilmore were leaving her seventh-floor apartment in the Piazza’s Navona building at 5:17 p.m. when they were confronted in the hall by three gunmen intent on robbing them of drugs and cash.

Gilmore wrestled with one gunman and ran but was shot and wounded and ultimately killed when he fell to the floor outside the elevators — his death captured on a Navona security camera.

Thal died of a contact gunshot wound to the back of the head and was found outside her apartment.

After the killings, the gunmen fled without taking what they came for: more than $100,000 in cash and 8-1/2 pounds of cocaine police later found in Thal’s apartment.

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