A con from a con?

Shuja Moore (Courtesy photo)

A LOT of prisoners write to the Daily News. Most of them ask for help with their cases.

An incompetent lawyer blew the trial, they say. A cop lied on the stand. New evidence proves their innocence. They were nowhere near the crime scene.

I try to read every letter, mailing back the same response: I'm sorry for your troubles, but we haven't the resources to investigate your allegations. I wish you well.

But Shuja Moore's plea was different.

He didn't deny that on Oct. 17, 2004, he was a 22-year-old drug dealer who brought a loaded gun into Club Deco at Front and Spring Garden streets. He paid an employee $50 to admit him via a side entrance, to avoid the club's metal detector.

He used the gun to threaten a clubgoer with whom he had a beef. A struggle ensued and the gun went off. The single bullet injured a bouncer, Imani Bell, 24, then killed a bystander, Joey Motto, also 24.

Moore was convicted of third-degree murder, aggravated assault and related offenses for what he called "the worst decision I've ever made." The price of his depravity: a 12-to-25-year sentence, which he did not protest.

So why contact the Daily News?

"I feel like my victim's family deserves to know what led me to murder," he wrote. "I would like to tell them how I took the painstaking journey inside myself to discover who I was and what I had to change. I wonder if they would even care to know the 31-year-old man I am now: The man who understands his lifelong duty to honor their son."

Helluva letter. But its timing was suspicious.

Moore is eligible for parole in two years. Perhaps he was cynically paving his way to freedom by showing remorse, in a nice letter that said things a parole board would want to hear. And if, on Moore's behalf, I were to contact the injured bouncer, Imani Bell, and Joey Motto's family - might that result in a hastened release, depending on their reaction to Moore's remorse?

I did, indeed, speak with Bell and the Motto family. But not before asking Moore some hard questions.

I reached Moore, now 32, at Frackville State Correctional Facility in Schuylkill County. He sounded surprised to hear from me. He was polite, articulate and - unless he's an excellent actor, which is not out of the question - seemed profoundly sorry.

"I am not trying for early parole," he said when I questioned his letter's timing. He said he had never expected me to contact his victims. He had just wanted to express in print how terrible he feels that he was once a young man "who had more ignorance than intelligence."

"I have sat in prison almost a decade," he said, "and there is nothing I can do to correct what I've done. I can't take away the pain I caused. I know I have to suffer the consequences of my actions but I also want my future actions to count, or Joey Motto died for no reason.

"It's still hard for me to come to grips with the fact that I am the monster who stole his life. Me! I snatched a mother's hope and replaced it with despair.

"I am so ashamed of my past that it's hard to accept that this is my life. My parents don't deserve this," he says of his mother and father (who he said did not want to participate in a story about their son). "My community doesn't deserve it, either. But most importantly, my victims don't deserve any of the misery that I've caused. I must improve the world or die trying. There is no other choice."

Unlike so many other inmates, whose dysfunctional upbringing practically greases the skids to jail, Moore said his loving, hardworking and college-educated parents gave him a secure, structured childhood. He and his two brothers attended private Islamic and public schools. He graduated from Bartram High and enrolled at the University of Maryland.

To his parents' heartache, he succumbed to the streets anyway, dazzled by rap music that glamorized the thug life - even though the lyrics belied the grim addiction and violence he saw on the streets. He was arrested in Maryland for credit-card fraud, returned to Philly and began selling and using drugs while enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia.

"My plan was to make enough money to improve my quality of life and make some business startup money, then I was going legit," he said, sounding like every other fool with big dreams and a lazy streak. Instead, he became addicted to the poison he was peddling and found pathetic glory overseeing a crack house.

"For years I was lost," he said, "filled with ignorance, depression, rage and intoxicants. I was suicidal and homicidal."

On the night of the murder, he said, he went barhopping and got "super-drunk," remembering later only parts of the evening. He wound up inside Club Deco, shot his gun and became one more statistic in the American penal system.

He says his experience, entering prison, was akin to that of the character Neo in "The Matrix," who took a pill that removed him from one world to the other. There, Neo learns that he has been asleep his whole life.

"Prison was my pill," he said.

He realized how hard his parents worked, that the thug life was a sham, that his father had been right, years before, when he said that "today's young black men lacked confidence."

"I'd had all the confidence in the world, so I stopped listening to him," he said. "In prison, I realized that he meant we lacked confidence to be leaders instead of followers."

He would like Joey Motto's family to know all of this. But to the Mottos, Moore is as dead to them as Joey is - deader, in fact, since Joey still lives in their hearts.

"He took my son, that's all I need to know about him," said Motto's mother, Connie, whose grief remains so strong that she cannot speak of her son without crying. She has moved out of state because she can't bear to live in her beloved South Philly, her lifelong neighborhood, where reminders of her son are everywhere.

Joey's older brother, Bill, described Joey - a graduate of St. John Neumann High School, a member of the Mummers' Vikings Fancy Brigade, a hard worker in the family produce business - as kind, giving and joyful.

"He was just a great kid," Bill Motto said. "He never even had a traffic ticket."

Moore's other victim, Imani Bell, now 34, was as blameless as Motto was. A Penn State graduate and football player, he was working as a bouncer at Club Deco. The bullet entered and exited his thigh, grazing his penis along the way. After initial infections, he recuperated fully.

He's looking for work while training as a boxer. He won his first bout, in May, and has begun training in earnest "for the next opportunity."

"I was busy raising my kids, and I had to put my training on hold," said Bell, son of former NFL defensive lineman Robert Bell. "It feels good to be back."

He said he would be open to an apology from Moore.

"An apology is an apology, and most times you can tell if it's heartfelt and sincere," Bell said. "The Lord wills me to forgive. It's not in my heart to carry a grudge. A life was lost and another one hangs in the balance right now. What he does with his life will be a testament to whether he has bettered himself. So, you know, we'll see."

Moore said he is trying hard to do just that. He spends his days reading books about politics, economics and business. He has enrolled in online university courses to become a paralegal. He works as a teacher's aide to help inmates study for their GED.

And he thinks about Joey Motto every day.

"His photo is on my wall," he said. "His face is the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see before bed.

"I was part of the madness that is violent crime in Philadelphia. Now I must be part of its cure. I hear the Philly community crying out for the men to step up. And quite a few of us inmates can't wait to do just that. Unfortunately, we ran those streets. We committed those crimes. We took precious things from this world. Now we just want to do everything in our power to stop others from doing the same."

As Imani Bell said, we'll see.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

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