Feds: Shooting suspect's wife hired hit man to kill witnesses

Sonia Panell's husband will soon go to trial for his alleged role in a December 2012 shootout in Bethlehem that killed one person and injured five more.

Now, the Carbon County woman may join her spouse behind bars after prosecutors say she solicited a hit man to murder witnesses slated to testify against him.

Panell allegedly discussed the purported murder-for-hire plot during a series of phone calls and meetings recorded by the FBI. Court filings describe her comments as "chilling." 

Prosecutors claim Panell recruited a “putative killer,” identified in court documents only as “Person #1,” and agreed to give him a firearm, night vision goggles, an untraceable telephone and a stolen license plate to conceal his identity.

Panell also allegedly created a fake Facebook page to research the intended victims online and passed along information necessary to find and kill them, including the locations of their homes and workplaces.

On Dec. 19, 2013, Panell showed Person #1 photos of the three people slated for assassination and took him on a three-hour-long guided tour of locations where they could be found, according to a motion for pretrial detention filed Thursday.

As she conducted the tour, Panell allegedly “calmly discussed the details of the plot with Person #1” and told him not to use his “Obamaphone” during the crime, as she feared the government could trace it.

Panell, in a phone conversation with her jailed husband the next day, allegedly referred to the equipment necessary to carry out the slayings as “hunting gear.”

During a meeting Jan. 5 with Person #1, Panell worried one intended victim, a handicapped man she allegedly referred to as “the m––––er in the wheelchair,” would be difficult to kill, court documents state. She allegedly provided Person #1 with the name of the witness’ physical therapy facility and suggested he catch and kill the man as he arrived for an appointment.

Panell during the same conversation allegedly described “her particular desire” to see one of the other two intended victims killed because the woman had slapped Panell’s husband in the face. Authorities claim Panell told Person #1, "that b––h gotta go."

Court filings allege FBI tapes contain “numerous other examples of Panell’s implacable determination” that the killings be carried out and that “there can be no doubt that Panell was actively and persistently seeking to arrange the deaths of three witnesses.”

Panell was arrested Wednesday and is charged by indictment with two counts each of using interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire and aiding and abetting, along with one count of solicitation to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.

The scheme's intended victims allegedly witnessed a shooting Dec. 2, 2012 outside the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society in Bethlehem that killed 23-year-old Yolanda Morales and wounded five others.

Panell’s husband, Rene Figueroa, was arrested several days later and charged with criminal homicide, attempted homicide and related offenses in connection with the crime.

Panell is being held for pretrial detention after prosecutors successfully argued no bail condition would “reasonably assure the safety of the community” and that there is a “serious risk that Panell will obstruct justice and threaten, injure and intimidate prospective witnesses,” according to court filings.

If convicted, Panell faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $675,000 fine. The case is slated for a jury trial April 1 at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia.

Contact Alex Wigglesworth at 215-854-2305 or awigglesworth@philly.com. Follow @phila_lex on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.