Man arrested in slaying of W. Philly activist Winnie Harris

Winnie Harris with vegetables she grew in the Holly Street Neighbors Community Garden, which she founded in 2005.

Philadelphia police on Monday arrested a North Philadelphia man in the February slaying of Winnie Harris, 65, a beloved West Philadelphia community activist, who was found shot to death in her home.

Nelson Giddings, 39, of the 2000 block of Stella Street, was taken into custody Monday morning at the Delaware County Prison, where he was behind bars on an unrelated matter, Capt. John Ryan of the Philadelphia homicide unit said. He was charged Monday night with murder, robbery, burglary, conspiracy, and weapons offenses.

Camera icon Philadelphia Police
Nelson Giddings.

Ryan said Giddings and another suspect, whom police were still seeking, “broke into the wrong house” when they went into Harris’ home on the 300 block of North Holly Street in Powelton.

“She was not the target,” Ryan said. “They apparently killed Ms. Harris in cold blood. It was completely unnecessary.”

Ryan declined to elaborate on whom the men had intended to target and why.

Harris was the acting executive director and longtime volunteer coordinator at UC Green, a nonprofit group that plants and tends trees. Her body was discovered in her second-floor bedroom about 8:20 p.m. Feb. 3 after a neighbor saw an open window in the home, where Harris lived alone. After police were called, they found Harris unresponsive. Medics pronounced her dead at the scene.

Police in March had released a video of two men, one with a gun, seen in an alleyway near Harris’ home, in the overnight hours into Feb. 2. They had described the two men as “persons of interest.” Giddings was one of the two men in the video, Ryan said.

Court records show Giddings was arrested April 13 in East Lansdowne, Delaware County, on aggravated assault, burglary, and criminal trespass charges.

In Philadelphia, Giddings was convicted in 2013 of burglary and related charges for a 2010 offense, and was sentenced to 18 to 36 months in prison, followed by 10 years’ probation. He had been arrested four times on drug-possession charges from March 2000 to January 2011, and had received jail sentences of up to two years. In 1997, he was arrested on charges of simple assault and resisting arrest and was later sentenced to probation.

Harris, who was involved over the years in planting hundreds, if not thousands, of trees in the city as part of her work with UC Green, also was known for tending to the Holly Street Neighbors Community Garden, which she founded in 2005 on the block where she lived.

Her daughter, Neche, who set up a website dedicated to remembering her mother, justiceforwinnie.com, said Monday afternoon: “This is a step in the right direction. There is no closure until everyone who planned, carried out, or created the climate for the events of that night is brought to justice.”

“If you enter somebody’s home with a gun, and shoot a defenseless, unarmed woman begging for her life multiple times, that is not an accident. That is 100 percent intended,” she added.

In August, the daughter accepted the Green Legacy Award, posthumously given to her mother, at Green Philly‘s second annual SustainPHL awards ceremony.

In the months after Harris was killed, her close friends distributed and posted fliers with images of the two men seen in the alleyway, hoping for someone who knew anything about them to call police.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
The “Justice for Winnie” flier was distributed by her friends in the city as they sought tips on the shooter.

Their efforts have paid off. Saundra Fulwood, a retired Philadelphia narcotics police officer who was one of Harris’ closest friends, had tirelessly posted the fliers on “hard surfaces,” as she described it — sidewalk telephone booths and utility boxes, as well as on bathroom doors in City Avenue restaurants. In July, she passed out 400 fliers to people attending or walking near the Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival at Saunders Park in Powelton.

Another close friend, Mark Wagenveld, a former Inquirer editor and a UC Green volunteer, in May mailed a version of the flier that included a bar code that people could scan with their smartphones to see the police video. It went to 7,500 mailboxes in the 19104 zip code, which covers University City, Powelton, Mantua, and parts of West Philadelphia.

Separately, the University City Review on May 17 published the police flier in its free community weekly, which has a 15,000 circulation.

Police continue to seek the second man who was in the alleyway, who they now say is a suspect. Anyone with information about him is asked to call the Homicide Unit, 215-686-3334.