Witness: Alleged killer 'went into wrong house' in shooting death of West Philly activist

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

In the dark, early-morning hours of Feb. 2, 2017, two men climbed into a second-floor back window of Winnie Harris’ Powelton home. They planned to rob another house on the 300 block of North Holly Street.

But after they encountered Harris, 65, at least one man fired a gun, killing the beloved West Philly community activist.

“He went into the wrong house,” Laukesha McGruder, 37, testified of her friend, Nelson Giddings, one of two men arrested in Harris’ slaying, during a preliminary hearing Tuesday on charges of murder, conspiracy, and related offenses.

Camera icon Philadelphia police; U.S. Marshals Service
Nelson Giddings (left) and Isaiah Reels

McGruder identified Giddings, 40, of North Philadelphia, as one of the two suspects in Harris’ slaying. She identified Isaiah Reels, 31, of West Philadelphia, nicknamed “Cash,” as likely being the other.

Another prosecution witness, Sydrea Outen, 38, testified that Reels confessed to her that he was one of the men who shot Harris. At the hearing’s end, Municipal Court Judge David Shuter held both men for trial on all charges. They remain in custody.

The men didn’t know Harris, the acting executive director and longtime volunteer coordinator at UC Green, a nonprofit group that plants and tends trees.

Camera icon File photo
A version of the police flier of the two wanted men in Winnie Harris’ slaying.

Her body was discovered by police in her second-floor bedroom about 8:20 p.m. Feb. 3, 2017, after a neighbor saw an open window in her home, where Harris lived alone, and wondered if something was amiss. Medics pronounced her dead at the scene.

Assistant District Attorney Lou Tumolo said Harris had five bullet wounds – one in her clavicle, two in her abdomen, and two in her right hand. Three 9mm cartridge casings from the same gun were recovered at the scene. Tumolo said evidence indicated that three to five bullets were fired.

McGruder, who testified that she’s been high on drugs “every day” since she was 18, said Giddings intended to go to a house next door to Harris’ to rob a man named Teddy. McGruder knew Teddy because they had a sexual relationship since she was 18, she said. He was not home that February night because he was in the hospital, she said.

Then, about a month later, she said, she saw video on the internet of the two men wanted in Harris’ slaying and recognized one as Giddings. She told Giddings to come over to her Overbrook home.

Pressed by Tumolo, McGruder testified that after she showed Giddings a video of the men wanted by police, Giddings told her he felt “sorry about the accident.”

Giddings told her that Harris “hit him with a bat and the gun went off,” she said. Tumolo said after the hearing that police found a baseball bat in the hallway outside Harris’ bedroom.

Outen, who is in custody after being arrested by Johnstown police last year in an aggravated-assault case, testified that she met Reels when he lived across from her in Johnstown in February or March of last year. That March, she said, Reels and his girlfriend were having a dispute and his girlfriend threatened to call police on him.

Outen said she then took Reels for a ride in her car and he confessed that he and another man had shot a woman in Philadelphia. He showed her a video of the men being sought and asked if one looked like him. She said she told him it could.

Outen testified that she and Reels were both from Philadelphia, near 46th and Market Streets.

Defense attorneys Gary Server, for Reels, and Jason Kadish, for Giddings, both argued that this was not a first-degree murder case. Server also said that his client did not shoot the victim.

Tumolo argued that it was first degree, saying the men sought to rob the man next door, but went armed because they planned to leave no witnesses.

After the hearing, Elizabeth Waring, Harris’ close friend, said: “They took a life. They went prepared to take a life if they had to.”

Neche Harris, the victim’s daughter, said of her mother: “They may have killed her, but the essence of who she is won’t die.”