Report: Piazza murder suspect to surrender

July 13, 2009 12:36:02 PM PDT
According to published reports, the lawyer for one of the suspects in the Piazza at Schmidt's double murder case will surrender his client Monday. Police are methodically weaving this case together and they seem confident they'll get the other guys they are seeking.

Police issued an arrest warrant for 40-year-old James Wilson late last week, saying he was the mastermind behind the killings of Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore. Both were murdered at the upscale apartment complex in the Northern Liberties section last month.

Wilson's lawyer says his client has nothing to do with the crimes.

Two other suspects are already in custody.

Police tell Action News they are looking to make several more arrests.

Police say the case began with a bizzare case of double identity. Thal, who lived on the top floor of the trendy Piazza at Schmidts - a $100 million complex that recently opened in Northern Liberties - threw parties at the city's trendiest nightclubs and hung out with professional athletes, celebrities and members of the local hip hop scene.

But police say what most people didn't know is that Thal and Gilmore, who was from Ohio, were heavily involved in the drug trade. Investigators say they dealt with hundreds of thousands of dollars of drugs.

As for the people who killed Thal and Gilmore: "We know that they all know each other," said Capt. James Clark of the Philadelphia Police. "We know that they all deal with each other in the drug trade."

Investigators now believe that the alleged mastermind of the whole plot was James Wilson, 36, who is also known as Keith Epps.

Police say the killings of Thal and Gilmore, captured on surveillance tape, began with a comedy of errors.

"Originally, it was a burglary." Clark said, "Set up to be a burglary. But they kicked in the wrong room on the 6th floor."

After mistakenly hitting an apartment that turned out to be vacant, police say Wilson and his co-horts had returned to track Thal and Gilmore to the right apartment and rob them. but things started going south:

"They were attempting to force them into the apartment," Clark continued, "When one of them starts to run and the shots start to ring." Police say another man 30-year-old Donnell Murchison was the gunman who shot Thal in the head killing her. Then, they say, Murchison turned around and finished off Gilmore who had already been wounded.

A few seconds later, surveillance video -- which has not been released by police -- shows another man stepping over the bodies and making off with a large duffle bag. That man has not yet been identified.

Inside Thal's apartment, police found 4 kilos of cocaine and over $100,000 in cash.

"We know that there's an individual that left with a large duffle bag," according to Clark, "but we don't know what was in that duffle bag."

While the mastermind and main shooter remain on the loose, behind bars are 27-year-old Robert Keith and 25-year-old Katoya Jones. Both have been charged in connection with the case.

As the manhunt continues for two other gunmen and at least 2 other lookouts, the U.S. Marshals Service is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Donnell Murchison.

If you have it, you're being asked to call 911.

Murchison is said to be armed & dangerous.

In a news conference Friday afternoon, police identified James Wilson, 36, (aka Keith Epps, aka "Pooh") as the mastermind behind the robbery. He is currently at large and has a warrant for burglary and related offenses.

Police are also searching for Donnel Merchantson, who was identified as one of the gunmen. He is described by police as armed and dangerous. He was also seen on surveillance video being let into the building.

Anyone with information on their whereabouts is asked to call (215) 686 3334 or (215) 686-3335.

Meanwhile, investigators announced a second arrest in this case. Robert Keith, 27, is charged with burglary and related offenses.

Last week, police announced the arrest of Katoya Jones, 25, who lives in the building.

Investigators say Jones was not one of the shooters, but played a 'significant role' in the planning of the crimes.

Action News has learned she's the woman seen on surveillance video letting Merchantson inside the building.

Jones is charged with Murder, Conspiracy, Robbery, Burglary, Criminal Trespass and Possession of an Instrument of Crime.

RELATED SLIDESHOW: Moments before the Piazza killings
RELATED VIDEO: Surveillance footage from the Piazza killings

On that surveillance video, Merchantson is seen gaining access by following Jones inside.

He wanders nonchalantly up on the second floor, comes back down and sits on a table before letting in two more accomplices. They take the staircase up to the 7th floor. A fourth suspect is a floor below keeping lookout. He eventually heads to the ground floor while the three shooters lay in wait in the stairwell.

"This is extremely organized. I mean here you have 4 guys all on cell phones together going up staircases. He's alerting them when the two decedents are on their way up," explained Captain James Clark.

Rian Thal and Timothy Gilmore finally get off the elevator. They suspect something is amiss. They peek outside the window then walk toward her apartment. The suspects emerge from the stairwell. Thal is shot once in the head. Gilmore is shot multiple times in the chest and body.

"Actually what you can't see, they're trapped because they have another shooter at the other end of the hallway. So it was very well organized."

Police say Thal is a big time drug dealer. They found four kilos of cocaine and more than $100,000 in cash inside her apartment. A source close to the investigation says Gilmore and a partner, both from Ohio, are believed to have been Thal's supplier. Gilmore's partner was actually inside Thal's apartment when the two were shot.

The source says unreleased video shows him leaving the apartment 10 minutes after the shooting with a large duffel bag. He walks over the bodies and out of the complex.

One angle police are pursuing: The shooters knew Thal was being re-supplied with coke and planned to rob her.

Police say both Gilmore and Thal are known to law enforcement. Court documents reveal Thal had been busted for drugs before in Delaware County.

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