Northeast Times

Finding a Frankford killer

By John Loftus

Times Staff Writer

Two black men wear­ing black cloth­ing.

That was wit­nesses’ de­scrip­tion of the men in­volved in the shoot­ing death of a Frank­ford barber in late 2009. The wit­nesses said the men were of av­er­age height and av­er­age build.

Not much to go on, a re­port­er re­marked to Sgt. Robert Wilkins.

“We’ve solved them with less,” the hom­icide de­tect­ive said. There wasn’t a trace of pride in his voice.

The case was solved. In a little more than two months, po­lice had a sus­pect and a war­rant to ar­rest him.

Less than three months after the murder, that sus­pect was in cus­tody. Earli­er this month, the killer was sen­tenced to 15-30 years in pris­on.

How?

De­tect­ives in­ter­viewed wit­nesses who gave them little; found oth­er wit­nesses who gave them more.

Some­body had seen something in the night on Dec. 28, 2009, something im­port­ant. Two wit­nesses had watched the killer out on the street. He had touched something, they told de­tect­ives. In do­ing that, he had left something be­hind, something de­tect­ives could use.

Fi­nally, after weeks of work, in­vest­ig­at­ors be­lieved they knew who had killed Ed­ward Rem­bert. What’s more, de­tect­ives knew the guy. Their sus­pect was Randy John­son. He was one of the wit­nesses they had talked to — more than once.

They got a war­rant, but they didn’t get their man; at least, not right away. That took the help of fed­er­al mar­shals, who found John­son in Geor­gia and per­suaded him to sur­render.

John­son was back in Phil­adelphia by April 2010 and had a pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing in mid-June 2010. A wit­ness at that hear­ing was a young neigh­bor who told Mu­ni­cip­al Court Judge Jim­mie Moore he had seen John­son fir­ing in­to Rem­bert’s barber shop.

While he test­i­fied, that wit­ness of­ten seemed either dis­trac­ted or un­sure of him­self. To a lay­man, he might not have ap­peared to be God’s gift to the pro­sec­u­tion. It turned out later that he wasn’t.

Judge Moore held John­son for tri­al.

As mo­tions were filed and hear­ings were con­tin­ued, John­son re­mained locked up — for more than a year. His tri­al didn’t be­gin un­til late Janu­ary of this year, but then everything moved faster. By early Feb­ru­ary, a jury had found John­son guilty of third-de­gree murder.

De­tect­ives Crys­tal Wil­li­ams, Mi­chael Ven­son, Kev­in Judge and Gray White and po­lice of­ficers Vic­tor Dev­ille and Billy Gol­phin worked on the case, Wilkins said.

They had plenty of oth­ers to work on while they were pur­su­ing Rem­bert’s mur­der­er. De­tect­ives in the po­lice de­part­ment’s hom­icide unit al­ways are busy. There were 306 hom­icides in 2010; 324 in 2011; and 97 this year as of April 12.

DEATH ON BRIDGE STREET

Ed­ward John “EJ” Rem­bert, 34, be­came one of the 302 Phil­adelphia murder vic­tims of 2009 a little be­fore 1 a.m. on Tues­day, Dec. 29, when he died at Hahne­mann Uni­versity Hos­pit­al in Cen­ter City. The Large Street res­id­ent had been shot four times at Bridge and Glen­loch streets a little more than two hours earli­er.

The first in­form­a­tion po­lice re­leased was that Rem­bert had been out of town for a few days and had just re­turned on Monday, Dec. 28. That night, at about 10:40, he was out­side his place of busi­ness, the Mighty Sharp Barber Shop, talk­ing with three people when they were ap­proached by two oth­er men. Some words were ex­changed and one of the men star­ted shoot­ing a hand­gun. Rem­bert was hit, but he and the oth­ers ran in­side.

The shop’s glass door offered the barber no pro­tec­tion and one of the men con­tin­ued to fire at him. The men, it was later learned, had driv­en to the corner, left on foot. The vic­tim had been armed, po­lice later said, but he had not fired his weapon.

The four shots that had hit Rem­bert had passed through his body. Shell cas­ings for 9mm and 10mm hand­guns were found at the scene.

No one else was hurt.

Rem­bert was taken to Aria Health’s Tor­res­dale cam­pus be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to Hahne­mann.

The barber­shop on busy Bridge Street is now sealed up, but just a few days after the shoot­ing, any­one stand­ing on the front step could see the bul­let holes in the glass door and in the win­dow on the build­ing’s Glen­loch Street side. Blood could be seen on the floor in­side.

Wilkins said the wit­nesses at the barber­shop said they couldn’t give good de­scrip­tions of either of the men be­cause they were try­ing to keep their heads down and not get shot.

“We talked to every­body in the barber­shop on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions,” Wilkins said. “Nobody saw any­thing … and we can’t make them see any­thing. … Nobody wants to tell.”

That’s not un­usu­al, Wilkins said.

“Most of our wit­nesses are scared,” he said, “and I can’t blame them nowadays.”

One of those wit­nesses is re­lated to John­son and an­oth­er is one of that re­l­at­ive’s friends, As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney James Be­rardinelli said on March 23. They told po­lice they had no in­form­a­tion to give them be­cause they were hid­ing in the shop’s bath­room dur­ing the shoot­ing, the ADA said. They didn’t men­tion John­son.

Still, names come up dur­ing an in­vest­ig­a­tion, Wilkins said. John­son’s was one of those names, Wilkins said.

“We talked to him and his at­tor­ney,” the ser­geant said. “We just knew he was out there … and we thought he was a wit­ness.”

That hap­pens, Wilkins said.

“Names come up and we go talk to them,” he said.

The day after Rem­bert was shot, a neigh­bor­hood teen had told po­lice he had seen the shoot­ing, but he didn’t identi­fy John­son for al­most a month.

WHAT HE LEFT BE­HIND

Down the street, a 10-year-old boy and his 12-year-old sis­ter had heard the shots, the pro­sec­utor said. They saw the shoot­er go to a car parked out­side the shop on Glen­loch Street, open it and go back to the shop. Then, the shoot­ing star­ted again. 

In­vest­ig­at­ors ex­amined that car and lif­ted a palm print and two fin­ger­prints where the chil­dren had said they had seen the shoot­er touch it. Those prints were John­son’s, the pro­sec­utor said.

That print match was not done in a few minutes as it is on tele­vi­sion crime shows.

“We got it ex­ped­ited,” De­tect­ive Wil­li­ams said in March, but even with that, it took a couple of days.

De­tect­ives presen­ted the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice with the evid­ence ty­ing John­son to the shoot­ing and awaited ap­prov­al of an ar­rest war­rant. When po­lice got that doc­u­ment, however, they couldn’t find John­son.

His last known ad­dress had been the 2800 block of W. Sedgley St., but au­thor­it­ies got a tip that John­son was in Geor­gia. Fed­er­al mar­shals fur­ther learned the fu­git­ive was in sub­urb­an At­lanta. They got a phone num­ber and called him.

He agreed to turn him­self in. He was car­ry­ing his 4-month-old baby when he sur­rendered in a Douglas County, Ga., gas sta­tion on March 25, 2010.

John­son was back in Philly in early April of that year and he wasn’t say­ing any­thing, Wil­li­ams said. All John­son said was that he didn’t do it. He nev­er im­plic­ated any­one else in Rem­bert’s death.

On June 16, 2010, the teen who had told po­lice he had seen the shoot­ing from the vant­age point of a nearby home test­i­fied dur­ing John­son’s pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing that he had seen the de­fend­ant quar­rel­ing with Rem­bert be­fore the shoot­ing.

He test­i­fied that he had not iden­ti­fied John­son when he talked to po­lice a day after the shoot­ing be­cause he and a friend had had words with the vic­tim earli­er that night and he feared he might be blamed for some part in the shoot­ing.

The teen said Rem­bert had ac­cused him and his friend of steal­ing so­das and had shown them a gun tucked in his waist­band. He said Rem­bert was drunk and loud.

Later that night, he heard quar­rel­ing. From a first-floor win­dow of a nearby house, the wit­ness said he had seen men quar­rel­ing out­side the barber­shop. He said he went up­stairs to get his friend and they heard gun­shots as they were re­turn­ing to the first floor. When he looked out a win­dow again, he said he saw John­son’s arm ex­ten­ded and poin­ted to­ward the in­side of the shop. He didn’t see a gun, but he saw flashes and heard more gun­fire. He said an­oth­er man was stand­ing be­hind John­son with what had ap­peared to be a flash­light poin­ted at the shop.

He saw John­son and the oth­er man run down Glen­loch Street, which “T” in­ter­sects with Bridge. He said he didn’t see who had been shot, but later saw Rem­bert be­ing car­ried out on a stretch­er.

John­son was a man the wit­ness said he had “seen around a couple times.”

The young wit­ness seemed dis­trac­ted or some­times un­able to un­der­stand what he was be­ing asked. He was the only wit­ness the pro­sec­u­tion presen­ted dur­ing the pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing.

Dur­ing John­son’s tri­al, that wit­ness “went south,” or re­can­ted his testi­mony, Be­rardinelli said.

There was an 18-month gap between that June 2010 pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing and John­son’s tri­al. There were sev­er­al hear­ings and pre-tri­al con­fer­ences sched­uled. Many were con­tin­ued. In late Janu­ary 2011, all parties agreed the tri­al would start a year later.

It’s not un­usu­al for a case to take so long in Phil­adelphia, Wilkins, Wil­li­ams and Be­rardinelli said.

The two chil­dren who had seen the shoot­er touch the car parked on Glen­loch Street, Be­rardinelli said, were scared but proved to be “pretty com­pel­ling wit­nesses.”

They were “clas­sic dis­in­ter­ested third parties,” the pro­sec­utor said. “They had no dog in the fight and no reas­on to lie.”

It was, after all, the chil­dren who had poin­ted po­lice to the car that sup­plied them with the prints, which the ADA called the “in­dis­put­able phys­ic­al evid­ence.”

WHY?

John­son had entered a not guilty plea on Jan. 24 be­fore Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Lil­lian Ransom. Testi­mony began that day and ended on Jan. 30. Jur­ors re­turned guilty ver­dicts for third-de­gree murder and weapons of­fenses on Feb. 1. John­son was found not guilty of a con­spir­acy charge.

Third-de­gree murder means there was no spe­cif­ic in­tent to kill, Be­rardinelli ex­plained.

“You dis­reg­ard a like­li­hood that you can kill,” he said. “Your ac­tions had ex­treme in­dif­fer­ence to hu­man life.”

The pro­sec­utor said he had ar­gued that there was an in­tent, but the jury saw it oth­er­wise.

But why was Rem­bert killed? There might not be a reas­on that makes any real sense. Wilkins said 80 to 85 per­cent of Phil­adelphia’s murders have something to do with an­ger.

Wit­nesses said the barber car­ried a gun and had been wav­ing it around while he had quarreled with John­son and the nev­er-iden­ti­fied oth­er man.

In Janu­ary 2010, a neigh­bor had told a re­port­er she had heard Rem­bert had been killed over a small quant­ity of drugs, and when John­son sur­rendered in Geor­gia in March 2010, the At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion re­por­ted that he was wanted for a drug-re­lated hom­icide in Phil­adelphia.

Be­rardinelli said there had been some sort of dis­pute between one of Rem­bert’s friends, who sold drugs on the block, and one of John­son’s re­l­at­ives earli­er on the day of the shoot­ing. The parties had talked on the phone, the ADA said, and Rem­bert’s friend was head­ing to the corner when the shoot­ing began. He didn’t get there, but he was an eye­wit­ness who saw two men run­ning from the barber­shop, Be­rardinelli said.

John­son is serving his sen­tence in Grater­ford Pris­on. He will be 30 in Novem­ber. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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