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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org