Witnesses recount Panas slaying at trial

“Frank Tep­per murdered Billy Panas. He had his en­tire life ahead of him. Don’t let any­body tell you that he de­served it.” — As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Mi­chael Barry

Kar­en Panas, moth­er of Wil­li­am Panas Jr. ,places a flower on a plaque for the memory of her son, who was killed in Novem­ber 2009 by off-duty Sgt. Frank Tep­per.

Emo­tions ran high in­side a Com­mon Pleas courtroom last week as a jury heard the case of Frank Tep­per, a former Phil­adelphia po­lice of­ficer charged in the shoot­ing death of a 21-year-old man dur­ing a neigh­bor­hood mel­ee out­side of Tep­per’s home on Nov. 21, 2009.

Dur­ing testi­mony last week, the jury heard sev­er­al re­tell­ings of the shoot­ing of Wil­li­am “Billy” Panas Jr. when Tep­per emerged from his home on the 2600 block of Elkhart St.

Tep­per, who was an of­ficer with the de­part­ment’s Civil Af­fairs Unit, was off-duty and at home while host­ing a baby shower for one of his daugh­ters. Panas had been drink­ing beer with some friends on the steps of a ca­ter­ing hall at Thompson Street and In­di­ana Av­en­ue.

The two crossed paths dur­ing an al­ter­ca­tion out­side of Tep­per’s home. At one point, ac­cord­ing to the testi­mony of pro­sec­u­tion wit­nesses, Tep­per pro­duced his ser­vice pis­tol and, when chal­lenged by the un­armed Panas dur­ing a heated ex­change to shoot, shot him once in the chest.

As the tri­al pro­gressed last week be­fore Judge Shel­ley Robins New. wit­nesses who test­i­fied offered dif­fer­ing ac­counts of the events that led to the fatal shot that Tep­per fired at Panas.

As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­neys Mi­chael Barry and Erin Boyle ar­gued that Tep­per was drunk at the time of the in­cid­ent and shot Panas after sev­er­al phys­ic­al al­ter­ca­tions out­side the home shortly be­fore 11 p.m. The pro­sec­utors said that Panas’ de­fi­ant re­mark to Tep­per — that the de­fend­ant wouldn’t pull the trig­ger — led to the off-duty of­ficer’s de­cision to shoot him.

Tep­per’s at­tor­ney, For­tu­nato “Fred” Perri Jr., dis­puted that and said Tep­per was as­saul­ted by mem­bers of Panas’ group and fired his gun in self-de­fense. De­fense wit­nesses, in­clud­ing re­l­at­ives of Tep­per, said he was jumped and be­ing beaten by friends with Panas when he iden­ti­fied him­self as a po­lice­man and shortly after dis­charged his weapon.

Tep­per is be­ing tried on charges of murder, pos­ses­sion of an in­stru­ment of crime and reck­less en­dan­ger­ment. He was fired from the po­lice de­part­ment and has been jailed without bail since Feb­ru­ary 2010.

The 45-year-old Tep­per, a 16-year vet­er­an of the po­lice force, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Testi­mony also in­dic­ated that po­lice re­cords showed Tep­per had pulled out his weapon in pub­lic dur­ing at least three oth­er in­cid­ents, in­clud­ing one case when Tep­per al­legedly beat a man with his weapon after a car chase be­cause of com­ments sup­posedly made about Tep­per’s fianc&ea­cute;e. The jury, however, was in­struc­ted not to let any past ac­tions in­flu­ence its de­cision on the Panas case.

As the Star went to press on Tues­day, the jury was pre­par­ing to de­lib­er­ate the case.

Emo­tion­al testi­mony dur­ing the tri­al made it clear that the in­cid­ent has altered the lives of both fam­il­ies.

“We were shak­ing him (Panas), scream­ing his name, try­ing to get him to re­spond,” test­i­fied a tear­ful Joe “Bear” Mas­cino, one of three men who frantic­ally tried to get Panas to a hos­pit­al.

They took Panas to North­east­ern Hos­pit­al at Al­legheny and Tulip — not real­iz­ing the emer­gency room at the hos­pit­al had closed earli­er that year.

“There was just nobody there,” said Mas­cino, as Panas’ moth­er, Kar­en, wept from her seat in the courtroom.

After some se­cur­ity guards were aler­ted to Panas’ need for med­ic­al at­ten­tion, he was trans­por­ted to Temple Uni­versity Hos­pit­al, where he was pro­nounced dead.

“Frank Tep­per murdered Billy Panas,” as­sist­ant dis­trict at­tor­ney Barry said in his open­ing re­marks on Feb. 14. “He had his en­tire life ahead of him. Don’t let any­body tell you that he de­served it.”

The jury heard that the al­ter­ca­tion began that even­ing when Ro­man Flores, an ex-boy­friend of Tep­per’s daugh­ter Fe­li­cia, ap­proached her as well as a cous­in and a friend in front of Tep­per’s house.

Some words led to a phys­ic­al con­front­a­tion between Flores and the cous­in, Joseph Cham­bers. Flores made a phone call, sum­mon­ing neigh­bor­hood friends to the area, and it brought a crowd down Elkhart Street from both ends of the block.

Panas, who was on his way to a nearby eat­ery, walked onto the block to see the com­mo­tion, ac­cord­ing to testi­mony. He was quickly in­volved in one of sev­er­al skir­mishes that sup­posedly oc­curred out­side of the Tep­per home.

Valer­ie Gomez, 19, and Chris­toph­er Pick­lo, 20, who test­i­fied last week, were part of a group with Panas that left the steps of the ca­ter­ing hall to walk the short dis­tance to Elkhart Street, just be­hind Stokely Play­ground.

Both test­i­fied that, while try­ing to break up sep­ar­ate fights in­volving Panas, an­oth­er friend and two mem­bers of

Tep­per’s party, Tep­per ap­peared drunk and nev­er iden­ti­fied him­self as a po­lice of­ficer be­fore bran­dish­ing a 9mm semi­auto­mat­ic hand­gun.

Pick­lo test­i­fied that Tep­per poin­ted the gun at him and at Pick­lo’s broth­er An­thony be­fore set­ting his aim on Panas. Gomez later test­i­fied that she nev­er saw any­one at­tack Tep­per.

In­stead, she said, “he poin­ted it at every­one. He was wav­ing it around. He told every­one to back the (ex­plet­ive) up.”

The jury also heard that just be­fore Tep­per pulled the trig­ger, a de­fi­ant Panas, lean­ing against a play­ground fence across the street from Tep­per’s home, raised his hands and yelled, “What, are you go­ing to (ex­plet­ive) shoot me?”

Lt. Mi­chael Young, one of the first po­lice in­vest­ig­at­ors on the scene, test­i­fied that he smelled an odor of al­co­hol on Tep­per’s breath when he came upon him in the back of a po­lice cruis­er.

A Breath­alyz­er test ad­min­istered to Tep­per at 1:09 a.m., roughly two hours after the shoot­ing, de­term­ined that his blood-al­co­hol level was 0.047 per­cent.

Dur­ing Young’s testi­mony, pro­sec­utor Barry read a doc­u­ment that noted a po­lice tox­ic­o­lo­gist had de­term­ined Tep­per’s blood-al­co­hol level was about 0.077 at the time of the shoot­ing, just un­der the leg­al lim­it for driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence.

Dur­ing emo­tion­al testi­mony on Fri­day, Fe­li­cia Tep­per said she wit­nessed sev­er­al men beat­ing her fath­er, but that she nev­er saw him take out a gun.

Wit­nesses from both sides have de­scribed the scene in front of Tep­per’s house as chaot­ic, with as many as 20 to 30 people in­volved in fights.

The ver­sion of Tep­per’s 19-year-old daugh­ter con­curred with that of Ra­mona Sed­don, Fe­li­cia’s aunt and moth­er of Joseph Cham­bers, who told the jury that Tep­per iden­ti­fied him­self as a po­lice of­ficer on two oc­ca­sions be­fore the shoot­ing.

Both wo­men said that Tep­per im­plored the groups to dis­perse from the front of his home be­fore he was phys­ic­ally as­saul­ted. Wit­nesses for the de­fense also test­i­fied that Tep­per had blood on his face at the time of the shoot­ing, in­dic­at­ing to them that he must have been punched at some point.

ldquo;Frank Tep­per had a bloody lip and was try­ing to break up a fight,” at­tor­ney Perri told the jury dur­ing his own open­ing state­ment. “There was no time to think about po­lice dir­ect­ives.”

“Billy Panas and Frank Tep­per stood face to face, not three feet apart from each oth­er,” pro­sec­utor Barry told the jury. “Rather than just let­ting the kid be a wise ass, he pulled the trig­ger and shot him.” ••

Man­aging ed­it­or Hay­den Mit­man con­trib­uted to this story.

Re­port­er Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com 

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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