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 fiancée. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org