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Jury weighs fate of double-murder defendant

Steve Kellam accused of masterminding robberies
A jury now deliberates charges against Steven Kellam in connection with a 2014 double homicide. FILE PHOTO
September 22, 2017

Closing statements in the murder trial of Steve Kellam painted two pictures of the man: One, a calculating general who ordered the robbery and execution of two men prosecutors say were drug dealers, the other, a man who is now blamed for bad decisions made by his friends and family.

A jury of 10 women and four men - two are alternates - began deliberating Sept. 22 on Kellam's case, 47 charges that include two counts of first-degree murder, robbery, home invasion and racketeering.

The state's case against Kellam combines three trials in one. The 36-year-old was charged for what prosecutors said was his role in the January 2014 murders of Cletis Nelson and William Hopkins, two men found shot to death in a Harmons Hill Road home. He is also accused in connection with two separate home invasions in December 2014.

Prosecutor Martin Cosgrove told the jury that Kellam worked like a general to assemble and deploy young relatives to work for him.

“They didn't have fathers, and he was a father figure to them,” Cosgrove said. “Kellam had this organization to make money, and how did they make money? They robbed drug dealers.”

In all counts against Kellam, he is charged as an accomplice except for the charges of racketeering and conspiracy.

Racketeering hinges on whether the jury agrees that Kellam was the mastermind behind the January 2014 murders and robbery, and also the attempted robberies in December 2014.

Pointing to Kellam, a stocky man who wore a pressed blue shirt and black-rimmed Oakley glasses throughout the trial, Cosgrove told the jury, “There's never been testimony that he went into any of these houses. He didn't. He had other people do it.”

Although both the prosecution and defense agree that Kellam never entered any of the three homes for which he faces charges, they disagree on the role he played. For the prosecution, he ordered each hit.

For defense attorney Patrick Collins, it was others - some who testified for the state in hopes of reduced charges and shorter sentences - who were the real perpetrators. He referred to conflicting testimony given by Shamir Stratton and Richard Robinson, both serving prison sentences in the murders and robberies, and Jackie Heverin and Rachel Rentoul, who are in prison for helping plan the fatal robbery.

“What would a person do to get 10 years of freedom?” Collins asked the jury. “Deal after deal after deal happens. That's what you should consider.”

Earlier in the trial, Collins used wire-tapped phone recordings of Kellam, Robinson, Rhamir Waples, Jackson Vanvorst and Kellam's brother, John Snead, to show Kellam's low level of involvement in the crimes.

In the longest wiretap recording, Robinson tells Kellam how he lost a .38-caliber handgun at his mother’s house in Philadelphia. Vanvorst later testified he had given this gun to Robinson, and prosecutors say the gun was used in two home invasions.

Possibly the most important call for the prosecution was one between Snead and Kellam, in which the they discuss Delaware State Police detectives visiting the South Philadelphia homes of Robinson and Waples. During the call, Snead is highly agitated while Kellam remains cool and calm. Later, prosecutors played a call between Snead and Waples, in which Waples admits to being shaken up by the visit from police.

“My back’s against the wall,” Waples said.

During the call, Snead pressed Waples on what police were asking him, and the two indicated that they knew that Stratton had been the one who had talked, referring to “that mf’er pretending like he’s driving trucks.” Stratton testified that he had been working on getting his commercial driver’s license.

Collins further discounted Kellam's role in the murders by describing how Kellam laughed off as stupid a fight between Hopkins and Snead that precipitated the murders. In the invasion of the home of Azel Foster, a working man whose drug dealings were 10 years ago, Collins questioned why Kellam would plan to rob someone who obviously is not a drug dealer.

“If Steve is such a general, such a mastermind, why would he pick Azel Foster at all?” he asked.

Sussex County Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves presided over the nearly three-week trial. As he began reading 63 pages of jury instructions Sept. 21, he told the jury the defendant was guilty. Simultaneously, both prosecutors snapped their heads toward Collins, who promptly asked to approach the bench. Seconds later, Graves corrected himself and told the jury that the defendant is presumed not guilty of the charges. Graves then continued with more than an hour of instructions. “Hopefully, I didn't make a mistake like I did in the first couple of minutes,” he later told the jury.

Kellam is the last man to be tried in the 2014 double homicide that took the lives of Nelson and Hopkins. Five other men were charged in the murders: Waples, 17 at the time of the murders, was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison; Damon Bethea was found not guilty; and Stratton and Robinson took plea deals agreeing to testify. Carlton Gibbs took a plea and was released after officials said he had little to do with the murders.

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