The story so far: Beau Zabel, a 23-year-old aspiring teacher from Minnesota, was thrilling in his new life in Philadelphia. But that life was cut short 42 days after it began.
Like every aspect of the investigation, the grainy surveillance footage was more frustrating than fruitful. Parts were blurry beyond recognition. The killing was offscreen. The killer strolled by, head down, his face just eluding the camera. Like a taunt.
After two dead-end weeks, the footage, retrieved from a seafood stand and an auto garage, was the sole lead in the high-profile murder investigation.
Zabel had moved from his native Minnesota to South Philadelphia to teach math in the public schools six weeks before he was shot in the neck on June 15, 2008, near the Italian Market. He was walking back from his summer job at a Starbucks. He died steps from his new home.
For a brief time at least, the murder of the trusting and idealistic 23-year-old jolted a city grown callous to violence. There were headlines, anger, even introspection at the killing of a young person who came here to help.
“What Zabel slaying robs us of – his dreams gone, ours tested,” lamented one editorial.
The detectives who worked the case painstakingly pieced together a narrative of the crime. With investigative savvy, inspired hunches, and the aid of a skillful jailhouse informant, they would unravel the tale of a manipulative killer and his clueless confederate – and of Philadelphia streets where naivete can get you killed.
As the case unfolded, another young man would die. Two anguished mothers from different worlds would embrace, brought together by violence.
This story of two murders is told here in depth for the first time on the fifth anniversary of Beau Zabel’s death. It reveals the imperfect but practical workings of a criminal justice system that managed to provide a patchwork form of closure for Zabel’s family, but not without collateral damage and compromise.
The investigation continues, and a city grinds on.
The case fell to Three Squad, the dozen or so investigators, including Fetters, tasked with solving homicides during the busy overnight killing hours.
City Hall and the bosses wanted the job done, they knew. It was a black eye for a city reeling from some of the highest homicide totals in a decade. The new mayor, Michael Nutter, had promised to cut homicides in half. Now there was a dead teacher in the Italian Market area.
When Zabel’s mother, Lana Hollerud, arrived on Ellsworth Street Monday morning, children played basketball feet from where Beau had died. News crews swarmed. Beau’s blood was still in the cracks of the pavement.
“I’m sorry,” lead Detective Levi Morton told her. “Philadelphia is sorry.”
But the investigators’ initial sprint turned up little. No one had seen the actual attack. There were no suspects, little evidence. Just the blurry video and – the most common residue of an urban killing – a 9mm bullet casing.
The murder took place after midnight on a residential street. Those who glimpsed the fleeing killer from a doorway or window had only vague descriptions. Black. Medium build. Short hair. One neighbor saw a man walking from Zabel’s body, his left hand holding his T-shirt to his eyes to cover his face. Another neighbor figured the boom was a blown transformer.
No gun was recovered. Lab tests on the pocket where Zabel kept his iPod – in the chance the killer left behind a hair or fiber – found nothing. Apple couldn’t trace the iPod, even if the killer had plugged it into an iTunes account.
In the hardened idiom of homicide, Zabel’s killing was a bump in the night.
All of Three Squad ran on the case in the first crucial days.
Starbucks and others staked a $35,000 reward. America’s Most Wanted came to town.
Detectives chased a tide of bad tips:
Two guys from a halfway house on Bainbridge Street did it . . .
Three dudes in an alley on Lawrence Street were bragging about doing the teacher . . .
The boy who does robberies around Fifth and Washington . . .
Calvie from above the barbershop.
Fetters knew that when string ran out on a job, you went back to the beginning.
A stocky, round-shouldered man nearing 50 with glasses and light brown hair, Fetters was a third-generation cop. Homicide was a family business.
His father, Sgt. George “Pop” Fetters, had retired in 1978 after a heart attack. Pop had envisioned his oldest son wearing the blue and gold of the Naval Academy, not the blue and the badge.
Fetters was accepted to Annapolis, but after his father fell ill, he no longer saw himself attending college. He felt he had to earn.
He took the police test, and while awaiting the result, shipped off to Texas for a construction job. Nine months later, he was home, working at Frankford-Torresdale Hospital – running the halls with the crash cart used to revive dying patients – when the department called.
Then, old-timers had no time for rookies. One shift early on, Fetters walked up to a crowd on Thompson Street and saw a guy going wild with a bat, breaking car windows. Other cops looked on.
“What, are we waiting for him to tire out?” Fetters said, then tackled the guy. The veterans were fine with Fetters.
When Fetters got to East Detectives in 1996, a veteran told him that if he handled every case like it were family, he’d be ahead of the curve. Impossible, but Fetters got the point. He had three teenage children.
After hours of watching, he could narrate the Zabel video from memory.
Zabel buys his Mountain Dew at the vending machine against a razor-wire fence near the intersection of Eighth and Passyunk.
Zabel had walked into a trap. Pause it. Look at the intersection. It’s shaped like an X, with jutting side streets. Plenty of targets and escape routes. Two blocks from Pat’s and Geno’s, but dark, with a steady trickle of people heading home or for a cheesesteak. The shooter was perched off Eighth, hanging back near a dead-end. He could see everyone coming and going.
Zabel crosses out of camera view, heading south toward his apartment on Ellsworth. The killer hurries after. Two minutes pass. Two taxis speed by.
Beau’s dead now, in the shadows.
The killer comes hustling back into sight. His face isn’t clear, but he’s got a peculiar gait. He seems to take a little hop like every fourth step. Back on the dead-end street, he bends down, pulls something from his waistband – his gun, Fetters thinks – and puts it in a flowerpot. He peeps in a window, probably checking to see if someone saw him. He paces, trying to get a glimpse of the crime scene a block away.
He heads out of view again. Two minutes pass. Fourteen cars speed by, including a police cruiser racing to some other scene. A girl in a pink top. Finally, the shooter strolls back, stuffs whatever he hid in the pot under his shirt, and calmly takes earphones out of his pocket – Zabel’s earphones, the detectives believe from the start. He places them in his ears and saunters toward Washington Avenue.
Pause it again. Look at the back of his head when he puts in the earphones. The beginnings of a bald spot. A monk’s spot, Fetters called it. A peculiar gait. Male-pattern baldness.
Somethings in a case of nothings.
Lt. Mark Deegan knew how to work cases that had hit a wall.
Before taking over Three Squad, Deegan commanded the Special Investigation Unit, which handled cold-case murders. Thick-shouldered and bald, Deegan’s imposing presence was offset by his quiet demeanor. The 32-year veteran had a reputation for calmly steering investigations while he absorbed the pressure from above.
The cruel arithmetic of murder in Philadelphia was working against the squad. In the two weeks since Zabel’s death, Three Squad had caught seven fresh jobs. No more manpower was coming.
The brass had already sent over two plainclothes officers from South Division to work robbery details near the Italian Market, hoping to catch the killer in the act. Ten nights after Zabel’s murder, those cops interrupted a robbery at Eighth and Fitzwater. Chasing one of the attackers, Officer Mark Uffelman, the son of a slain police officer, was shot through an elbow. Those attackers, though, were ruled out in Zabel’s killing.
Deegan also requested the help of Chris Lai, a 17th District plainclothes officer. Only 30, Lai owned a reputation as one of South Philly’s most skilled street cops. Assistant district attorneys and detectives knew to call Lai when they needed something done: A reluctant witness rounded up. An address to go with a nickname. An explanation of why certain blocks were warring. Call Lai.
The 17th spanned Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. West of Broad. That was Lai’s turf. Zabel was killed on the other side of Broad, but Deegan knew it was just as likely that the killer came east looking for easy prey.
The initial investigative steps covered, Deegan saw an opportunity to refocus. He ordered a review of the previous two months of South Philadelphia gunpoint holdups, looking for robbery patterns. To solve Zabel’s killing, Deegan knew his detectives might have to solve other crimes first.
Fetters typed in the districts, dates and code for gunpoint robberies and about three dozen cases popped up. They rejected some cases outright: white and female suspects, domestic incidents.
In others, similarities emerged: Weaker victims. Especially violent attacks. The perp managing to slip away despite quick police responses, which pointed toward a getaway driver.
A case caught Fetters’ eye. A woman named Cuie Lu was robbed near Federal Street, two weeks before Zabel’s murder and only two blocks away. The suspect descriptions matched.
Lai and Homicide Detective Joe McDermott arrived at Lu’s Seventh Street walk-up. It was late and she was putting her children to sleep. A tiny woman, Lu, 35, spoke little English. When she had called 911 after the robbery, she waited five minutes before someone who spoke Chinese came to the phone.
She had tried telling her story to the policeman who responded, but he didn’t understand.
Lai, born and raised in Chinatown, spoke Mandarin and Cantonese.
She had missed her morning bus, she said, and saw a stocky man – he was about 30 – across the street in a black jacket. He pulled a gun from his waistband and yelled, “Give me the bag.” The man waved the gun at her stomach, pulling hard on her purse strap until it snapped and she fell down. The attacker ran toward Washington. He got her phone, a cracked white Samsung. When the next month’s bill arrived, Lu noticed calls made in the hours after the robbery.
Detectives zeroed in on four calls to a South Philadelphia dialysis center, including one just 17 minutes after the robbery.
Two days later, Fetters and Lai picked up Loni Gay, a 29-year-old medical technician at the center, in front of her Point Breeze rowhouse. Who had called her at work from a stolen phone?
Tyrek Taylor, her sometimes boyfriend, she said.
He called her from all different phone numbers, Loni Gay told them, because of his lifestyle. Dealing, selling – “trapping,” like the Young Jeezy song.
But she didn’t know him to carry a gun.
And that fit with what Lai knew about Taylor. On the streets around 17th and Wharton, they called him “Reek” and “Rick Ross” after the oversize rapper, because of his beard and heavy frame. He sold drugs over his phone, but he wasn’t a shooter, he was a jokester, a clown. He was way too big for the guy in the video or Lu’s robbery. But maybe the getaway driver?
Within an hour, Lai and Homicide Detective John Keen pulled up to 17th Street in an unmarked car.
“Wassup?” the 19-year-old Tyrek said through the driver’s window of his Monte Carlo.
On the seat next to him, the cracked white Samsung.
Tyrek squeezed behind the metal table in homicide interview Room B, a bland, claustrophobic space with a two-way mirror. Fetters reviewed his paperwork. Tyrek was a licensed driver with valid registration and insurance – solid makings of a getaway driver.
Fetters put the phone on the table and told Tyrek he was being questioned as part of the investigation into the murder of Beau Zabel.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tyrek told them.
The beginning of a dance.
“You sit here until the walls get tighter and tighter,” Fetters told him, “and you think.”
“I bought the phone from a smoker that rides around selling things,” Tyrek finally declared. “His name is Ant.”
“If I knew that it was taken in a robbery I wouldn’t have bought it.”
He bought phones from Ant around 17th and Wharton, he said. The morning he bought the Samsung, he had been coming from Center City and had run into Ant on his bike around 12th and Catharine. That’s why he was able to make the calls so quickly after Lu was robbed, he claimed.
Fetters could feel Tyrek weakening.
“You tell us who he is, and we’ll get this knucklehead out of the way,” Fetters said.
“They call him Ant, but I don’t know his name,” Tyrek said. “I can guess his name is Anthony. . . . If I could see a picture of him, I would show him to you.”
He gave them something. Ant was 30 or 40, about 5-foot-8, on the slender side, “no hair right here in front . . .”
Tyrek told detectives he didn’t know anything about the Zabel killing.
“Only what I saw on the news,” he said. “I heard people saying you better stay off the streets at night, cause the police are looking for who did this.”
Detectives thought Tyrek was lying, but he had been at homicide for 24 hours and they had little to hold him on. They could charge him with receiving stolen property, a misdemeanor, but that would just shut down communication with Tyrek.
By now, 17th Street would know Tyrek had been picked up. After being tossed back, perhaps Tyrek would realize cooperating with police was his best move. If nothing else, his release might stir up information somewhere else. Like shaking a snow globe.
They had to find Ant. If he existed, he was now the prime suspect in the murder of Beau Zabel.
“Tyrek, just because we’re letting you go doesn’t mean we won’t be back,” Fetters said.
Taylor left, upset to be caught up in the mess. Ant was crazy. He’d have to call him.
Let him know he didn’t tell police a thing.