Jury acquits three men of 2019 murder; two men indicted for 2016 homicide

This column is part of a weekly round-up of notable grand jury indictments and court decisions, following through on cases reported by Savannah Morning News public safety reporter Drew Favakeh. If there are cases you’re curious about, email Drew at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.

Three men acquitted in 2019 homicide

On Feb. 6, the Chatham County Jury acquitted Kelvin Hamilton, Kenneth Scott and Alajuakee Solomon in the murder of 25-year-old Torri Sterling, who was shot and killed on Dec. 22, 2019, at West 37th and Whitaker streets.

A fourth person connected to the case, Atravien Richardson, accepted a plea deal on charges of aggravated assault and tampering with evidence.

In a phone call interview, Sterling’s sister, Brittaney Sterling, said she believed “the jury was incompetent.” One of the jurors, she said, was dismissed by the court because they were sleeping. Another was dismissed by the court for making inappropriate remarks to the presiding judge.

“I’m not saying that it wasn’t a fair trial, but I am saying the jury team was incompetent…I just don’t think it was a good selection,” said Sterling.

The District Attorney’s Office did not respond to questions by publication time, and the trial transcripts are not yet available.

However, other documents, including a search warrant application by Savannah Police, suggest the shooting resulted from a case of mistaken identity, tied to a drug dealing gang that targeted the wrong person when Sterling was shot and killed.

Sterling had picked up two friends from Heritage Place Apartments on West 36th Street. After an evening out, he was driving his friends back to their apartment when gunfire erupted around 37th Street. Sterling crashed into a light pole at the intersection of Whitaker and Barnard streets.

A breakthrough in the investigation occurred when an anonymous person dropped an envelope at the front desk of SPD headquarters. Inside the envelope were three Instagram photos of Hamilton, Solomon and Scott. Written on each of the photos were their nicknames: Weeba, Kee and Smoke, respectively. Accompanying the photos was a written note, which said that Weeba and Smoke were paid by Kee to kill someone, but they shot the wrong person when they killed Sterling.

Over time, the detectives uncovered more evidence, including .40 caliber ammunition in Hamilton’s bedroom, similar to the 13 .40-caliber shell casings found at the crime scene. Phone records showed that Hamilton had been texting with his brother, Solomon, in the days leading up to the murder, although he hadn’t texted him on the day of the murder or afterwards.

Using the phone records, detectives also tied Solomon’s phone to the murder scene, at the time the murder occurred. Additionally, a Gray Chevrolet Silverado truck spotted in surveillance footage matched a truck reported stolen six hours earlier by Richardson. Solomon’s phone traveled to Turtle Creek Apartments, where detectives the Silverado truck was dumped before two other people, Thomas Schmidt and Whitley Petrea, drove it to Brooklet, Georgia.

In an interview with the detective, Schmidt said he and Petrea were supposed to retrieve and get rid of the truck for Petrea’s “plug,” slang for a person who sells drugs at a high quantity. In a photographic lineup, Petrea positively identified Solomon as his “plug.” When Solomon was detained by police officers, officers found him to have $4,500 in three large stacks in his pocket and three different cell phones.

“They were out prowling the streets of Savannah, looking for another gentleman. My brother had a similar car, and that’s what it was: a mistake,” said Brittaney Sterling.

Two men indicted for the 2016 murder of Hannah Brown

On March 1, the Chatham County Grand Jury indicted Gilberto Mojica-Ravelo and Rakeem Carlton for malice murder, among other felony charges, stemming from an incident that took place in 2016, when Hannah Brown was shot and killed on New Castle Street.

Brown was returning home from work ― her second job ― when she was caught in the middle of gunfire tied to gang activity, according to the recently unsealed indictment. The car was parked, her daughter sitting in the backseat, when Brown was shot and killed.

Mojica-Ravelo is the suspected shooter, according to the indictment. At the time of the shooting, Mojica-Ravelo and Carlton were in the same street gang, the Gangster Disciples, according to court transcripts.

Mojica-Ravelo and Carlton both have a criminal history.

In 2016, two days before Mojica-Ravelo allegedly shot and killed Brown, Carlton shot at five people, investigators allege. In 2018, Mojica-Ravelo was convicted of trafficking ecstasy, for which he was sentenced to five years and six months in prison followed by four years and six months on probation.

In 2017, a grand jury indicted Carlton for possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute but dropped the charges at least in part because he was a first-time offender. In 2019, Carlton was sentenced to three years’ probation for possession of a controlled substance. In the same case, prosecutors dropped another charge, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

A motion hearing for the case is scheduled for May 9.

Mario Wallace remains out on bond

On Feb. 28, prosecutors dropped their request to revoke Mario Wallace’s bond, allowing him to remain out on bond while on trial for the 2021 shooting death of Rajah Young, 26, in the parking lot of the Jennifer Ross Soccer Complex on Sallie Mood Drive following a youth soccer game.

After one month and a half in jail for the murder charges, Wallace’s attorney claimed his client was not guilty and was not a flight risk. On Dec. 6, 2021, Superior Court Judge Lisa Colbert granted Wallace bond. As a condition of the bond agreement, Wallace was required to remain on house arrest and could not leave except for work, medical appointments, court appearances and attorney visits.

On Feb. 2, 2022, a Chatham County grand jury indicted Wallace on murder charges. Three months later, according to the Chatham County District Attorney’s office, Wallace not only violated his bond, Savannah Police detectives alleged that he was present at the commission of another murder.

In December, prosecutors requested the court revoke Wallace’s bond. Savannah Police investigators said that Wallace was seen on video as a passenger in a car on May 8, 2022, when the driver shot two people around 2:30 am at the intersection of Bull and Broughton streets. One of the people injured later died from gunshot wounds.

“His presence at the scene suggests, albeit mere presence, that the defendant is a risk to reoffend and a danger to the community,” Brian W. DeBlasiis, assistant district attorney, noted in the motion to revoke Wallace’s bond.

There are no hearings scheduled yet in the case moving forward.

Taylor James Holbus granted bond

On Feb. 27, a father charged with multiple murder in the death of his infant child was granted a $10,000 bond by a Chatham County superior court judge.

Taylor James Holbus and Sara Ashley Jopling were indicted by the grand jury on Dec. 7, 2022, for second-degree murder, in the death of their daughter. They were arrested and taken into custody on Dec. 30, 2022.

According to court documents, Holbus and Jopling’s infant daughter was found unresponsive by paramedics on Oct. 15, 2021.

In a motion for bond filed on Jan. 13, Holbus’s attorney wrote that, among other reasons, Holbus did not pose a risk for fleeing, citing the fact that Holbus was available for 10 months after the incident in question and prior to the charges being brought.

The court will revoke Holbus’ bond if he uses alcohol or drugs. Upon immediate release, Holbus must be evaluated for substance abuse treatment. His bond order requires him to stay at his Port Wentworth home, and abide by a 9 pm to 6 am curfew. He also isn’t allowed to be in the presence of any child under the age of 18, unless it is his own child, in which case the visit must be outside of his own home and must be supervised by the child’s legal guardian.

An incident report and the toddler’s obituary painted a picture of Jopling and Holbus as grieving parents, whereas prosecutors accuse them of murdering their infant daughter.

“It’s alleged that [Jopling] committed the offense of cruelty to a child in the second degree where the defendant caused the alleged victim excessive physical and mental pain by ‘exposing’ the victim to Fentanyl, which caused the death of the victim,” according to a court document filed by Jopling’s attorney.

In a special demurrer filed in late February, Jopling’s attorney, public defender Robert Attridge, is arguing that the term “exposing” is confusing, and as such, the defense is not able to prepare a counterargument. Attridge is requesting a more definite statement as to the alleged facts and the alleged legal violation committed by Jopling.

On Feb. 16, Jopling also had a bond hearing, but it is not clear from the court filings as to whether the judge granted her bond. There are no hearings scheduled yet in either case.

Drew Favakeh is the public safety reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: In Session: Chatham County jury acquits three men of 2019 murder

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