By George Anastasia
Kenneth Lassiter was trying to park his car near the corner of 8th and Butler Streets one afternoon back in 1998 when he accidentially bumped a car already parked along the curb.
Bumped, in fact, probably isn't the right word. "Tapped" might be a better description. But this was 8th and Butler, a notorious drug corner, one of the meanest streets in North Philadelphia. And the other car was owned by Kaboni Savage, then an up-and-coming drug dealer.
Lassister, a barber from Lansdale in town to visit a friend, said he was sorry. Savage, according to witnesses, asked for money to cover the damages. Lassister was incredulous. There was hardly a scratch. Angry words were exchanged.
Then, according to one law enforcement report, Savage looked at the two men on the corner he had been talking to and asked, "Do you know this boy?" When they said they did not, Savage pulled out a gun and shot Lassiter in the stomach.
He died at Temple University Hospital a short time later.
The jury in the ongoing racketeering-murder trial of Savage, 38, and three co-defendants got a sketchy version of that homcide this afternoon by another corner boy who was there that day. Johnathon Baker, who said he was selling drugs at 8th and Butler, identified Savage as the "young guy" who got in an argument with the "old guy" (Lassiter) and pulled out a gun and shot him.
Baker said he was "too scared" to testify about the incident when Savage was tried in Common Pleas Court in 2001 for the Lassiter homicide. But Baker's drug boss, the man he said "owned" the corner, was an all too willing witness.
Tybius "Tib" Flowers was one of the two men Savage was talking to that afternoon. Flowers, like Savage, was a professional boxer who also dealt drugs. They had an uneasy alliance that was shattered that afternoon, according to law enforcment sources.
Flowers believed that Savage shot Lassister in part to attract law enforcement to the corner, thereby undermining Flowers' drug business. That may have been one of the reasons Flowers agreed, back in 1998, to testify against Savage and tell a jury what he had seen that day.
The account of the murder outlined in a case prepared by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is more detailed than the story Baker told the jury this afternoon. That jury will not hear from Flowers, however. He was gunned down on the same 8th and Butler Street corner in 2001 a week before he was to testify against Savage in the Lassiter homicide for the DA's Office.
Flowers was shot 15 times as he sat in his car. The Common Pleas Court case against Savage went forward the next week. Without the DA's key witness. Savage was found not guilty.
The murders of Lassister and Flowers are two of 12 listed in the pending case against Savage. Co-defendant Steven Northington is charged with being one of the men who murdered Flowers. Savage is charged with ordering the hit from prison.
Authorities say the Lassiter murder is an example of the wanton, homicidal nature of Savage. The Flowers killing, they add, is a prime example of his underworld philosophy captured in a secretly recorded conversation.
"No witness, no case," Savage once told an associate.
Witness intimidation was a key element in Savage's violent drug underworld, authorities allege. Seven of the murders in the current case, including a fire-bombing in which two women and four children were killed, are linked to witness intimidation, The firebombing victims were family members of another Savage associate who had begun cooperating against him.
Baker is expected back on the stand when the trial resumes tomorrow morning,. He will be cross-examined by Savage's lawyer.
He testified today that he identified Savage from an array of mug shots provided by Philadelphia Police several months after the Lassiter shooting. Baker said he did not know Savage at the time and identified him only as "the young guy" who was talking to Tib Flowers when Lassiter pulled up.
He said when Savage asked Lassiter for money to pay for the "damages" to his car, Lassiter said he didn't have any. Later in the heated conversation, he said, Lassiter offered to go around the corner (presumably to a friend's house) to get some cash. At that point, Baker said, "the young guy" told Lassiter to give him his car keys. Lassiter refused.
"The young guy pulled out a gun and shot him," Baker said.
Then, Baker said, the young guy "put the gun back in his waist" and he and an associate got in the car that had been bumped/tapped and drove off.
In discussing the incident several years ago and shortly after the Flowers' murder, a source in the District Attorney's Office quoted one of the other reluctant witnesses to the Lassister shooting.
"The man didn't deserve that," the witness said of the bullet Savage pumped into Lassiter's stomach.