Monday, September 16, 2013

Hell In A North Philadelphia Row House

By George Anastasia

Nine years later, Joe Finley still remembered.

Testifying at the racketeering-murder trial of drug kingpin Kaboni Savage back in April, Finley told a jury what he was thinking as he entered a burning row house in the 3200 block of North Sixth Street around 5 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2004.

"This is what hell looks like," the 28-year Philadelphia Fire Department veteran said.

"The whole room was like a way that I hope I never get to know. But it seemed like it was ... hell. That's what it would remind you of. It was like being in hell. The whole room had this eerie glow to it."

Finley was wearing protective, fire retardant bunker gear, an air pack and a mask and camera that allowed him to see images through the smoke and fire. A ladderman working out of the fire house at Front and Luzerne Streets, he was the first one through the door of the two-story house. His job was to look for people and hopefully bring them out alive.

When the first trucks arrived, he said, the house was fully involved.

"You rarely see them this bad," he told the jury. 

"A ladderman is basically rescue," he explained. His primary duties were "rescue and ventilation."

"You got to get the place opened up," Finley said. "You got to get the hot gases out of there and the smoke which allows the engine men to come and put the fire out. The heat has to have somewhere to go. So you have to break windows, open up the roof. But primarily it's search and rescue."

But in this fire, there would be no rescue. In this fire, there were only murder victims.

Six people, two women and four children, died in the blaze along with the family pit bull. The fire, an arson set by drug underworld hitmen, has been described by law enforcement authorities as one of the most brutal and senseless examples of witness intimidation in Philadelphia history.

Kaboni Savage, 38, was convicted of those six homicides and six others by the jury that heard testimony from Finley and dozens of others during a four-month trial that ended in June.

Savage, according to testimony and evidence, ordered the arson from prison where he was awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges. The row house was the home of the mother of a former associate who had begun cooperating. The jury sentenced Savage to death, the first federal death sentence ever imposed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He is appealing.

His sister, Kidada, 31, also convicted during that trial, was scheduled to be sentenced today before Judge R. Barclay Surrick, but her sentencing is now on hold while she arranges to hire a new defense attorney. Known as "Da" or "Li'l Sis" in the drug underworld her brother dominated, Kidada Savage was convicted of six counts of murder in aid of racketeering and related charges for helping set up the arson. She faces a mandatory life sentence.

Authorities said the firebombing could not have been carried out without Kidada Savage's involvement. They said she plotted the arson attack with her brother, relaying messages from him to a hitman; that she showed the hitman where the house was located, and that she promised to pay him $5,000 for the job.

The hitman, Lamont Lewis, testified for the government in the case in a plea deal that could result in a 40-year prison sentence. He said he recruited his cousin, Robert Merritt, to help with the arson. Merritt, convicted of conspiracy, is to be sentenced at a later date.

Lewis, an admitted drug dealer and user and confessed murderer, told the jury that neither he nor Merritt knew there were children in the house when they broke down the front door and used two cans of gasoline to set the house ablaze.

A burly, tattooed enforcer for the Savage organization, Lewis told the jury that he confronted Kidada Savage after he heard news reports that four children, ranging in age from 15 month to 15 years, had died in the blaze.

Lewis said he was "upset" and angrily asked Kidada why "she didn't tell me there were gonna be kids in that house."

Her response, prosecutors alleged, was as cold and heartless as the words of her brother.

"Fuck'em," Lewis said she told him.

The victims were all members of Eugene "Twin" Coleman's family. Coleman, who also testified for the prosecution, began cooperating with the FBI after he, Savage and a dozen others were indicted in a 2004 drug trafficking case.

Savage, a former professional boxer, used fear, intimidation and murder to operate a multi-million dollar North Philadelphia cocaine distribution network, authorities said. Witness intimidation was one of the ways he maintained order and thwarted investigators.

It was, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gallagher said, "a scorched earth" approach.

Eight of the 12 homicides in the case were tied to witness intimidation. One victim, Tybius "Tib" Flowers, like Savage a boxer, was killed days before he was to testified against Savage in a Common Pleas Court murder trial.

Savage was acquitted after Flowers, the District Attorney's key witness, was killed.

In the trial earlier this year, the jury heard dozens of secretly recorded conversation in which Savage ranted about those who cooperated with authorities (see for audio of several Savage tapes).

The jury also heard a cryptic phone call on Oct. 8, 2004, in which Savage, then imprisoned at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, first spoke with Kidada and then with Lewis. The phone call, authorities said, set the firebombing in motion.

"Li'l Sis tell you?" Savage asked Lewis after he picked up the phone in the home on Darien Street where Kidada and her mother, Barbara, were living. Kaboni called the home frequently from the FDC. Kidada had told Lewis to come by that afternoon to talk with her brother.

When Lewis told Kaboni Savage that he had not spoken with Kidada yet, Savage told him. "She gonna tell you when you get off the phone ... You gonna feel it when she say it."

Savage then encouraged Lewis, telling him, "You're the only motherfucker that's gonna go hard."

Lewis said he knew that meant committing murder and he said he was ready.

"That's right, all the way dog," he said on the tape played for the jury. Later, adding, "I'll be the last man standing. Whatever it takes."

After the phone call, Lewis said, Kidada Savage told him what her brother wanted him to do and drove him a few blocks to North 6th and pointed out the home of Marcella Coleman, Eugene Coleman's mother.

Lewis said Kidada told him that Marcella, a prison guard, and another of her grown sons might be in the house. But he said she never mentioned any children.

Joe Finley said he didn't know what to expect when he made his way up the stairs of the row house as other firefighters poured water on the blaze. It was dark and smokey, but the infra-red camera allowed him to see images.

He went into the first bedroom and didn't see anyone.

Maybe everyone got out, he thought.

Then he moved down the hallway to the next bedroom. It was another level of hell.

"First bedroom was clear," he told the jury, "and I then proceeded down the hallway to the next bedroom and again, using the TIC, thermal imaging camera, I went inside...and that is when through the camera I could see a body of a woman. I didn't know it was a woman, actually. I saw a person that was kneeling basically ... and had her or his -- this person's body over the bed like such."

With that Finley demonstrated how the person had his or her arms and upper torso over the bed, "Like she was kneeling down to pray," he said.

Or, as prosecutors would note, shielding someone from the fire.

Sometimes the camera plays tricks on you in the smoke and dark, Finley said as he continued his story. Sometimes you need to take a different look, so Finley reached for his flashlight which was hanging from a hook on his chest. He wanted to get a closer look.

That's when he saw the second victim in the room.

"I saw the leg of -- a little baby leg sticking out from under the body of ... what I found out later was a woman," Finley said. "I had to make a choice then. It just looked like the woman was dead. I didn't know, but it looked like she was dead. And I thought that is a baby, that is a baby leg. I scooped up the baby in my arms and then headed back down the -- out the hallway and then down the steps and ... out of the dwelling, the fire dwelling, with the baby in my arms."

Finley looked frantically up and down the street for an ambulance or emergency rescue team. He finally spotted the first one arriving and handed the baby off. Then he headed back into the house .... back into hell.

There would be no rescue that morning. The baby who Finley carried out was dead. The child was Damir Jenkins, the 15-month old son of Eugene Coleman. The woman who had thrown her body over the baby was Tameka Nash, 34, Coleman's cousin; but, he said from the witness stand, he considered her his sister.

In the third bedroom, firefighters found the bodies of Marcella Coleman, the 54-year-old family matriarch; Khadijah Nash, 10, Tameka's daughter; and two cousins, Sean Rodriguez, 15, and Tajh Porchea, 12.

Prosecutors, in their opening statements and closing arguments, told the jury that those living in that house never had a chance. In seconds, they said, the firebombing had turned their home into an inferno with temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees.

Finley, the first one in, told the same story.

"If there is ever a hell," he said, "this is what it looks like."

George Anastasia can be contacted at

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