WEST CHESTER >> The pain felt by the family of murder victim Joshua Mitchell was on full, tearful display Tuesday in the Common Pleas courtroom where the man who shot and killed him in a dispute over a drug robbery in Phoenixville pleaded guilty to the crime.
“He was supposed to say goodbye to me,” said Jenny Hampton, Mitchell’s grandmother, told Judge Patrick Carmody in recounting the relationship she had with the 20-year-old, whom she raised from the time he was a baby. “I wasn’t supposed to say goodbye to him.”
Mitchell’s aunt, Beth Trivelpiece, took Carmody step-by-step through the agonizing evening when she found that her nephew had been shot, and died in the Phoenixville Hospital, even though doctors told her they had done all they could to keep him alive.
“It was very difficult dropping clothes off at the funeral home that his mother picked out for Josh to wear in his casket,” Trivelpiece remembered through tears, as his killer, Keyon Le-Shawn Carpenter sat nearby, listening impassively. “Not clothes for his wedding, but for (his) funeral.”
Carpenter, 22, of Phoenixville, pleaded guilty to charges of third-degree murder, persons not to possess firearms, altering a firearm serial number, and receiving stolen property. A felon with a burglary conviction from Montgomery County, Carpenter was sentenced to a total of 30 to 60 years in state prison.
His trial was set to begin with jury selection on Friday in Carmody’s courtroom. The prosecution, led by Deputy District Attorney Michelle Frei and Assistant District Attorney John McCaul, had sought a conviction for first-degree murder, a crime that would have seen a mandatory life sentence without parole.
The murder in September had been witnessed by several people when it took place in the open air space known as Children’s Plaza on Bridge Street in the borough. But as Carmody noted in remarks in the courtroom, as well as in a pre-trial ruling, it had also been captured on surveillance video. The prosecution intended to show at least one version of the shooting at trial.
Frei, in comments to the judge, noted that Mitchell’s death had been more than a normal devastating blow to the family. He was the second of Hampton’s grandson’s to be murdered. Stephen Mitchell was shot once in the chest during an apparent gun exchange in Pottstown in June 2014. Two men were arrested for that crime.
“There are no words to describe the grief” the family has suffered, Frei said.
According to the facts of the case that Frei laid out in detail for the court, Carpenter had come by the weapon he used to shoot and kill Mitchell — a former friend — on Sept. 28 through a burglary that took place just two days prior. A Phoenixville resident reported that a .40 caliber Taurus semi-automatic had been stolen from his home.
Carpenter got the weapon on Sept. 26. The following day, he took a girlfriend to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks near the Schuylkill River in the borough and showed her how to shoot the weapon, even as he took “target practice” at some beer cans and water bottles.
That night, Carpenter and another man made arrangements to purchase marijuana from Mitchell outside the Pickering Creek Inn. Instead of paying for the drugs, Carpenter drew the .40 caliber handgun and pointed it at Mitchell, robbing him of the marijuana and running away.
Mitchell and his girlfriend, Dixie Aycock, were on a double date with friends the next evening around 9 p.m. when they encountered Carpenter inside a Bridge Street pizza shop. They tried to avoid him, but Carpenter confronted Mitchell in the Children’s Plaza. During the argument that ensued over Carpenter’s robbery, Mitchell slapped Carpenter and Carpenter drew the handgun and cocked it, pointing it at Mitchell. Frei said that Aycock stepped between the two and told Carpenter that he would have to go through her first to get to Mitchell.
As witnesses watched, Carpenter raised the gun and fired a shot, so close to Aycock and another woman that they temporarily lost hearing. Others in the plaza ran for cover.
Mitchell turned to run, and Carpenter chased him down, holding the weapon. Mitchell apparently stopped and turned, and Carpenter fired a shot that tore through his chest near his collarbone. He collapsed. Aycock and the others ran to Mitchell’s side, and police responded quickly. The wounded man was taken to the hospital, and died there around 10:35 p.m.
Carpenter, who fled the scene after shooting Mitchell, was captured in Philadelphia on Sept. 29. He gave a statement to Chester County Detectives James Ciliberto and Keith Cowdright, in which Frei said he admitted shooting Mitchell.
Frei said that even though the two men were having an argument prior to the shot being fired and that Mitchell had been somewhat of an aggressor in the standoff, Carpenter could not have claimed self-defense in the case because he was not permitted to possess a firearm due to his earlier felony conviction.
Carmody, after hearing from Mitchell’s family members, asked Carpenter whether he had anything to say. Leaving the table at which his attorneys, Assistant Public Defenders Peter Jurs and Nellie Verduci, sat silently, Carpenter spoke briefly at the courtroom podium.
“I know an apology can’t bring him back,” Carpenter said in a low voice. “No mother or grandmother should have to bury their family. This was a bad situation, and I lost my cool. I really messed up.”
Carmody also heard from Aycock, who said she and Mitchell had been dating for two years after meeting through Columbia Southern University, an online school.
“Throughout the whole relationship he was my main concern, and I prayed for him every single night,” she said, reading from a letter to Carmody she wrote. “I wanted God to love and protect him the same way I did.
“Josh was loved by so many people,” she continued. “He used to always tell me, ‘When I come into someone’s life, it changes forever.’ He wasn’t lying. Josh has changed lives, and no amount of jail time can reverse the pain his death has caused so many people.”
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.