Twenty-two-year-old James Ellis was shot eight to nine times while
driving a Buick LeSabre last June, causing him to crash into a parked
car on the 1000 block of Glenwood Street in Fairhill.
Investigators found Ellis lying in a pool of blood next to the car. They also recovered a fully-loaded Taurus 9mm handgun on the blood-covered driver's
seat and, in the door handle, 15 packets of crack cocaine and five
Ellis was tight-lipped about the incident. He later testified before a
grand jury that he found the Buick for sale on Craigslist. He told the court that after taking it for a test drive, he and the seller, who Ellis did not know, sat in the car as they finished the transaction.
Ellis told the jury that as he took from his pocket $2,000 – money he claimed he saved up over 18 months while cutting hair in his mother's basement – the unknown man pulled
the 9mm from beneath the seat and shot him as the two struggled over the weapon.
But, according to the first officer on the scene, the only words Ellis ever spoke to police were, "help me."
How to stop 'stop snitching'
The grand jury into Ellis' shooting was convened as part of what District Attorney Seth Williams called "a
bold initiative with the police department" aimed at reducing gun
violence by more aggressively pursuing charges against uncooperative witnesses – even if the shootings they witnessed were their own. "We're going to try to use grand juries
as much as possible to indict defendants that are bringing violence to
our streets," Williams said.
"The charges against James Ellis hopefully
are sending a message about the 'no snitching' culture in the city of
Philadelphia," he said. "This is a man who was shot multiple times
and miraculously lived. Instead of making the most of his second
chance, he chose to repeatedly lie."
Ellis' name came up during a series of meetings in which officials from the district attorney's office and police department broke the city down into six areas and pinpointed repeat
violent offenders in each. "James Ellis was identified as one of those who causes the most gun violence in the city," Williams said.
Prosecutors have vowed to proactively pursue these types of offenders by thoroughly investigating currently-shelved unsolved cases in which they are suspects and aggressively prosecuting them for lesser offenses like child support violations and parking tickets. Williams hope the effort will help corral the danger the criminals pose to the public at large.
"Mr. Ellis is a convicted drug dealer and as a result of him traveling
around city with drugs and guns in his car, he puts innocent children at
risk," Williams said.
In the four years since he turned 18, Ellis has racked up numerous arrests with charges ranging from drug offenses to escape, according to court documents. He has twice been held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate.
"He considered this the cost of doing business," Chief the DA's Gun Violence Task Force Bryan Lentz said of Ellis' shooting. "One of the points of the indictment is he
may consider this a cost of doing the business he's in, which is guns and drugs, but
the neighborhood doesn't have to consider this a cost of him doing business."
Reviewing the evidence
Once the grand jury was convened, the evidence in Ellis' case told its own story, investigators said. Detectives testified two fired bullets were found inside
the Buick Ellis was driving, but the lack of casings meant that he had either been shot
with a different gun than the 9mm recovered inside or in a
911 calls from that night reported gunshots on the 2800 block of North
8th Street, about four blocks away from where Ellis crashed the Buick. Ellis denied ever being on North 8th.
But a source told investigators
that Ellis had actually been circling that exact block when he was shot by associates of a dead man, killed the year before "as a result of something
Ellis had done," a detective testified.
Less than three months later, three innocent bystanders were killed by gunfire on the same block. Investigators said they believed the gunman was an associate of Ellis' and his intended target was Ellis' shooter.
A detective testified that the associate believed to be responsible has numerous
addresses on file – all right around the 2800 block of North 8th
"One of the points the District Attorney has made is criminals
shooting at criminals result in innocent deaths in violent neighborhoods here in
the city of Philadelphia," Lentz said.
He said that Ellis and many of his associates were tied together by membership in a drug gang called the Platter Boyz. "Platter Boys is a drug operation that operates out of the eastern area of the city of Philadelphia," Lentz said. "Numerous members of that organization are now in custody and face
serious charges ranging from narcotics cases to shootings."
As far as his tale about purchasing the car, several things came to light indicating he owned it for some time before he was shot.
An officer testified that he pulled Ellis over in the Buick 11 days before the shooting for a broken taillight, handcuffing him when warrants turned up during a search of his name but freeing him after it turned out they were no longer active.
The man listed on the car's registration testified that he sold the car to Ellis in a Craigslist transaction that occurred in Northeast Philadelphia weeks before the shooting and signed the back of the title under the condition Ellis properly register it later because he did not have a driver's license at the time.
In a recording played before the grand jury of a phone call Ellis placed from prison a month after he
was arrested for the gun and drugs found in the Buick, he can be heard
speaking to another inmate as the line connects. "You think they'll let me go, though?" he allegedly says. "If I'm saying I got robbed..."
Social media shocker
Detectives obtained a search warrant for Ellis' Facebook account about six months after his shooting. There, they found some of the most damning information related to his case.
Photographs showing him holding large stacks of money seemed to indicate that he was not, as he had originally testified, a hard-up barber.
Posts pointed toward the same, with Ellis allegedly making frequent references to making money on the streets – not in his mother's basement. "I'm tryna get back 2 da money I been on ice 4 like 3 months anybody dat know me know dis aint me I build a big n different bankroll everyday," read one written in the months after the shooting.
"Man its money n da streets not n da house cuzn I can't do it I gotta get back n da mix," stated another.
"Mr. Ellis just wanted to get back to business,"said Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock. "He complains about pain from being shot seven or eight times, but his main goal after he was shot was getting back out and making more money on the streets."
In Facebook messages, Ellis allegedly stated he was robbed of $15,000, not $2,000 and that someone ran up to his car and began shooting in from the outside, not that it was a botched car sales deal.
The correspondences also allude to other possible criminal activity: one particularly chilling message Ellis received read, "NEED 2 ARMED AGENTS FOR A POSSIBLE WEEK LONG JOB CONTACT ME [number]"
In the message that most directly contradicts Ellis' grand jury testimony, he allegedly berates a man he believes set him up to be shot. "Listen cuzn idk if u my man or not you running around with da n---a who hit then u knew what was going on da whole time," he wrote. "Like if you was really my homie u wouldve seen what da situation was n holla at us bull hit me 4 nothing ... I wouldve dropped main man b4 he hit me ..."
As a result of the grand jury, Ellis is charged with perjury,
false reports and hindering apprehension on top of the guns and drugs
offenses he was already facing. But now he is on the run. Anyone with information about its whereabouts is asked to call 215-686-TIPS.
In the meantime, Williams hopes that the case will set a new precedent for prosecuting those who don't cooperate with police and using the investigation of new forms of communication, like social media, to back up those prosecutions.
He said that, while he realizes the perjury and related charges are misdemeanors, "Hopefully it's significant because we want criminals to know and Philadelphians to
know that we've heard their message that the gun violence is enough. We
want folks to know when there is gun violence, too many people are caught in the
crossfire and too many witnesses are lying or not talking."
As of yesterday morning, there were 173 homicides in Philadelphia this year. 142 of them were shooting deaths.