A Philadelphia judge has approved a third-degree murder charge against a 21-year-old bike courier accused of fatally stabbing a real estate developer this summer, advancing to trial a case that has sparked citywide debate about the role of class and race in the killing near Rittenhouse Square.
Prosecutors Tuesday called two witnesses to the stand who described the events leading up to the death of Sean Schellenger, 37, who sustained a 6-inch wound in the back — allegedly at the hands of bike courier Michael White — following a traffic-related spat with racial overtones.
Witness William Jordan recalled leaving the Center City restaurant he owns, Lou Bird’s, on the night of July 12 and going to the restaurant Rogue. He parked his black Mercedes near the upscale bistro. Once inside, he ordered a vodka-cranberry drink and ran into Schellenger, whom he had known for a decade.
Jordan and Schellenger and another friend, Uri Jacobson, then decided to drive to Happy Rooster, a bar on 16th and Samson streets owned by Jordan’s wife.
But the trio never arrived.
Instead, an altercation over slow-moving traffic late that summer night in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods set in motion a struggle that ended with one man dead and a bystander charged with murder. Loved ones of both men are still struggling to understand how the episode so quickly turned violent.
It started with a traffic jam
A beige car parked in the middle of 17th Street was blocking the Mercedes’ progress, so Schellenger got out of the car to have a few words with the driver, who witnesses say was black.
Shortly after, White, who is black, biked by and somehow got caught up in the discussion involving Schellenger, who is white, and the driver of the stalled vehicle.
Public defender Dan Stevenson, who is representing White, said Schellenger yelled out, “I’m going to beat the black off of you,” a statement prosecutor Anthony Voci called “a complete fabrication” after the hearing.
While the clash of words remains in dispute, one thing is not contested: Schellenger, a former Penn State quarterback, charged after White, who was backing away into a nearby alleyway.
White, moments earlier, was rooting around in his backpack and pulled something out.
“A knife,” testified Jordan, choking back tears and clutching a box of tissues from the witness stand Tuesday. He said White screamed out, “Do you want this? You don’t want this,” as he wielded the knife over Schellenger’s head.
Jordan, who watched from his car, saw Schellenger grab White by the waist and pick him up. While midair, White stabbed Schellenger once in the back, he said. Schellenger dropped.
Jordan, now out of the car and looking at his friend lying facedown in blood on the ground, told the court White looked “shocked” just before he ran from the scene.
These facts were largely confirmed by eyewitness Erik Peterson who viewed the scene from the windows of the restaurant Spice Finch, where he was just finishing up his shift as a server. Peterson said Schellenger “tackled” White, and he saw the knife White held, but he does not remember seeing Schellenger being stabbed.
Voci, who is prosecuting the case and is the chief of the Philadelphia district attorney’s homicide unit, said toxicology reports show that Schellenger had cocaine in his system in addition to a blood-alcohol level of 0.199, more than twice the legal limit.
“I think it’s difficult to say how alcohol impacts a particular individual,” Voci told reporters after the hearing, downplaying the role those substances played in the deadly interaction. “I think 0.199 looks different to someone who is 140 pounds soaking wet than it does someone who is 235 pounds.”
White’s defense lawyers asked Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden to reduce the third-degree murder charge to involuntary manslaughter. But after listening to the witnesses, Hayden said it is more likely than not that the events transpired as prosecutors allege, so he refused to reduce the charge.
White is also facing a count of possessing an instrument of a crime, a misdemeanor.
Hayden did, however, agree to modify White’s bail conditions, lifting his house arrest in exchange for twice-weekly check-ins with the court to allow him to more freely get to and from his work.
White’s next court appearance will be Nov. 20 for an arraignment.
Linda Schellenger, Sean’s mother, said after the hearing that she was pleased the judge refused to reduce the charges. “Justice was served today,” she said.
Public defender Stevenson, in his final argument, characterized Schellenger as a “very large, very drunk, rich white man using cocaine.”
Voci said outside the courthouse that the case has nothing to do with race. Instead, he said, it is about a man who died in a struggle attempting to disarm a dangerous person.
“Half if not more of the individuals who rendered aid to Sean Schellenger after this incident were African-American,” Voci said. “That disproves any notion that this was any way racial, because if he was out there yelling and screaming racial epithets, I don’t think any person who was a minority or person of color would be rendering aid to him.”