Rapper Tommy Hill dies after being shot outside East Mt. Airy bar

Police tape, shattered glass and more than a dozen hastily-drawn chalk circles remained Monday morning in the Stenton Avenue parking lot where noted Philadelphia rapper and underworld denizen Tommy Hill was gunned down during what police are currently treating as a robbery turned fatal.

Hill, 36, was shot across Mt. Pleasant Avenue from the Reuben’s Marc bar around 1:30 a.m. Friday and taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center. The R.A.M. Squad group’s founding member was declared dead early Sunday morning and had organs donated to the Gift of Life Donor program.

According to police reports, Hill left without paying his tab, so a manager followed him outside. As Hill was taking money out to give to the manager, three unknown men approached and declared a robbery. The manager backed away when he saw that at least one of the three was armed.

As the other two were going through Hill’s pockets, the manager heard a shot fired, which prompted him and another bar employee to draw their weapons, police said. Gunfire was exchanged between the staffers and the alleged robbers, according to those reports, but nobody else was struck.

A bartender working Thursday into Friday said it was still crowded inside on account of it being karaoke night, so she didn’t hear the gunshots outside.

“It was really odd and random,” she said, noting that a security guard rushed inside telling her to call 911. “It kind of all happened at once.”

The crime scene

On Monday, the Rocco’s Italian Ice stand parking lot across Mt. Pleasant Avenue from the bar was littered with shattered glass – presumably from bullets striking car windows – and marks on the ground from where police found bullets and casings.

“It’s amazing no one else got hit,” said a Philadelphia homicide detective who was canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses Monday morning.

Police have not yet found any evidence to steer them away from the robbery theory, but some don’t find it amazing that Hill met this sort of end.

In life, he infuriated some within his community for going outside and allowing former mob boss Joey Merlino to help him financially get started in rap with the R.A.M. Squad. He had public spats, including one with noted Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel, and was branded a “rat” after testifying against drug dealers. His own dabbling in the drug game earned him two years in prison in the early 2000s.

“It was a hit,” said one mob watcher Monday afternoon of Hill – his birth name was John Wilson and rap name was Tommy Butta – who was raised in the Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia. “He [angered] just about everybody you possibly could.”

Hill wasn’t worried about safety

Despite those sentiments, Hill is said not to have been worried about his safety as he returned to Philadelphia regularly from Atlanta, where he moved post-incarceration and was working with up-and-coming rap acts through his 34th Floor Entertainment.

“He’d say, ‘Nobody’s going to come after me.’ He said he’d know about it if anybody wanted to kill him,” said the mob watcher who recently had lunch with the victim, adding that Hill wanted to film a documentary about his life. The working title: “Money, Murder and the Mafia.” (Here is an interview Hill did with Inquirer mob reporter George Anastasia in 2010).

Bernard Resnick, an entertainment attorney, said Hill was “the life of the party. It takes a special person to be the leader of a group of five, 10 people that are going for national fame and fortune.” He learned of Hill’s death from other clients who called with the news this weekend.

“He was just as comfortable on the edge of a rough neighborhood as he was with some pretty major [industry] players,” Resnick said Monday. “He wasn’t educated in charm school, but had a good feel for what it took to move in different circles. That’s pretty rare.”

He said Hill emerged from his prison time having developed a greater appreciation for “the simple things in life. When he came out, he wasn’t in so much of a rush anymore. I think he did realize the error of his ways. Everybody is stunned, shocked that one of their own is gone.”

Resnick noted that this is emblematic not of Hill’s past, but of societal failings.

“It’s tragic when anybody gets shot to death over a couple of gold chains or a couple of dollars, a run-of-the-mill robbery. This isn’t about the talent lost, the criminal background, that he may or may not have been involved with gangsters,” he said. “The tragedy is that this will be forgotten in a few days, most likely not solved, just another one of the huge number of violent crimes on the streets of Philadelphia, of the U.S., because of the ease of attaining a handgun and having no compunction about using it.”

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