Suspect in West Oak Lane Craigslist killing appears in court

 Police on the scene of the shooting on East Walnut Lane. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

Police on the scene of the shooting on East Walnut Lane. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

The prime suspect in a West Oak Lane homicide originating in a Craigslist sale was held for court on murder charges Wednesday afternoon.

23 year-old Willow Grove resident Thomas Coffee was charged in the attempted robbery and shooting death of Daniel Cook, 27, of Williamstown, NJ.

On Friday, June 21, at 11:14 p.m., police responded to a radio call of a male shot on the highway. Upon their arrival, officers from the 14th Police District observed Cook lying on the highway on the 1400 block of East Walnut Lane suffering from a gunshot wounds to his chest and lower right leg.

Medics arrived on location shortly thereafter and pronounced Cook dead on the scene at 11:23 p.m.

Initial reports indicated that the Cook, his fiancée, and two friends drove to West Oak Lane to answer a Craigslist advertisement for an ATV. As he exited his car, Cook spoke with a black male who had a white towel on his head, who directed him to an alley between houses on Hollis and Cornelius streets.

A moment later, witnesses heard gunshots, eventually finding Cook on his back on Walnut Street, dead from his wounds, with his pockets turned inside out. The following day, Coffee, of the 1900 block of Lukens Avenue in Willow Grove, was arrested.

A Craigslist ad

Seated before Judge J. Scott O’Keefe at his preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Coffee was attired in a white long-sleeved shirt, dark pants, and black and fluorescent green Nike sneakers, with a wide black headband wrapped around his short-cropped hair.

Describing the events that led up to the shooting, Cook’s friend and neighbor Daniel Fortunato said that he was summoned to Cook’s house to look at a Craigslist ad for a “Banshee,” a four-wheeled ATV. Cook had already spoken with the purported seller, whose name was listed on the ad as “J-Roc,” so Fortunato called the number from a different phone line to verify the listing.

Reaching the seller, he was told that someone else – Cook – was already looking at the ad. Despite Fortunato and Cook’s fiancée Jessica Davis feeling “iffy” about the transaction, Cook set up a meet in West Oak Lane and arranged for a third person to follow in a truck to transport the Banshee.

As they arrived in Philadelphia from South Jersey at approximately 11 p.m., Fortunato recalled that Cook called the seller, and was directed to the 6700 block of Hollis St.

“He was so excited,” said Fortunato of Cook, who exited the car and retrieved a PlayStation from the trunk. According to the Inquirer, the listing was originally for $1,800, but Cook negotiated the price down to $950 plus the PlayStation. Cook’s fiancée held onto the money for safekeeping.

The shooting

With the game console in his hands, Fortunato said that Cook approached the seller, a young black male seated on the steps of a house on Hollis Street wearing a white towel on his head. He yelled back to his fiancée, “I’m going to look at it,” and was led into the alleyway behind Hollis Street, out of sight of his friends.

Seated in the car, Fortunato heard three gunshots in quick succession. Realizing something was amiss, he ran to E. Walnut Lane, where he saw his friend “Danny” on the ground. 

Calling 911 to report the shooting, Fortunato and the fiancée left the scene, fearing that they would be targeted as well. They drove up three blocks and lopped back around, discovering that police and medics — plus a NewsWorks reporter — were already on scene.

Walking up to the body once again, he recalled that Cook’s cell phone was ringing repeatedly, and that his pockets were turned out – a practice known on the streets as “rabbit ears.”

A spree of robberies

According to prosecutors, Cook’s killing was the climax in a series of June robberies that Coffee allegedly participated in. On Wednesday, three victims testified to being held up at gunpoint by Coffee and accomplices.

On June 7, Coffee and two others allegedly arranged a motorcycle swap via Craigslist in Kensington. When the prospective trader, Jose Ocana, went to retrieve an umbrella from his car, an accomplice held a gun to his back while Coffee removed his wallet and cellphones, along with his car and motorcycle.

Weeks later, Ocana recognized Coffee as the perpetrator after his image was distributed through local media following Cook’s murder.

On June 8, Ben Booker arranged with Coffee via Craiglist to trade three handguns and a rifle in exchange for a motorcycle. Arriving at the 4600 block of Stenton Ave., Booker and his cousin were led to an alleyway, where Coffee and an accomplice drew guns on them, taking Booker’s wallet, wedding ring, and the keys to his 2002 Lexus, which contained the firearms.

A few days later, Booker recognized Coffee on the street and notified police, but he eluded capture.

On June 17, Coffee allegedly held up Malik Bivings in Oxford Circle at gunpoint in an alleyway off of the 7000 block of Horrocks St., taking his cellphone, wallet, keys, and watch. Bivings’ phone was later retrieved by police.

The arrest

Testifying to the investigation was Detective Ronald Dove of the homicide unit. He said on Wednesday that three .40-caliber shell casings were recovered at the scene, along with Cook’s cellphone. Subsequent investigation revealed that the house on Hollis Street where Cook and Coffee met was the suspect’s former address.

Through Craigslist, detectives discovered that the original advertisement was linked to a Gmail account bearing Coffee’s name, along with a cellphone number whose account was linked both to Coffee and his mother, also of Willow Grove.

A trace of cellphone records indicated that Coffee’s cell phone was in the vicinity of the 1300 block of E. Washington Lane at 10:25 p.m. on June 21, which Dove noted is only a few blocks from the murder scene. At 11:18 p.m., minutes after the shooting, his cellphone was tracked on a route that traveled northbound to Willow Grove.

The following morning, homicide detectives and Abington police served a warrant at Coffee’s residence. When told the reason for his arrest, Coffee told police that his cellphone had been stolen and asked if it was possible to fill out an official report.

However, police had determined by this point that the account had been cancelled voluntarily at 12:45 a.m., and would ultimately recover both the phone and its SIM card from his residence.

With prosecutor Nicholas Liermann noting that Coffee was currently on parole for robbery charges, O’Keefe held the defendant for court on murder, aggravated assault, robbery, conspiracy, and firearms charges.

Asked for his response, defense attorney Evan Hughes replied that he couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but described the Commonwealth’s case as “circumstantial.”

The government burden, even at this level, is not to argue that he was at this location, but to actually put the murder weapon in his hand, which they failed to do,” said Hughes. “His alleged near-presence at the scene doesn’t make him the shooter.”

Currently remanded to police custody without bail, Coffee’s formal arraignment will take place on September 4.

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