A gunman armed with an AK-47 who shot and nearly killed a West Philadelphia deli owner in May 2018 — a case that became a cause célèbre in the public feud between U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain and District Attorney Larry Krasner — pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of attempted robbery and carrying and using a firearm in a crime of violence.

Jovaun Patterson, 30, dressed in a forest-green prison jumpsuit, smiled to relatives upon entering the federal courtroom in Philadelphia. He faces a March 25 sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Salvatore Astolfi told Goldberg that under a plea agreement with the defense, the government will recommend a sentence of 14 years and three months in federal prison, followed by five years of supervised release. He said afterward that the recommendation is within federal sentencing guidelines.

Goldberg noted that he is not bound by the recommendation and has not determined Patterson’s sentence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Salvatore Astolfi speaks to reporters after Jovaun Patterson's guilty plea hearing at the federal courthouse on Market Street on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Assistant U.S. Attorney Salvatore Astolfi speaks to reporters after Jovaun Patterson's guilty plea hearing at the federal courthouse on Market Street on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.

The case became a rallying cry for McSwain, whose office charged Patterson after he pleaded guilty last year in city court and was sentenced to 3½ to 10 years in state prison under a deal negotiated by Krasner’s office.

That plea deal before Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means stunned the victim, Mike Poeng, because he was not notified of it by the district attorney in violation of the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act. Patterson’s sentence was also criticized as too lenient by many in law enforcement and by Poeng and his family.

The District Attorney’s Office at first defended Patterson’s sentence, with a spokesperson calling it “wholly appropriate.” After The Inquirer questioned the plea deal, the office in December 2018 sought to have it vacated.

Citing public safety concerns, McSwain on Feb. 28 announced that a grand jury had indicted Patterson on federal charges. McSwain contended that Krasner’s policies, including giving “sweetheart deals to violent defendants,” emboldened criminals on the street to “think they can literally get away with murder.”

Patterson’s is the only case during Krasner’s tenure in which federal prosecutors have filed charges after a conviction and sentence in the city court system. The unusual move is allowed by the U.S. Justice Department if a matter involves a “substantial federal interest,” the state prosecution is deemed inadequate, and the alleged conduct is also a federal offense.

In a statement after Tuesday’s plea, McSwain said: “Violent crime is a severe and growing problem in Philadelphia, and fighting that trend is a top priority of my office.” He contended that Krasner “does not share that priority — preferring to look out for violent offenders like Mr. Patterson, who received a ridiculously lenient plea deal. ... ”

Krasner’s spokesperson, Jane Roh, responded: “Our office has previously stated that federal charges in this matter are welcome. We will not, however, engage in Trump appointee William McSwain’s fact-free grandstanding as he attempts to elevate his political profile.”

Astolfi, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Violent Crime Unit, told the judge that the AK-47 has not been recovered.

Patterson shot Poeng, then 50, who was washing his car outside his deli, KCJ Inc. at 54th and Spruce Streets, about 1:30 p.m. May 5, 2018. Patterson, a regular customer who lived on the 5400 block of Delancey Street, strolled up to Poeng with the AK-47 and said, “‘Get inside, this is a stickup,’” Astolfi said in court.

Poeng — who arrived in the United States in 1981 as a refugee from Cambodia’s killing fields — fought back, but Patterson shot him in the groin and fled. After the shooting, which was caught on surveillance video, Poeng could not work and had to give up the store.

Poeng was not in court Tuesday, but was informed by federal prosecutors of the plea hearing. He said he and his family have moved out of the city for his children’s safety.

In phone interviews Tuesday, Poeng said that he was “happier” with the federal prosecutors’ plea agreement. He thanked McSwain and Astolfi, saying that “they didn’t give up.”

Poeng said his condition has improved, but he still has not been able to work again. When he goes outside, he can now walk with a cane instead of having to use a wheelchair. Inside his home, he has been taking “baby steps” to walk on his own.

Mike Poeng on Feb. 28, 2019, after the U.S. Attorney's news conference announcing federal charges against Jovaun Patterson. His brother Sam Poeng is behind him, pushing the wheelchair.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Mike Poeng on Feb. 28, 2019, after the U.S. Attorney's news conference announcing federal charges against Jovaun Patterson. His brother Sam Poeng is behind him, pushing the wheelchair.

Poeng’s brother Sam attended Tuesday’s hearing, but declined to comment afterward. Defense attorney S. Philip Steinberg also declined to comment.

Means in August had granted a request by Steinberg allowing Patterson to withdraw his guilty plea. Because of that, Patterson does not face the 3½-to-10-year state prison sentence. But the District Attorney’s Office appealed Means’ decision to the state Superior Court, which has yet to rule.