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‘He did the right thing and they killed him for it’: Mom says son was shot in Center City for testifying

Khaleaf Sistrunk, 21, was shot and killed last week near City Hall.
Khaleaf Sistrunk, 21, was shot and killed last week near City Hall.Read moreSistrunk Family

Khaleaf Sistrunk talked to police about the people who were killing his family and friends. And so he had been marked for death.

In 2018, he told police what he knew about the drive-by killing of his older brother. A year later, he testified as an eyewitness at the trial of the teenager who shot his friend to death as they shopped on South Street on Easter Sunday.

For that, he was branded a “snitch.” And people started shooting at him. Eight times in the last two years, his family said. Mostly in the streets by his South Philadelphia home. In October, a gunman fired at his FedEx delivery truck in Queen Village, missing him, but seriously injuring a coworker.

After that shooting, the city’s Office of Violence Prevention and the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network relocated Sistrunk’s family from South Philadelphia.

But last week, while he sat on his dirt bike and talked to friends in front of the Clothespin sculpture across from City Hall, two gunmen walked up to Sistrunk and fired 11 times, striking him in the face, neck, and chest. He stumbled a short distance, then fell.

While evening traffic snaked past — and revelers strolled through Christmas Village — friends and bystanders tried to save Sistrunk, 21, as he writhed on the ground. Police rushed him to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he died. Doctors there found a 9mm handgun on his hip.

“They shot him because they said he was a snitch,” said his mother, who asked that her name not be used out of fear of retribution. “He was trying to do the right thing and he got killed for it.”

Philadelphia Police Capt. Jason Smith, commander of the homicide unit, said his investigators have no suspects in the killing, but believe the motive is revenge.

“It’s highly likely that he was murdered due to his role in the 2019 trial,“ he said. “It’s retaliation for testifying.”

The killing is a reminder of why so many witnesses fear coming forward — and the challenges police face in convincing them they should.

“People are afraid because they see the violence that is leveled upon those who cooperate,” Smith said. “Who can blame them?”

The rush-hour killing in front of dozens of people was the 435th in a year in which gun violence in the city has skyrocketed. It was the murder of a man who spoke up about that violence, at least in his own little corner of the world.

That world has been shattered, Sistrunk’s mother said Tuesday. She has now lost two sons to what police describe as an ongoing shooting war between groups of young men who live on 5th and 13th Streets in South Philadelphia. Neither of her sons were suspects in the back-and-forth shootings that flare up between the groups. But they lived in a pocket of Hawthorne, little more than a mile from City Hall, where young men isolated from opportunity can measure their worth in their willingness to die over borders between blocks.

In 2018, her son Khalil was standing with a group of friends near Broad and Catherine, just blocks from the family home, when a gunman opened fire from a passing car. The shooter was aiming for any 13th Streeter they could hit, police said. And they hit Khalil.

Khaleaf was crushed by his brother’s death, his mother said.

“He found out who he thought killed his brother and told [police],” she said, though whatever information he provided did not lead to an arrest. It is not clear if he ever gave a formal interview to detectives, or just spoke with police working the streets of his neighborhood.

Though his brother’s killing remained unsolved, Sistrunk was willing to take the witness stand last year in the death of his 16-year-old friend, William Bethel IV. The two had been shopping for sneakers near 8th and South on Easter afternoon in 2018.

Sistrunk and Bethel had been in a massage shop getting chair massages when their friends called out to warn them that a pair of teens from 5th Street were heading their way. They had been warring over Instagram. In seconds, words were exchanged — and someone pulled a gun. Zahmir White, 18, aimed at any 13th Streeter he could hit, prosecutors said. But he hit Bethel.

A standout athlete and honor roll student at Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, Bethel had played no part in the back-and-forth violence. His family had only recently moved from Roxborough to South Philly. He had tagged along with the group to buy sneakers with birthday money.

The bullet hit him in his lower back. As he lay bleeding on the ground, the wire of his retainer was visible between his still lips. He died two days later at the hospital.

White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a minimum of 24 years in prison.

Sistrunk was the only one of Bethel’s friends to take the stand. His mother said he felt a responsibility born of remorse. Because his friend was killed in a war he was not part of. “He felt that he had to do the right thing because it was his friend and because they killed his friend right in front of him,” his mother said.

The risk he was taking was not lost on him, his mother said.

“He was trying to do right by the next family, but you get killed for stuff like that,” she said.

District Attorney Larry Krasner called people’s fear of testifying “a tragic reality.”

“We are working with Philadelphia Police to bring the person or persons responsible for Khaleaf Sistrunk’s murder to justice,” he said in a statement. “But in the meantime, every public official and agency can and must examine the conditions that made him unsafe in his old neighborhood or while he was at work.”

City Managing Director Tumar Alexander called Sistrunk’s killing “tragic” — and said he hoped it would not keep others from coming forward in gun violence cases.

“There are resources available from various agencies to protect witnesses and their families, if they are willing to accept them,” he said in a statement. “And we know that there are many other examples where testifying has helped to hold violent criminals accountable for heinous actions.”

But after his courtroom stand, Sistrunk found himself back in front of a judge three months later — this time for trouble of his own making. On a July afternoon in 2019, Sistrunk pulled a silver revolver on a teen walking through the Walnut-Locust subway stop, taking his debit card, SEPTA TransPass, and $17. Patrol officers followed Sistrunk to a South Street smoke shop — and then chased him to his mother’s house, where he escaped through the back door. He turned himself in four days later and pleaded guilty to a gun charge. He spent 11 months in jail before being paroled in July.

By October, he had landed a job as a part-time FedEx delivery worker, happy for the opportunity, his mother said.

“He was doing right,” she said.

But people were still shooting at him.

A few days into his new gig, Sistrunk was assigned a route through Queen Village. He worried about working so close to his neighborhood, his mother said. He feared a gunman could catch him with his guard down.

One almost did.

On the morning of Oct. 20, as he and his partner made a stop at 3rd and Christian, a gunman walked to the back of the truck and opened fire. Sistrunk’s coworker, unloading packages, was shot in the chest and leg. But the gunman missed Sistrunk, who was in the truck’s front cabin.

Sistrunk waited for police to arrive — and told them what happened. Then he called his mother.

“They’re shooting at me, Mom,” she recalled him saying.

“Just come home,” she said she told him.

It was after that shooting that police and city officials worked to move the family out of the neighborhood, sources said. They left three weeks ago.

“I was scared for our lives,” Sistrunk’s mother said. “People were driving past our house. We couldn’t even sit outside.”

When she would ask her son about the shootings and the toll they were extracting, he would simply say, “I’m tired.”

On the night he was killed, Sistrunk had an early dinner with his mother before heading to meet friends by the Clothespin, including one who wanted to take his bike for a spin.

Her son’s friends who witnessed the killing told her the gunman had only Sistrunk in his sights.

Devastated and grieving, she and her husband say they’re struggling to cover the burial of a second son lost to gun violence.

“They hunted him to kill him,” his mother said, sobbing. “Doing the right thing gets you killed, and that’s what happened to my son.”