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Trial begins in '08 murder of aspiring teacher

Beau Zabel, who came to Philly to teach, was killed June 15, 2008, as he was walking home from his job at Starbucks.

Marcellus Jones: Arrested in 2013 for 2008 slaying.
Marcellus Jones: Arrested in 2013 for 2008 slaying.Read more

BEAU ZABEL, a Minnesota native who came to Philadelphia to teach, had been in the city for just six weeks when he was shot and killed during a robbery, a prosecutor told a jury yesterday.

His June 15, 2008, murder - which shocked the city and was featured on "America's Most Wanted" - remained a "cold case" until 2013 when Marcellus Anthony Jones was arrested, Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos said at the start of Jones' murder trial.

Gaydos told the Common Pleas panel of 10 women and two men that Zabel was working at a Starbucks on South Street, near 4th, before he was to start a program at Drexel University that fall, where he was to teach during the day and take classes at night.

The 23-year-old aspiring teacher had just finished his shift at the Starbucks about 1 a.m., and was walking to his new home, on Ellsworth Street near 9th, in South Philly.

But he never made it.

A block away from his home, he was shot once in the left side of his neck, on Ellsworth Street, by a man who then robbed him of his iPod, Gaydos said.

"This man, Marcellus Anthony Jones, took Beau Zabel's life," Gaydos said as she pointed toward Jones, 37, of North Philadelphia, seated at the defense table.

The prosecutor told jurors that initial evidence - including videos from businesses in South Philly and from residents on Ellsworth Street - revealed little about the shooter.

It wasn't until people who knew Jones wrote to authorities about the murder that the case was cracked, she said.

Defense attorney Richard Giuliani, however, told jurors in his opening statement that they shouldn't base their verdict on sympathy, but should examine the credibility of the commonwealth's witnesses and do what's right, and not what's easy.

The murder of Zabel rightfully touched a nerve in the city, Giuliani said. "There was tremendous pressure on the detectives in homicide to find the killer," he said.

But Giuliani said that "at the end of the day, there's not one piece of physical evidence that ties" Jones to the killing.

During the opening statements, Zabel's mother, Lana Hollerud, and his stepfather, Terry Zabel, both of Minnesota, sat in the second row of the gallery, clasping hands, as other family members sat nearby.

Gaydos, who is prosecuting the case with Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Juliano Coelho, said that in the wake of Zabel's murder, detectives investigated other robberies that occurred near where Zabel was killed. Homicide Detective George Fetters came upon a robbery in which a woman's cellphone was stolen at 7th and Federal streets.

Detectives then found that a man named Tyrek Taylor had the phone. Taylor was brought in and questioned by homicide detectives on July 11, 2008. He said he got the phone from a man named Ant, Gaydos said, noting that Jones' nickname is "Ant North."

Two months later, on Sept. 6, 2008, Taylor was shot and killed on Bouvier Street near Wharton in Point Breeze. Jones was later convicted - in June 2012 - in Taylor's murder.

Gaydos contended to jurors that Taylor was killed by Jones because Jones didn't want him to say anything to detectives about Zabel's murder.

According to prosecutors' evidence in the case, Taylor allegedly had gone out with Jones in the early morning of June 15, 2008, to rob someone.

Gaydos told jurors that another person - a man named Devonne Brinson - wrote a letter to authorities in October 2009, contending he had information about Zabel's and Taylor's murders.

Brinson, who will testify in the trial, has said that he was in a city jail on June 15, 2008, when he got a phone call - on a cellphone that he illegally had in jail - about 2 or 3 a.m. from a panicky Taylor, Gaydos said. Both men grew up in Point Breeze.

In that call and in another, Taylor allegedly said he and Jones were en route to rob someone, and that it was Jones who robbed the victim and "some dumb-ass s--- happened," Gaydos said.

The prosecutor said that Brinson will also testify that in September 2009, when he was locked up at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, in Montgomery County, that Jones was also locked up there.

Brinson, who knew Jones, went up to him during a meal time and mentioned Taylor's murder, Gaydos said.

That's when Jones allegedly "said he had to kill 'Reek' because 'Reek' was bitching about" Zabel's murder, Gaydos said. Taylor's nickname was "Reek."

The prosecutor said that two more witnesses - Jones' sister, Tiffany Jones, and her boyfriend, Bruce Mattox - who were arrested in North Philly in a criminal-trespass case also eventually told homicide detectives that Jones killed Zabel.

According to Mattox, he was at Jones' aunt's Germantown house sometime after Taylor was killed when Jones admitted to killing Taylor, the prosecutor said.

"Ah, 'Reek' been bitching about what I did to the schoolteacher," Jones allegedly said at the house.

At the aunt's house, Jones also admitted to killing Zabel, Gaydos said. He told those gathered that he "came up from behind the teacher [Zabel] and the teacher was struggling, and that's why he [Jones] shot him," Gaydos said.

Giuliani, the defense attorney, however, told jurors that Brinson, Mattox and other prosecution witnesses lack credibility.

The trial continues today.

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