Police have charged a 20-year-old poet and college student with murder in the Rittenhouse Square stabbing death Thursday night of emerging Philadelphia real estate developer Sean M. Schellenger.
Michael J. White, a Philadelphia resident, has also been charged with possessing an instrument of crime. He was arraigned Saturday evening via video conference by Magistrate Sheila Bedford in a brief proceeding attended by close to two dozen friends and relatives. White was held without bail, and Bedford set his next court appearance for Aug. 1.
In the video feed, White was wearing a white shirt and did not speak other than to answer "yes, ma'am" to questions from Bedford. Several friends wept openly during the session. Afterward, public defender Geoffrey Kilroy said that he had not yet met White but that he planned to visit him as soon as Sunday. He declined to comment further.
Greg Thompson, a spokesperson for the family, suggested a claim of self-defense is likely. Schellenger, he said, had tackled White. "Michael defended himself," Thompson said. "Sean was laying on top of him."
Schellenger, 37, who had been a quarterback on the Pennsylvania State University football team and was scheduled to be inducted into Coatesville Area High School's sports hall of fame this fall, had several brushes with the law in Pennsylvania and Florida in the 2000s, according to public documents.
In August 2001, he was charged in Chester County with burglary, resisting arrest, criminal trespassing, and theft; the disposition of that case was not available Saturday. In 2008, Schellenger was charged in Okaloosa County, Fla., with battery and resisting detention. Court documents describe the disposition of that case as "dropped/abandoned." In 2009, records show, Schellenger was found guilty of disorderly conduct in Chester County.
Since his death, friends and associates have described Schellenger as a "rising star" in Philadelphia's development world and have praised his commitment to community. A vigil organized by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is planned for 8:30 p.m. Sunday at the Concert Garden, 21st and Ellsworth Streets.
Moments after police announced the charges against White, Thompson, the family spokesperson, said he spoke to him by phone.
"He's extremely depressed. He's crying; he doesn't believe he's in jail," Thompson said. "He did exactly what he was told. He didn't say anything. He had to sleep on a table for 11 hours. They gave him a cheese sandwich and some water. He doesn't like the way he's being treated."
Earlier Saturday, White's friends turned to social media to express dismay over his circumstances. Messages that ranged from "I hardly got any sleep" to "praying for a better outcome" appeared on White's public Facebook page next to photos of him smiling with friends, dressed in a cap and gown, and participating in the Philly Youth Poetry Movement.
A friend who identified himself as Samuel Stevens, 21, called White a "good person" who is "like a brother" to him. The two have known each other since elementary school, he said.
Stevens, whose Facebook name is "Sammy Sosa," shared a video of White rapping under the name "mikexenglish" with a message that read, "Free my boy Mike."
Caution: The video contains obscenities that some might find offensive.
Larry White told 6ABC that his cousin encountered Schellenger and two other men Thursday night, all of whom were "heavily intoxicated." Michael White, who is black, "felt he was being racially targeted by these individuals, who wanted to start a fight," Larry White said. "He's a very good kid. I would hate for him to be stereotyped."
During a news conference Friday, Homicide Capt. John Ryan said Schellenger, of Point Breeze, was in a Mercedes-Benz with two other people when the car got stuck in traffic on Chancellor Street near 17th around 10:50 p.m. Thursday. All three men got out of the vehicle in an effort to get a driver in front of them to move, Ryan said. The group then encountered a man on a bicycle, who may have been working as a food courier. An argument ensued and that man, now identified as Michael White, stabbed Schellenger in the back with a knife he had pulled from his backpack, Ryan said. The bicyclist ran from the scene, leaving behind his red bicycle and a bag used for delivering food, Ryan said.
Schellenger was taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:21 p.m.
The driver of the Mercedes remained on the scene, Ryan said; the other passenger left before police arrived. Detectives Friday wanted to talk to him and were searching for witnesses and studying surveillance video from the area, Ryan said.
White was home for the summer from Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he was studying sociology/anthropology, according to his Facebook page. A Philadelphia native, he graduated from the Academy at Palumbo Liberal Arts High School in 2015. He started a GoFundMe campaign in July 2016 to attend college.
"I graduated from the Academy at Palumbo High School in June 2015, but took a year off from college" because of financial difficulties, White says on his GoFundMe page. He was estranged from his parents, he said.
White described himself as a "slam poet, for the team which represents the city of Philadelphia at the Brave New Voices festival. We have been practicing almost everyday for nearly ten hours a day since late April, which has made it almost impossible for me to get a job to earn enough money for these costs. The festival ends on July 17th, which leaves me less than a month to earn the money I need to get to college, by August 13th," he wrote on the GoFundMe page. " … I want to be the first in my family to graduate from a four year college/university."
He went on to write that he is "not one to lay down when a challenge approaches me."
At the urging of family, White had contacted Bishop Ernest McNear at True Gospel Tabernacle Church on Friday and expressed his desire to turn himself in through a peaceful surrender program overseen by McNear.
The pastor said White "has never been in big trouble or did time. He was home working for the summer."
Friends and family of Schellenger on Saturday were grieving over his loss.
"He had big aspirations," said Kevin Baird, also a developer in Center City. "Something about him told you he wasn't going to give up until he succeeded. He was different. I'm deeply saddened by his untimely death."