Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Suspect in fatal stabbing of Philly developer near Rittenhouse Square in custody

Philadelphia Police were searching Friday for a man who fatally stabbed an emerging city real estate developer Thursday night a block from Rittenhouse Square during a spontaneous altercation possibly sparked by a traffic dispute.

Sean Schellenger was the developer of a number of housing units around Philadelphia.
Sean Schellenger was the developer of a number of housing units around Philadelphia.Read moreED NEWTON / For the Inquirer

The search for the man who fatally stabbed an emerging city real-estate developer Thursday night a block from Rittenhouse Square during a possible traffic dispute ended Friday night with the surrender of a suspect.

Police said the suspect, whose name was not released,  presented himself at the 16th District in South Philadelphia about 7:30 p.m. and was being questioned in the killing of Sean Schellenger, 37, of Point Breeze, who ran a company that builds developments around the city.

Police spokesman Sgt. Eric Gripp said the man had contacted several news outlets before turning himself in. An NBC10 reporter posted video on Twitter showing a man identified as Michael White, 20, in a church embracing his mother before his surrender, and then a second video showing White being placed by officers into the back of a police van.

Schellenger was pronounced dead at 11:21 p.m. Thursday after being stabbed once in the back on Chancellor Street near 17th Street, police said.

The news shocked developers across the city, who described Schellenger as a "rising star" and a hard worker willing to gamble on untested parts of the city.

"He took a chance in many different pockets of Philadelphia that myself and other developers wouldn't have tried," said one of them, Ori Feibush. "He really took chances and put his money where his mouth is."

The killing devastated his family. Mark Schellenger of Fort Myers, Fla., a former principal of Radnor High School, said his son was "a bigger-than-life presence" who was "the best at everything he did, whether it was athletics, business –."

He said Sean, who had been a quarterback on the Pennsylvania State University football team, was scheduled to be inducted into Coatesville Area High School's sports hall of fame this fall, and was passionate about growing his real estate business.

"He gave to people, and he wanted to help people, and he wanted good for the city and good for everybody around him," said the elder Schellenger, who married the victim's mother when Sean was young and adopted him at age 8. The couple later divorced.

The killing was the latest violent incident in a convulsive stretch in Philadelphia. Forty-six people were shot in the first 10 days of July, according to police statistics, and 165 people had been killed in the city in 2018 as of Thursday night. The same number had been killed through the same date last year, police statistics say, and that total had been the highest in mid-July since 2012.

Homicide Capt. John Ryan said at a Friday news conference that Sean Schellenger had been with two other people in a Mercedes-Benz when the car got stuck in traffic on Chancellor around 10:50. All three men got out of the car 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 courier.

Ryan said an argument ensued between Schellenger and the bicyclist, who pulled a large knife from his backpack as the struggle turned physical, stabbing Schellenger once in the back before running away.

The bicyclist fled through Rittenhouse Square and headed north. He left behind his red bicycle and a bag used for delivering food, the captain said.

Schellenger was taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Ryan said that another passenger in the Mercedes had left before police arrived, and that investigators want to talk to him. Detectives Friday were searching for witnesses and studying surveillance video from the area, Ryan said.

Around noon Friday, two detectives were looking at cameras on the 1700 block of Chancellor, which has at least six cameras facing the street. One camera near the scene is outside Spice Finch, a restaurant in the Warwick Rittenhouse Square hotel at 220 S. 17th that had its grand opening Thursday night.

Projects of Schellenger's firm, Streamline Group LLC of South Philadelphia, include a complex of duplexes and apartments or condos encompassing 82 homes on land across from the Shops at Schmidts retail center in Northern Liberties, partly on land acquired last year from developer Bart Blatstein.

The firm also is listed as the developer of a proposed 40-unit project of triplex dwellings to replace a vacant industrial building on Huntingdon Street in Kensington between the Market-Frankford Line's Huntingdon station and Frankford Avenue.

John Bolaris, the former Philadelphia TV meteorologist, said Friday that he encountered Schellenger shortly before the stabbing. For several days, Bolaris said, he and Schellenger had been discussing working together on a development project in Villanova. They had been scheduled to tour the property at 1 p.m. Friday.

By chance, Bolaris said, he was strolling past the restaurant Rouge at 205 S. 18th St., on the east side of Rittenhouse Square, when Schellenger, who was seated at a table, called out his name. Bolaris, who now works in real estate, said he took a seat at Schellenger's table and joined a lively group discussion about the industry, shooting the breeze with drinks on a summer night.

Bolaris said he stayed for more than an hour, then got up to leave. As he departed, Bolaris recalled, Schellenger gave him a big hug and they talked about seeing each other the next day.

It wasn't until the next morning that Bolaris heard that Schellenger had been killed.

"You give someone a hug, you're going to see them the next day, and 30 minutes later they're dead," Bolaris said. "How does that happen?"

Mark Schellenger said he flew to Philadelphia on Friday morning after receiving a call about the killing the night before from Schellenger's mother. Sean had a younger brother, Justin, 28, Mark Schellenger said, adding: "He was a very loving son. He loved his family."

Jen Groover, a Philadelphia-based motivational speaker and entrepreneur who knew Schellenger for about seven years, said Schellenger grew up poor and was driven to succeed in his business by his childhood struggles.

"They didn't have much," Groover said, saying Sean faced many challenges as a youth "that made him so determined to become successful."

At Penn State, Schellenger had been a quarterback on the football team in 1999 and 2000, appearing in a game against Louisiana Tech in his second season, according to a Penn State football spokesman.

In Philadelphia, Schellenger had been building ever-larger projects in recent years alongside his philanthropic activities, Groover said. According to his LinkedIn page, Schellenger founded Helping Hands Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works to restore blighted properties around the city.

"Everything he did to be successful was to provide for his family and the community," said Groover. "He was one of the most compassionate people I've known, and so inspiring."

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who lives three houses away from Schellenger in Point Breeze, described him Friday morning as "a stand-up guy, cool and funny."

Johnson said Schellenger developed the property that became Johnson's home.

"Then he became my neighbor," Johnson said. "We always had a pleasant relationship. I would send people to him from the neighborhood to hire who still work for him today."

Ken Wellar, managing partner of the brokerage Rittenhouse Realty Advisors, described himself as a close friend of Schellenger's and said he was "an amazing human being."

"He had the biggest heart," Wellar said. "He gave his heart and soul to Philadelphia and to the community."

Blatstein called Schellenger a "rising star."

City Councilman Allan Domb, a prominent Center City Realtor, said Schellenger was "really going into neighborhoods that needed renovations and investing money in up-and-coming neighborhoods and trying to make them better."

Groover said she learned of Schellenger's death when she encountered his friends at Rumor, a nightclub at 1500 Sansom St. They told her they had just gotten into the car after eating at Rouge when they found themselves blocked by another vehicle from leaving Chancellor, where they had parked.

"He and the other guys in the car got out together to say something to the car that was blocking the street, and the bike rider just came up and inserted himself," she said. "That's the weirdest part to me: Why a random bike rider would come up and whip out a machete-size knife is just bizarre to me."

Patricia Strickland, 72, who lives next door to Schellenger's residence, said Schellenger was "even-tempered and wasn't a hothead." He became almost a member of her family after she sold him an empty lot next to her home, she said.

"He was like my son," she said.

Strickland said Schellenger wouldn't hesitate to do anything for her. He replaced her heater when it broke, invited her to his holiday parties at his office, knew her family members, and even called her "Mama Bear."

"That's the kind of person he was," she said. "He didn't hesitate to tell anyone that 'this is my second mom.' "

"He had such a big heart," she said. "Whoever did this took a good person."

Staff writers Julia Terruso, TyLisa Johnson, Chris Brennan, Kathy Boccella, and Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.