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Son of well-known Pottstown homeless advocate held for trial in fatal shooting of man

POTTSTOWN — A West Pottsgrove teenager must answer to homicide charges in Montgomery County Court in connection with the alleged gunshot slaying of a man during an altercation the day before Thanksgiving, just yards from the borough police station.

Thomas James Niarhos, 16, of the unit block of East Race Street in the Stowe section of the township, was held for trial, after a preliminary hearing on Tuesday before District Court Judge Scott T. Palladino, on charges of first- and third-degree murder, firearms not to be carried without a license, possessing an instrument of crime and possession of a firearm by a minor in connection with the Nov. 22, 2023, gunshot slaying of 39-year-old Jeramiah Waylon Hawkins.

Niarhos, who was 15 at the time of the alleged fatal shooting, was charged as an adult because of the violent nature of the incident.

Assistant District Attorney Lauren Marvel and co-prosecutor Anne O’Connell presented two witnesses during the hearing, a Pottstown resident who witnessed the shooting and a county detective who investigated the crime, to show sufficient evidence to move the case to trial.

Palladino set Niarhos’ formal arraignment hearing in county court for April 3. After that hearing, a county judge will schedule Niarhos’ trial date.

“The evidence in this case will show that the defendant made a very intentional decision to take another person’s life and that life had value and that’s what this case is about,” Marvel said after the hearing.

Defense lawyer Karen Thek, assistant chief of homicide in the county public defender’s office, said “it’s too early in the process” to make a comment on behalf of Niarhos, who will remain in custody without bail pending trial.

“There’s a lot of information to be gathered,” Thek said after the hearing.

“It’s a devastating situation. His family is devastated, the community is devastated,” added Chief Public Defender Christine P. Lora.

Niarhos, wearing a gray blazer and black pants, looked downward throughout the hearing and did not speak in court.

Thomas James Niarhos, 16, is escorted by Pottstown police to his preliminary hearing on homicide charges on Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo by Carl Hessler Jr. - MediaNews Group)
Thomas James Niarhos, 16, is escorted by Pottstown police to his preliminary hearing on homicide charges on Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo by Carl Hessler Jr. – MediaNews Group)

The teenager is the son of well-known homeless advocate Tom Niarhos, executive director of the Pottstown homeless agency Beacon of Hope, who was in court to support his son along with other relatives, some of whom appeared tearful as they left district court after the hearing. The elder Niarhos declined to comment about the case on Tuesday.

Relatives of Hawkins also attended the hearing and refuted officials’ previous statements that Hawkins was homeless at the time of his death. They said Hawkins, while at times may have briefly experienced homelessness, resided in an apartment in the Germantown section of Philadelphia at the time of his death.

“He had an apartment. He was not homeless but he had friends that were and he liked to hang with them. He would want to tend to migrate to his friends, his friends in Pottstown,” said Jeffrey Stewart, of Audubon, Hawkins’ uncle, explaining Hawkins struggled with mental health issues in the past. “That’s the thing he needed help for. He lived a hard life around some horrible things.”

“He just met people here, hung out with them and stayed here,” added Samantha Burgess, Hawkins’ sister.

Court documents indicate the altercation between the then 15-year-old Niarhos and Hawkins may have been related to Niarhos’ belief that Hawkins had raped his 16-year-old girlfriend several months earlier. In July 2023, Niarhos allegedly told police that a homeless man named “Jay” was responsible for the rape.

Court documents indicate Pottstown detectives investigated the accusations and the girl’s mother told detectives the girl would only say that “something had happened to her” in Pottstown but would provide no details. The girl’s mother told detectives the family did not wish to press charges.

Hawkins’ relatives said Tuesday they didn’t believe the rape accusations.

“He never hurt anybody. As far as I know he was peaceful,” Stewart said.

Burgess added, “I don’t believe he did that. I think he died over a lie.”

Witnesses to the alleged shooting told detectives that Niarhos yelled, “you’re a rapist” at Hawkins during the fatal encounter.

“This case, at the end of the day, is not about what the victim did or did not do, it’s about the decisions the defendant made that day,” Marvel said on Tuesday.

The investigation began about 12:07 p.m. Nov. 22, when Pottstown police were dispatched to a shooting on South Hanover Street at Security Plaza, near the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and the hub for the Pottstown Area Rapid Transit bus routes.

“Several witnesses to the shooting pointed out the male shooting victim (Hawkins), who was lying on South Hanover Street at the entrance to Security Plaza,” county Detective John Wittenberger and Pottstown Detective Michael Damiano wrote in the arrest affidavit.

A Pottstown Area Rapid Transit bus makes a stop at the scene of a noontime shooting Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, near the intersection of South Hanover Street and Security Plaza. (Evan Brandt -- MediaNews Group)
A Pottstown Area Rapid Transit bus makes a stop at the scene of a noontime shooting Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, near the intersection of South Hanover Street and Security Plaza. (Evan Brandt — MediaNews Group)

Witnesses also directed police to the parking lot area of the Blue Elephant restaurant where witnesses had detained Niarhos, who they identified as the shooter.

As police took Niarhos into custody, a police body camera recorded Niarhos screaming, “he’s a rapist, don’t be sorry for him” and “he raped a 15 year old girl, don’t help him,” to first responders treating Hawkins, according to the criminal complaint.

Police said Hawkins had an obvious gunshot wound to the head and he was transported to Pottstown Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Wittenberger testified on Tuesday that an autopsy later determined Hawkins had been shot once on the right side of his face at close range. A forensic pathologist opined that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and the manner of death was homicide.

According to detectives, witnesses reported they had observed Hawkins and Niarhos arguing and Niarhos brandishing a handgun and firing it at Hawkins during the argument. One witness told police he heard Niarhos repeatedly yelling, “you’re a rapist” and shooting the victim “point blank,” according to the criminal complaint.

Salvatore Bellavia testified on Tuesday that he was standing in the area of South Hanover Street and Security Plaza and observed “an argument that escalated to homicide.”

Bellavia testified he observed Niarhos pull a gun from his waistband and fire the gun, striking Hawkins. Bellavia testified Niarhos dropped the gun and was detained by other bystanders as he walked away toward the parking lot of the Blue Elephant restaurant.

“He seemed very distraught, upset, crying when he walked away,” Bellavia testified.

Detectives obtained surveillance camera footage that captured the alleged shooting. In the video, Niarhos “can be seen extending his arm toward Hawkins, at close range, as if holding a firearm.”

Hawkins, who was near a bike and holding a spare tire, appeared to attempt to knock the gun out of Niarhos’ hand with the bicycle tire, but Niarhos fired one single shot at Hawkins’ face “and Hawkins immediately falls to the ground,” detectives alleged.

“As Hawkins is falling to the ground, it appears Niarhos fires a second shot at Hawkins before dropping the gun and quickly walking away toward the parking lot of the Blue Elephant,” Wittenberger and Damiano alleged.

Detectives recovered a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic handgun and two fired cartridge casings at the scene of the shooting.

Detectives determined the firearm belonged to Niarhos’ father, who told detectives he kept his gun in a locked nightstand in his bedroom and kept the key in another location in the bedroom, according to court papers. Niarhos’ father told detectives that was the only firearm that was missing from his residence.

“Mr. Niarhos stated that he had no knowledge that his son took or possessed his firearm. Mr. Niarhos informed detectives that today (Nov. 22) he found a note in his son’s bedroom indicating that his son planned to run away and located a packed bag of clothes and a cellular phone charger in his son’s bedroom,” Wittenberger and Damiano wrote in court papers.

Source: Berkshire mont

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