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Three Former Sharon Hill Officers Plead Guilty in Fanta Bility’s Death

As members of Fanta Bility’s family grimly looked on, three former Sharon Hill officers pleaded guilty Thursday to 10 counts of reckless endangerment for shooting into a crowd leaving a football game in August 2021.

In return for the guilty pleas, the district attorney’s office dropped manslaughter charges against Devon Smith, Brian Devanney, and Sean Dolan.

Eight-year-old Fanta was struck and killed by bullets from the officers’ Glocks in a hail of gunfire that also hit her sister and two others. A fifth person was shot during an argument that precipitated the police actions, officials said.

After accepting the guilty pleas, Judge Margaret Amoroso told Fanta’s mother, Tenneh Kromah, that she has three children and knows “how I feel when someone hurts them.”

“I cannot even imagine how long the pain will go on,” said Amoroso.

Abu Bility speaks to reporters outside the courthouse.

After the brief guilty plea hearing, lawyer Bruce L. Castor Jr., who filed a civil suit on behalf of the family against Sharon Hill, said the family agreed to the guilty pleas after he explained to them that it would be difficult for the district attorney to get convictions on the manslaughter charges if the case went to trial.

While the reckless endangerment charges could bring a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, when asked by the Delaware Valley Journal if that was likely given the former officers do not have prior criminal records, Castor said it would be “extraordinarily unlikely” they would be sentenced to the maximum amount of prison time.

“I think that if the case had preceded to trial the judge would have wondered that firing into constantly changing background of people is reckless conduct, while they wouldn’t be punished for going to trial, she couldn’t ignore the unreasonable defense that firing weapons in that fashion is not reckless. So, by pleading guilty, yes these possible sentences are there but they have taken responsibility. In the eyes of the court that will count for something.

“Now the other side of the coin is, we have somebody dead, several people injured and a family ruined,” Castor said.

He also noted the evidence from the officer’s Glock was inconclusive as to who fired which bullet. He explained while newer Glocks are made with precision, it is hard for forensic experts to tell which bullet was fired from which gun, an issue he suggested may require legislation from Harrisburg to address.

Abu Bility, the victim’s uncle, said the family discussed the plea offer beforehand and decided it was in their best interest for “the police officers to take responsibility for their actions, for their dangerous and reckless conduct killing our Fanta…We can as a family finally have some closure.”

“Her mother and her siblings witnessed this tragic incident,” he added. “They will have to live with that trauma imprinted on their memories for the rest of their lives.”

Siddiq Kamara, a cousin, also addressed reporters.

“We also want to make sure Sharon Hill borough is held accountable,” said Kamara. “My family still lives in Sharon Hill today. And the officials, they failed us as a whole in improperly training the police officers.”

“We want to ensure this never, ever happens to a family member in America,” Kamara said. “And the traumatic experience my family faced ever again.”

Castor also mentioned that the officers had not been properly trained to use force in such a situation. He hopes to bring justice for the “failure to properly train and supervise these officers.”

Fanta’s mother, Tenneh Kromah, leaves the courthouse.

“One of the things that is particularly bothersome to me is I have seen no evidence that these officers were trained in real-life scenarios, with practice, with targets popping up,” said Castor. “And simulate gunfire and graded exercises that are designed to mimic what would happen in real life, like happened this particular evening. It is one thing to stand there shot at a target to have all sorts of noise, people all around, good guys and bad guys, and the chaos of a gun battle going on. And police officers need to be trained to deal with that sort of a situation.”

In a statement released later, the family said, “We support the district attorney’s actions in agreeing to these guilty pleas and we humbly ask our friends, community, and extended loved ones to respect our decision and continue to support us as we seek justice and accountability from Sharon Hill Borough.”

“Fanta’s death was a tragedy for her family, her friends, and for the entire community and nothing that happened in the courtroom today can lessen the grief that we have all felt since that terrible night,” said District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer. “As we have endeavored to achieve justice in the midst of such a tragedy, my office has remained in close communication with the family to ensure that their feelings were heard and respected. Led by the family’s wishes, we have arrived at today’s result. Today’s conviction brings accountability for Fanta Bility’s death.  We will reserve further comment until the sentencing hearing.”

Amoroso scheduled a sentencing hearing on January 12, 2023. She invited both the defense and the family of the victims to provide evidence and testimony to be considered. She said she will review the sentencing guidelines and take all information provided by all parties into consideration before rendering her decision on the sentencing of the three former officers.

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Delco Judge Expected to Rule on Cops’ Charges in Fanta Bility Case

Common Pleas Judge Margaret Amoroso is expected to rule Monday on a defense motion to dismiss manslaughter charges against three Sharon Hill police officers charted in the shooting death of Fanta Bility.

Bility, an 8-year-old girl, was leaving a football game on Aug. 27, 2021, when she was struck by bullets allegedly fired by officers Devon Smith, Brian Devaney, and Sean Dolan. According to a report from the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, they began firing after they heard shots being fired nearby.

“Three Sharon Hill police officers were positioned opposite the area used by spectators to exit the stadium. As the gunfire erupted on Coates Street, a car turned onto Coates Street directly in front of the officers. We have concluded that the gunfire, combined with the movement of the vehicle, precipitated responsive gunfire from the Sharon Hill police officers,” the district attorney’s report said.

Steve Patton, a lawyer representing Dolan, said Judge Amoroso will either issue her ruling on the defense motion to quash the charges or simply have a status conference. The case is set for 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Delaware County courthouse.

“The essential fact is, they don’t have the evidence that my client, in particular, caused the death or any person, in particular, caused the death,” said Patton. He declined to discuss the case further, saying the defense lawyers will make their arguments “in a courtroom in front of a judge.”

“We’ve done that and trust the judge will make a good decision,” Patton said.

Bruce L. Castor Jr., the lawyer representing the Bility family, declined to discuss the case until after the judge rules.

Fanta was one of four people, including her sister, struck by police bullets during the shooting. The other three survived.

In July, Sharon Hill borough released a heavily redacted report from a law firm that it had hired to investigate the shooting.

“The first shooting incident that occurred that evening was between two individuals, A.J. Ford and Hasein Strand, who reportedly had been in attendance at the game,” the Sharon Hill report said. “Witnesses to the criminal investigation describe Ford as firing the first shots from a .45 caliber semi-automatic firearm from the area of 909 Coates Street west towards Ridley Street. He fired at least five times toward Hasein Strand.

“Strand then returned fire by shooting a 9mm semi-automatic firearm from approximately 919 Coates Street east towards the 800 block of Coates Street, where pedestrians were leaving the football game and where (the three officers) were positioned. One of the projectiles fired by Strand struck an unintended target,” the report said.

The borough council fired the three officers shortly after the incident.

“This is a sad day for our officers who face criminal charges for trying to do their jobs and keeping the community safe,” Joseph Fitzgerald, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27, said in January when the officers were indicted. “The FOP continues to support those fine officers and will provide a vigorous defense against these allegations. Our members have served the Sharon Hill community with respect and integrity and we ask the public for continued patience as this case moves through the criminal justice system.”

The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Sharon Hill Borough Presents Jalen Montez Duren Key to Borough

From a press release

On Sunday Sharon Hill Borough proudly presented Jalen Montez Duren with a Key to the borough to celebrate his accomplishments as the 13th overall pick during the first round of the 2022 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft.

(Front row left to right), Councilor Sharon Booker, Mayor Hykeem Green, and Councilor Sandra Holcombe, Councilor Rodney Hill, Council President Tanya Allen, and Councilor William Felder (Rear Left to right), Councilor Edward Booker, Councilor Keith Martinez (Vice President), Jalen Duren

Duren was raised by his mother, Aneisea Hudgins, in Sharon Hill. He grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball and ultimately focused on basketball. Duren’s immense talent in basketball and academics has taken him from his home in Sharon Hill across the world. One of his many accomplishments as a high school player includes selection for the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championship All-Star Five.

This year,  Duren led the University of Memphis to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014. On April 18, 2022,  Duren declared for the 2022 NBA draft and was selected as the 13th overall pick during the First Round. On July 7, 2022, Duren signed a contract with the Detroit Pistons. On August 21, 2022, Sharon Hill Borough Council presented Duren with the key to the borough at Academy Park basketball courts.

Afterward, the celebration continued at Borough Hall for refreshments and food provided by Lagos Island Grille.

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Sharon Hill Releases Heavily Redacted Report on Fanta Bility Police Shooting

Young Fanta Bility died in a hail of bullets that turned out to be fired by police officers.

Fanta, 8, was one of four people struck by police bullets during the shooting, including her sister. The other three survived. They were all leaving an Academy Park football game on Aug. 27, 2021.

Three officers were fired from the force as a result of the shooting, and now they are charged with voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person.

Sharon Hill Council appointed Kelley Hodge and the Law Firm of Fox-Rothschild LLP as special counsel to investigate policies and procedures, including the police department’s use of force, surrounding the Academy Park High School Football Game Shooting. Now a heavily-redacted version of their report has been released.

“The goal of Borough Council was to ensure that going forward, the SHPD adopts and implements the best practices available regarding the use of force and any other relevant policies and procedures.” It welcomed recommendations for improvements, the report said. Those 17 recommendations were redacted.

Bruce L. Castor Jr., the lawyer for the Bility family was outraged by the report. Castor, along with the Bility family, decried the report as “completely unacceptable in any society that values the truth and the rule of law.”

“The heavily edited report raises more questions in the minds of the family and the public than it answers. Fanta’s legal counsel and family members will have more to say on the report after taking several days to study it. That Sharon Hill Borough officials chose to hide from the public those portions detrimental to itself and the conduct of its officials in the training and supervision of its police department, speaks loudly to Sharon Hill’s knowledge of its own guilt in connection with Fanta’s death,” Castor said.

This account of the incident was part of the report: “The first shooting incident that occurred that evening was between two individuals, A.J. Ford and Hasein Strand who reportedly had been in attendance at the game. Witnesses to the criminal investigation describe Ford as firing the first shots from a .45 caliber semi-automatic firearm from the area of 909 Coates Street west towards Ridley Street. He fired at least five times towards Hasein Strand. Strand then returned fire by shooting a 9mm semi-automatic firearm from approximately 919 Coates Street east towards the 800 block of Coates Street, where pedestrians were leaving the football game and where (the three officers) were positioned. One of the projectiles fired by Strand struck an unintended target.”

“Moments prior to the shooting between Ford and Strand, a young woman named Aasiyah Easley was driving south on Kenney Avenue and stopped at the stop sign at the intersection with Coates Street.”

Easley and her friend, Yasmin Mobley, were in the passenger seat. They saw people leaving the field through a gate onto Coates Street. As Easley turned left onto Coates Street, she heard two gunshots, then more from the east.

“When she heard the second series of gunshots, Ms. Easley stopped her car and was trying to recline her seat in an attempt to duck and take cover. At this point, her car was stopped approximately parallel with the exit ramp from the football field,” the report said.

“Ms. Easley then heard bullets coming through the window of her car that shattered the glass. She stated during the preliminary hearing of Devaney, Dolan and Smith that she could feel the glass on her skin,” the report said

Another officer, Sean Scanlon, was inside the football field opposite the exit ramp and heard the gunshots. After the shooting ended, he heard screaming and rushed to help Fanta. He and his partner, Officer Vincent Procopio, took Fanta to a hospital, not waiting for an ambulance, according to the report.

As crowds left the football game at around 8:30 p.m., according to the report, officers “Brian Devaney, Sean Dolan and Devon Smith, responded to the gunfire and discharged their service weapons. In total, (those three officers) fired twenty-five rounds in the direction of where they believed the initial gunfire had erupted, striking three civilians,” the report said.

“Generally, before using deadly force, the officer must consider the accuracy of his information, that life or great bodily injury is threatened; whether the use of deadly force is a last resort; [and] the danger to innocent bystanders,” the report said. They were also precluded from firing at moving vehicles unless in danger.

The report found that Sharon Hill is 71 percent Black, but no Blacks or other minorities are on the police force.

“Thus, presently, the Sharon Hill Police Department does not reflect the racial or ethnic diversity within Sharon Hill,” the report said.

Castor said the report as released puts protecting government officials over the interests of the public.

“The government of Sharon Hill exists to protect and serve the public, but its officials think it exists to protect and serve them,” Castor said. “The redactions after having had the report for weeks (or months) is a shameful and outrageous demonstration that Sharon Hill Borough’s officials are not interested in providing the truth to the public as a beginning point to heal the community. Sharon Hill’s only interest is in delay. What is contained behind those black bars in the report? What else could there be apart from a professional assessment of the ineptitude of the training, policies, procedures and supervision given to the Sharon Hill Police Department in the use of deadly force?

“The world will eventually learn how Sharon Hill Borough officials failed to make certain its police trained under realistic scenarios and understood fully when deadly force is permitted under the law and when it is not. That, and so much more, is what Sharon Hill Borough officials are hiding now from Fanta’s family and from the community at large. It is time for the community to have its voice heard. It is time to demand the truth about the police killing Fanta,” Castor said.

Delaware County DA Jack Stollsteimer declined to comment due to the ongoing criminal investigation.

 

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BILITY FAMILY: We Have Had Enough

Editor’s Note: This statement was read by lawyer Bruce L. Castor Jr. at a Darby Township meeting this week. The Darby Board of Commissioners then voted to extend by 60 days the suspension of the Briarcliffe Fire Company whose members made disparaging remarks about Fanta Bility.

 

The family of little 8 year-old Fanta Bility is not here tonight to accept an apology nor participate as a prop as part of a community discussion. They have asked me to read a statement which I shall now do.

From the very beginning of the saga following the killing of Fanta at the hands of Sharon Hill Police and the wounding of several others, Fanta’s family have tried to respect the process of the justice system here in America without hyperbole, exaggeration, or accusations of immoral motives.

They love their adopted country and their adopted community. They believe in America’s ideals and promises. They trust America’s institutions, her police, her firemen, her prosecutors, her judges, and her juries. They wear the flag of their adopted nation on their sleeves. Able to distinguish between people doing bad things as opposed to America itself, and this community, in particular, being systemically bad.

That ends tonight. Yes, Fanta’s family realize their community might not be the best funded nor possess a well-trained and supervised police department. But this community has systematically and deliberately, at every turn, sought to devalue and de-humanize Fanta — with cruel, callous calculation.

(Fanta was) a girl who loved her family her friends and exulted in being an American. On at least four occasions, the life and memory of Fanta was dismissed as meaningless, insignificant, irrelevant, and appallingly, as laughable.

Once, when Sharon Hill Police officers turned their backs on active shooters and fired their weapons in the opposite direction. Worse, they fired at a moving car without regard for the safety of the innocent people in that car, nor the huge number of people in the ever-changing background as the officers tracked the car as is rode by bullets whizzing past by the dozens: one striking Fanta’s sister and another killing Fanta who lay dying in her mother’s lap, awake, alert, terrified knowing that her life was draining out of her…and her mother knowing the same — and she will never recover from that knowledge, much like Fanta can never be brought back to life.

But the Bility family believes in America and our institutions. Fanta’s life would be respected. Sadly, firemen from Briarcliffe Fire Department thought so little of the value of Fanta’s life they disparaged her on a hot mic, mocking her name and some say her ethnicity. No longer a little girl, a victim of gunshots…no…they reduced her to a punchline.

Thirdly, there was a preliminary hearing last week. Fanta’s family went there, as good American’s would, to see justice done. Only they were outnumbered 10 to 1 by off-duty police officers there to laugh and joke with the men a grand jury said were responsible for killing Fanta. It was not difficult to see which people in the courtroom gallery were Fanta’s family. No chance there could be any mistake at a simple glance.

And those men charged looked for all the world that the proceedings were a joke, nothing to worry over or take seriously — all in full view of the grieving family. This was the fourth direct and incontrovertible demonstration that Fanta’s life has no value — in much the same way, indeed, the same type of people, who have insultingly made no serious effort to settle the civil litigation coming out of the inept training and supervision Sharon Hill Borough provides its police.

The public servants tasked with protecting this community and making amends for its mistakes have failed little Fanta. She failed her family of patriotic, formerly enthusiastic first-generation Americans from West Africa. It’s sad, disappointing, and disgusting. No, Fanta Bility’s family is not here tonight to accept an apology. They are here now to say they have had enough.

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Grand Jury Indicts Three Sharon Hill Officers in Child’s Death

A Delaware County grand jury indicted has three Sharon Hill police officers on numerous charges, including voluntary manslaughter, for shooting into a crowd leaving a football game, killing 8-year-old Fanta Bility.

The incident happened on August 27, 2021, after an Academy Park High School football game when a group of young men got into an argument. Two of them exchanged gunfire in the 900 block of Coates Street, one block west of the football stadium entrance as spectators were leaving.

Three officers– Devon Smith, 33, Sean Dolan, 25, and Brian Devaney, 41, — were nearby. As gunshots rang out, a car turned directly in front of the officers. The lawmen fired 25 rounds from their Glock 17 service revolvers, according to court records. A woman in the car was struck by broken glass after shots hit the windshield.

Brian Devaney

The grand jury investigation found that four of the five gunshot victims, including young Fanta, were hit by shots from the officers’ guns, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said.

In addition to killing Fanta, the police also injured her older sister, Mamasu Bility, 12, who suffered a graze wound to her neck, according to court records. Alona Ellison-Acosta was shot in the foot and Anya Kellan suffered a graze wound to her ankle.

“From the moment the call came in on August 27, my team of investigators and prosecutors has worked tirelessly to achieve justice for Fanta and the other victims of that tragic night. Today’s charges are a big step forward in that process,” Stollsteimer said.

The officers were each charged with 12 criminal counts, including voluntary and reckless manslaughter and reckless endangerment, for their actions that night.

Meanwhile, Angelo “AJ” Ford, 16, of Sharon Hill, and Hasein Strand, 18, of Collingdale, whose altercation sparked the shooting, also face charges. Ford was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault for allegedly trying to kill Strand, as well as a gun charge. According to the indictment, their fight was due to ongoing Collingdale versus Darby territorial conflicts involving the Money Making Legends (MML) gang.

Earlier Tuesday, Strand pled guilty to aggravated assault for his wounding of a child bystander during the initial August 27 gunfight and illegal possession of a firearm. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Strand will be incarcerated for 32-64 months at a state prison and will remain under court supervision until 2030, officials said.

Devon Smith

“Relatedly, I am also announcing today that I have directed my office to withdraw murder charges against defendants A.J. Ford and Hasein Strand for their role in the killing of Fanta Bility. While I believe these defendants should be held accountable for starting the series of events that ultimately led to Fanta Bility’s death, developments during the grand jury investigation render it appropriate to withdraw these charges at this time,” Stollsteimer said.

Lawyers for the victims praised the DA.

“The Bility family thanks District Attorney Stollsteimer and his staff of investigators and prosecutors for following the evidence and the law in bringing forth these charges today,” said Bruce L. Castor, Jr., the attorney representing the Bility family. “The family appreciates that the District Attorney has kept them informed at every stage of this investigation. From the beginning, he assured them that he would seek justice for Fanta, and today’s charges indicate that he’s done exactly that. They made the right call,” Castor said.

“The family is satisfied with this [indictment],” Castor told the Delaware Valley Journal. “This was as well as it could have gone. Obviously, the police were not intending to kill (her). So the best we were going to do is a manslaughter charge and the DA’s office did exactly that. And the family is 100 percent behind what the DA has done.”

However, convicting the officers of manslaughter may be difficult, Castor said.

“That takes a lot of guts for the elected DA to charge [police officers] with voluntary manslaughter,” said Castor. “I think the DA’s office could have easily elected not to charge any degree of homicide based on the ballistics evidence and it would have been totally justified. The more politically risky move was to charge a case where it’s a close call. Politicians are not always known to be the bravest, and they usually take the safest courses. I think he ought to be praised for that.”

While nothing will bring back the little girl, “a criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits will at least deter future misconduct,” said Castor, who is suing the city and officers in federal court on behalf of the Bility family. That civil case is being delayed until the criminal case is resolved, he said.

The suit, for an unspecified amount, alleges civil rights violations, Castor said. But he expects the resulting verdict or settlement to be “substantial.”

Sean Dolan

While Mamasu Fanta has recovered physically, “she’s very traumatized from having been shot and from being there when her sister was shot… I’ve learned from experience that children are slow to show symptoms of tremendous trauma in their lives. They slowly process it and begin to show signs of PTSD that we know in adults,” said Castor.”I fully realize that the tragic death of Fanta and the trauma inflicted on her family, the other victims, and community members involved, have been emotionally draining to all, including the investigators and prosecutors assigned. No one touched by this incident will ever be the same. I hope that today’s announcement will help the community begin to heal through the knowledge that all the individuals who fired guns that night are being held accountable for their actions under our laws,” said Stollsteimer.

Community members had been protesting about the slow pace of the grand jury investigation and demanding that charges be brought against the officers. And, conversely, some protesters also asked that murder charges against Ford and Strand be dismissed.”It’s of great significance that theDA’ss office withdrew the murder charges against the other two people who started the ball rolling,” said Castor, who had previously served as Montco district attorney.”That was the right thing to do.”

Sharon Hill officials did not respond to requests for comment. Bail was set at $500,000, unsecured, for each of the three officers, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 27.  Lawyers for the officers did not respond bu deadline when asked to comment.

“I think this is a good day for justice in southeast Pennsylvania,” Castor said.

 

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