PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

JOHN P MARTIN

No one was awake – not the 57-year-old grandmother, her niece or the four children – when the two men carrying red cans full of gas climbed the porch of their North 6th Street house in the pre-dawn darkness.

One kicked the door in, and fired gunshots up the stairs to keep everyone frozen in their bedrooms. Then they lit the cloths that plugged the gas cans like wicks, and tossed the makeshift bombs inside.

In seconds, the fire engulfed the house, killing all the occupants. The October 2004 attack shook the city as one of the grimmest examples of witness retaliation.

On Monday, federal prosecutors opened their case against the drug dealer they say ordered the killings of Marcella Coleman, her three grandsons, her niece and niece’s 10-year-old daughter.

Kaboni Savage, they say, sent a message to Coleman’s son, who had agreed to testify against him. “They all rats,” Savage allegedly later crowed. “They all had to go.”

Savage, 38, is already serving 30 years in prison for drug conspiracy. But prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, accusing him of heading an enterprise in which trafficking, murder and arson were common.

For more than two hours, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer walked jurors methodically from Savage’s beginnings as a street dealer to his emergence as a trafficker in North Philadelphia. He outlined his role in six other killings, mostly of rival dealers or associates who posed a threat.

“He ruled this organization by fear, by intimidation, by murder,” Troyer told the jury, a mostly older, white panel of 14 women and four men, whose names are sealed.

On trial with Savage are his sister, Kidada Savage; Steven Northington, described as an enforcer for the gang, and Robert Merritt, one of the men who allegedly carried out the firebombing. Merritt and Northington also face the death penalty if convicted.

Savage’s lawyer conceded the fire was “a tragedy of epic proportions” but asked jurors to be guided by facts, not gut-wrenching photos of the blaze or smiling victims.

The drug allegations are no different than the ones that led to Savage’s 2005 conviction, lawyer Christian J. Hoey said. Instead of being a cog, he said, Savage, who drove a Subaru wagon, and paid mortgages on two modest properties, has now been elevated by federal authorities to a kingpin.

“The facts haven’t changed,” Hoey said, “the nametags have.”

Both lawyers agreed this trial will have one glaring difference: Lamont Lewis.

Lewis was the other accomplice in the firebombing, allegedly after getting orders from Savage and his sister. Now he’s the key witness for the prosecution.

Lewis began cooperating with the government in 2008, and has admitted to 11 murders, including some that were unsolved, the prosecutor said. His plea agreement calls for no less than 40 years in prison.

Hoey told jurors the case hinges on how much they trust Lewis, a witness who described himself as “treacherous,” “homicidal,” ” a stone-cold killer” and “an assassin.”

He said that government recordings will show Lewis complaining that agents “want me to lie on somebody” and asking a lawyer if he might collect the $100,000 reward for information on the Coleman bombing.

The trial, before U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, is scheduled to last at least three months, built largely on the word of cooperators and secret recordings. Many were gathered on prison phone lines or from a bug planted in Savage’s jail cell, capturing comments that prosecutors say show him to be a heartless murderer.

In one, he says of the five-year-old daughter of a cooperator: “I gonna blow her little head off.” And after Coleman was freed from prison to attend his relatives’ funeral, Savage allegedly quipped: “They should stop off and get him some barbecue sauce . . . pour it on them burnt bitches.”

Hoey asked jurors not to be swayed by “stupid” rantings from a prisoner in isolation. He noted said Savage wasn’t able to carry out any threats and never is heard admitting to the Coleman murders.

According to Hoey, even Savage’s associates didn’t take him seriously. He pointed to a May 2008 recorded conversation between Lewis and a friend.

“He’s already doing 30 years,” Lewis said about Savage. “He’s not a threat. Never been a threat. Nobody ever been scared of him.”

Lawyers for Northington, Kidada Savage and Merritt are scheduled to give their opening arguments on Tuesday.