He looked small and far younger than his years, even with his face half covered by a COVID mask. His slate blue dress shirt was two sizes too big and hung loosely from his frame, bolstering his boyish looks.
Sheldon Jeter Jr., 23 of Aliquippa, was seated at an end of the defense table in Courtroom 1 on Monday morning. Proceedings were getting underway which could ultimately determine his fate for the rest of his days. Sheldon stands accused of criminal homicide for the May 2020 shooting of thirty-year-old Tyric Pugh, also of Aliquippa, a close friend who was among the closest to family he had.
If convicted, Sheldon may well spend his life behind bars.
I have been writing about Sheldon since 2018, after one of my many confidential sources on alleged corruption in Aliquippa, Rachael DelTondo, was shot dead at the bottom of her parents’ driveway on Mother’s Day that year. Before her murder, Rachael had confided in me that she was receiving death threats and feared for her life.
While she didn’t admit it to me at the time, Rachael, a gorgeous school teacher, had been romantically involved with Sheldon since he was at least 16-year-old; the two had been found by police in a steamed up car parked in a dark and abandoned lot. Their relationship was revealed by a leak from the Aliquippa Police Department just months before her death (Rachael went on to date Sheldon’s older brother).
Law enforcement sources tell me that romantic communications between Rachael and Sheldon were eventually unearthed from electronic devices… there are allegedly also photographs. Sheldon readily admits the two had been lovers. Those close to Sheldon described to me lavish gifts she had given to him.
Sheldon remains to this day law enforcement’s main focus in Rachael’s death, although he nor anyone else has ever been charged with her killing. Rachael’s ex-fiancé, Frank Catroppa, who many in the public had eyed as their favorite suspect, has been cleared by investigators of any involvement in her murder.
Defense attorneys told me that prosecutors made the rare decision to not extend a plea offer to Sheldon for his alleged murder of Tyric, saying he would also have to plead to Rachael’s murder as part of some package deal.
Sheldon and his attorneys were having none of it. Through his attorney Michael Santicola, Sheldon has denied killing Tyric or Rachael.
Santicola has been uncharacteristically blunt for a defense attorney about the young man’s chances at trial in the case he faces this month. There is considerable forensic evidence stacked against Sheldon in Tyric’s murder — prosecutors say some 200 exhibits may take up to four weeks to present to a jury.
There are surveillance videos showing Sheldon and Tyric leaving the house together headed in the direction of the crime scene, and of Sheldon returning home alone as Tyric’s body was discovered by a passerby. There is a gun found under Sheldon’s mattress by state police that experts say was responsible for firing the fatal rounds. There is gunshot residue and DNA evidence.
One thing prosecutors don’t seem to have is a motive.
Santicola has told me and other reporters that defending Sheldon in this case is going to be an “uphill battle” and declined to hint at any strategy. It is not a battle that Santicola will be waging alone. Sheldon is being represented by a team of four attorneys, from three different firms. He hired his own forensics expert to examine evidence in the case. It is a venerable army of capable professionals that has been amassed for the indigent young man, bankrolled by undisclosed benefactors.
Jury selection took all of Monday and Tuesday, and half of Wednesday, to complete. Twelve jurors and four alternates will be seated together starting Thursday to hear opening arguments and testimony in the case.
Although jury selection began with a big splash in the media Monday morning, with camera crews all around, I was the only reporter left in the courtroom by the day’s end. I was the only journalist who sat through all three days of the process, largely as the sole person in the spectator’s gallery. I found myself spending most of that time looking over at Sheldon, wishing I could download the contents of his mind so I could finally get answers for all of the questions I have amassed over these years.
While this trial concerns only the murder of Tyric, Rachael undoubtedly cast a shadow over the entire proceeding; her name was mentioned without solicitation by many prospective jurors as they were being questioned.
Sheldon’s name is one people recognize.
There were also some unexpected moments. On Tuesday morning, jury selection came to a screeching halt after one of the jurors chosen on Monday called the courthouse. They had forgotten to mention that they had worked on a political campaign as part of a failed attempt to unseat District Attorney David Lozier. The juror was brought back into the courthouse, briefly questioned to make sure they harbored no bias against the prosecution, and was ultimately allowed to remain on the case. The juror seemed giddy upon hearing the news, a reaction that raised lingering concerns in some.
The time spent in the courtroom allowed me to get a feel for the individuals involved in this unfolding drama, but truth be told, I have little to report for now from those three days, save the following:
Out of the dozens and dozens and dozens of prospective jurors I saw over the course of three days, I only noticed one who appeared to be non-white. It is a credit to all involved that this lone individual, a young, light-skinned woman, found her way onto the jury.
The seven women and five men who comprise the sitting jury are diverse in age, background, and economic class, however.
The judge, defense attorneys, and prosecutors all seemed to go out of their way to ensure justice in this case will be served by a representative cross section of the community, given the seemingly unrepresentative jury pool they had to work from. The lack of racial diversity in Beaver County’s jury pools (derived from randomly chosen voters) has been a subject of controversy for many years.
That being said, defense attorneys and prosecutors told me they are all happy with the jury they ended up with… at least for now.