Suspect in businessman’s murder receives 20-year prison term

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @DinwiddieMonitr
Posted: September 27, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.

Third suspect awaiting sentencing in 2018 robbery, murder

DINWIDDIE – The second of three suspects charged in connection with the robbery and murder of a beloved father and businessman has been sentenced to two decades behind bars as only one suspect now awaits sentencing relating to the summer 2018 case.

Alberta resident Thornhill Sledge plead no contest in Dinwiddie County Circuit Court last month as he was slated to go on trial for his role in the June 2018 robbery and murder of Umar Salaam, a businessman who was found wounded near his business along U.S. Route 1 and Ritchie Avenue before later dying at Southside Regional Medical Center in Petersburg.

Leading up to his trial last month, Sledge had been charged with first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy and felony firearms offenses before he opted to submit his no contest plea, ending the case before it could advance to a seating of a Dinwiddie County jury. With his plea, court records show the murder charge was amended to murder in the second degree, while the conspiracy and firearms charges were dismissed.

As a result, Sledge was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder, with two decades of that term suspended and 20 years in prison on the robbery charge, all of which was suspended, per court records. He becomes the second suspect to receive a sentence in the case and the second to enter a plea before heading to trial.

Earlier this year, Jhanae Short entered an Alford plea in court for her role in Salaam’s robbery and murder, meaning the defendant believes the evidence likely to be presented by the Dinwiddie Commonwealth Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill is strong enough that a jury would find them guilty, as she too faced first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and using a firearm to commit murder charges.

Court records show she is scheduled to be sentenced in late October.

In July, Caleb Smith, the third suspect in the case became the only assailant to opt to put their fate in the hands of a Dinwiddie County jury, which resulted in Smith being found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on his first-degree murder charge, while prosecutors dismissed the firearms and conspiracy charges levied against the Newport News resident.

The case struck a chord in Dinwiddie County with many residents and onlookers alike left speechless by the senselessness of Salaam’s death, leaving a void in a family and a child without a father. In an interview, lead county prosecutor Baskervill opened up about how her office approached the prosecution of this case and the message being sent to the criminal element.

“As we saw at trial and at our public proceedings in the public venue of court, this case involved a very deliberate plan to commit robbery, with motive elements including drugs, prostitution, and sheer greed,” she remarked. “The tragic death of Umar Salaam was the worst possible collateral damage. The lethal ultimate tragedy is recognized by Virginia criminal law, and by plain common sense and morality, as blame and culpability for deliberate and premeditated murder, because the deliberate and premeditated robbery itself entails violence that is entirely unacceptable.”

She continued, “Here the perpetrators all had – and expressed in open court – difficulty understanding how they could be guilty of murder, when they so-called ‘only’ participated in the planning and execution of a robbery. That is not how Virginia criminal law works, and that is not how our community’s sense of morality, justice, and public safety works. It was and is important for me and our team to express and execute our values here, which align with Virginia criminal law and thus align with our zealous prosecution efforts under Virginia law.”

Baskervill noted the suspects didn’t seem to have an understanding of what Dinwiddie, perhaps thinking they were in another jurisdiction when they committed the heinous crime, something that was revealed in court during Smith’s trial.

“A striking factor here was that none of our suspects seem to have known of Dinwiddie County. It is like they thought they were still in Petersburg,” she said. “At trial against Caleb Smith, who is now serving life-plus-plus, the evidence showed that, upon his arrest on warrants obtained by us in Dinwiddie, he inquired, ‘What’s Dinwiddie?’ Well, he knows now.”

“Dinwiddie is a place where violence against others is not okay,” Baskervill shared, reflecting on the individual who stopped to try and help Salaam in what was likely his last moments alive.

“Dinwiddie is a place where an innocent truck driver, proceeding along Route 1 doing his job hauling goods, should not come across a bleeding, suffering man crawling and pulling himself across the road trying to get help after he has been shot. But Dinwiddie also is a place where such an innocent truck driver stops to render assistance, calls 911, and stays with the injured victim to comfort and try to save him until law enforcement officers arrive, and then stays on scene to help law enforcement officers try to assist the injured victim and keep us all safe. Dinwiddie is a place where an innocent truck driver positions his own truck in the road so as to ensure safe conditions for the injured victim and for law enforcement officers,” the prosecutor said.

The community commended the swift investigative efforts of the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office in the hours and days after the crime, with the three suspects being arrested within days of Salaam’s murder. Their efforts allowed prosecutors the ability to present the case to the grand jury and eventually net convictions against the trio, with two entering pleas and a third being found guilty by a jury. For Baskervill, the efforts of the sheriff’s office and their detectives helped support their prosecutorial efforts.

“In the car-wash murder case, their immediate, collaborative, thorough, and excellent evidence collection made the case,” she shared. “Interestingly, if one had only watched the public trial against Caleb Smith and our other public proceedings, this may not have been obvious – and therein lies much of its value to this case. They identified suspects and public safety threats immediately and effectively. In dealing with the suspects, they were informed and insightful, and this promoted our ability to gain persuasive and admissible evidence from the suspects themselves.”

“Sheriff Adams has a great team, and his leadership allows them to maintain and constantly improve upon their excellence. I certainly speak for the community in expressing my admiration and gratitude,” she said, praising Lieutenant David Gunn, head of the department’s investigative unit, and Investigators Lucy, Shifflett, Droddy, Crowder, Aponte, and Parker for their efforts in this and other cases they are tasked with working.

“Most people know that prior to coming to Dinwiddie, I spent years prosecuting in the City of Richmond, ultimately specializing in gang cases,”Baskervill detailed. “I had amazing opportunities to work with all-star detectives and forensic investigators there. Ours here in Dinwiddie are amazing and all-star like that. I am so proud of them, and so privileged to work with them, and I know the community is grateful and blessed also. They are conscientious, tireless, professional, and bursting with integrity, common sense, wisdom, and particular and brilliant knowledge of and familiarity with Dinwiddie County.”

As the case approaches conclusion with Short expecting to return to Dinwiddie County Circuit Court for sentencing on October 30, Baskervill hopes those wanting to commit crimes of any kind in the county see a message being sent through the case.

“Do not come to Dinwiddie if you are planning a robbery, a burglary, an assault, or any kind of violence or cruelty. Better yet, don’t do any such thing at all, ever, anywhere. But if you do it in Dinwiddie, expect that you will learn exactly what Dinwiddie is and that justice and public safety are of paramount importance to us,” she closed.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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