By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 10, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.
DINWIDDIE – Just over a year after a Dinwiddie business man’s murder, the second of three suspects charged in connection with his death has been convicted for their role in the June 2018 slaying.
Last week, a two-day trial concluded with Newport News resident Caleb Smith being found guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, and using a firearm in commission of a felony by a Dinwiddie County jury, making him the second suspect to now face a lengthy prison sentence in connection with the death of Umar Salaam, a Petersburg father and Dinwiddie business operator in mid-June of last year.
While he was convicted on those three charges, court records show two felony conspiracy counts levied against Smith were dismissed during last week’s trial.
This case dates back to the summer of last year, a time that would be remembered as being particularly violent in the eyes of locals as this case would be one of two murders that took place within days of each other in Dinwiddie.
In the overnight hours of June 20, 2018, Dinwiddie County authorities were alerted to a man lying in the road along U.S. Route 1 near Interstate 85, who was later identified as Salaam, the owner and operator of a car wash at the Shell gas station at the corner of Boydton Plank Road and Ritchie Avenue a short distance away. He would be rushed to Petersburg’s Southside Regional Medical Center where he died from his injuries.
Thanks to the persistent and capable efforts of the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office, detectives were able to name and arrest three suspects in connection with the robbery and murder of Salaam, with Smith, Thornhill Sledge, and Jhanae Short all being placed behind bars at Meherrin River Regional Jail within days of the crime.
The violence would continue unfortunately as, days later and unrelated to the Salaam case, Dinwiddie teenager Ke’Asia Adkins would be reported missing and eventually found dead near her U.S. Route 1 home after friends and family searched for her with the hope of bringing her home safe. A relative, Anton Coleman would be arrested and charged in connection with her death as she reportedly was heading to cheerleading practice at the county high school.
The following month would see both cases make headlines as Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill would confirm a grand jury found sufficient evidence to move forward in both cases but, in regards to the murder of Salaam, Smith, Short, and Sledge were all indicted on murder, robbery, and felony firearms charges.
With various hearings throughout the reminder of 2018 slowing the case, the first suspect to face a Dinwiddie County jury for trial was Jhanae Short, with the Petersburg woman eventually taking an Alford plea to an amended second-degree murder charge. That plea by Short, while not a guilty plea, demonstrated she acknowledged the evidence likely to be presented by the Commonwealth could be compelling enough to a jury that they could bring back a guilty verdict against her.
Short did plea guilty to felony robbery, according to court records, while the firearms and conspiracy charges against her were dismissed. As of this report, she is scheduled to return to Dinwiddie County Circuit Court this week for a pre-sentencing report, where she faces up to 40 years in prison on the murder charge.
For Smith, following his first-degree murder, robbery, and firearms conviction last week, his pre-sentencing report is set for next month, August 22 in the county’s circuit court. With his conviction, he faces up to life in prison.
That pre-sentencing report will be only a few days after the final suspect in this case, Thornhill Sledge is slated to have his two-day trial before a jury beginning August 15, where he too faces first-degree murder, robbery, and firearms charges.
While unavailable for comment this month, Baskervill, serving as the county’s lead prosecutor has discussed the importance of this case in past interviews with The Dinwiddie Monitor. June 2018 has a tragic distinction of being a violent month in the county following the deaths of Salaam and Adkins and, for her office, after the arrest of suspects in those respective cases, work toward justice for the families of the victims and the community begins.
“Homicide is the most serious crime one can commit,” Baskervill said. “When an offender or group of offenders takes the life of another, this erases the victim’s independent, self-determined future, erasing his or her chance to do, to feel, to be. This also robs a family, a peer group, a community, and a society of someone who is a piece of all these circles, and does so without warning, without answers, without purpose, and without sense. What possibly is accomplished by taking another’s life? Nothing good, nothing to be proud of, nothing society chooses to accept or tolerate.”
She continued, “As a prosecutor, I apply criminal laws which recognize and reflect the gravity of homicide. When I file charges for a grand jury to consider, those charges allege crimes which violate specific criminal statutes ‘in violation of the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Virginia.’ In addition to inflicting the gravest, most permanent damage on a victim, his or her loved ones, and his or her community, the killing of another is perhaps the most egregious way one can violate the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth. In these cases, every ounce of work by me and my office – litigating, investigating, filing charges, and so forth – is in service to the public to restore the peace and dignity that has been violated.”
Speaking candidly, Baskervill said the Commonwealth seeks to “avenge crimes with justice” but, she stressed “justice is more than vengeance.”
“it is the pursuit and protection of our peace and dignity, and even, in my realistic but optimistic perspective, how good ultimately prevails over evil,” the prosecutor said. “I offer that as an important message to convey to community members and to criminals and would-be criminals: Peace and dignity ultimately prevail over efforts to violate peace and dignity. Good ultimately prevails over bad. This means that ‘bad’ ultimately loses. Strong, devoted forces work hard and passionately to deliver this, and I and my office are honored to be among such forces, fighting for good with all we do every day and into every evening, on behalf of the community and its triumphant values. Perhaps this is lofty, but it is purposeful, and in the face of the dramatic low point of losing two precious lives to senseless violence, having positive purpose seems like a good thing.”
Baskervill further detailed, “And I believe that competent and committed prosecution efforts serve such a positive purpose. Since I and my office represent, and act entirely in service of, the community and its values, prosecuting these crimes is part of the response by the community, by society, to the tragedies of these homicides. I and my office are among the forces and servants who represent these victims, loved ones, community members grieving loss and violence, and our entire society where violence and killing contradicts our values, our laws, and our hard-fought free and safe way of life. I and my office are mindful and respectful of, and professionally and personally committed to, this responsibility to pursue justice in the name of the community and its values.”
“In turn, I hope the community is served and empowered by our efforts to put these values into action through the prosecution of these crimes,” she closed.