Melchi Thomas, an aspiring Miami rapper known as “Wildlife Khi,” fatally shot a man on an Overtown street — and was captured, by chance, because two people happened to have overdosed in a nearby vacant field.
It was August 2016, at a time when Overtown had become the epicenter of Miami’s opioid crisis. Miami police officers were securing the field at Northwest First Avenue and 12th Street for paramedics, when a shot rang out. Thomas’ silver Nissan Maxima zoomed by.
Within moments, officers had stopped Thomas, who was soon arrested for the murder of 49-year-old Antonio Bell. He also was identified by witnesses and done in by DNA found on the gun tossed from the car. Six years later, Thomas claimed self-defense at trial. He lost.
On Monday, a Miami-Dade judge sentenced the 27-year-old Thomas to 45 years in prison for second-degree murder with a deadly weapon.
“A life was taken here. A life that cannot be brought back. A loss that cannot be filled,” Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez told Thomas.
The story of Thomas and Bell is a familiar one of promise and a stubborn cycle of violence in Overtown, one of Miami’s most historic but poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Both grew up in Overtown, although they were separated by 21 years of age.
Thomas’ own father, also named Melchi Thomas, was shot and killed in 1998 while trying to rob a homeowner in near Allapattah, a story that appeared in the Miami Herald. The older Melchi Thomas had been homeless and a ward of the state as a youth. He died at age 20, and already had two young children, including his 3-year-old namesake son.
“He was a broken kid — who had two kids,” said Antherius Thomas, 47, the elder Melchi Thomas’ brother.
The younger Thomas was raised by his mother and extended family.
“I was a mom raising two boys by myself. No help. Food stamps,” Shalonda Jones told the judge. “He’s not a monster. He’s my child.”
But he got into trouble nonetheless. In 2011, Miami police identified him as a “person of interest” in the shooting death of a 15-year-old Loic Gadson, of West Palm, who investigators believe had been trying to sell a gun to Thomas and an associate. A fingerprint tied him to the scene, although he has not been charged.
“He was 17 years old at the time,” Miami Police Sgt. Anthony Reyes told the judge of Thomas.
Thomas eventually landed at Tallahassee Community College, where he was arrested for carrying a gun on campus — an incident that sparked a school lockdown in 2014.
While on probation for that crime and back home in Miami, Thomas made music videos filled with violent imagery, Miami-Dade prosecutor Christopher Flanagan told the judge on Monday.
“He’s not painting a very pretty picture for someone who has been ‘rehabilitated,’” Flanagan said. “This defendant has had time and time again to rehabilitate himself in our criminal justice system.
The victim Bell had himself spent time in prison. A father of five, Bell had learned welding as a trade and had been working construction when he was shot to death, his sister, Tysheka Lucas, told the judge.
“He was a hardworking and resilient man,” Lucas said. “My brother worked hard for his family. Our family is no longer complete without him.”
Exactly how Thomas came to know Bell — and why they had friction — remains unclear.
Thomas shot Bell on the 1100 block of Northwest First Place, near the overdose scene where police had been working. “It was dumb luck. Unfortunate dumb luck,” Flanagan said.
A witness identified the shooter as wearing a distinct black-and-white hooded jacket — the same worn by Thomas when he was collared moments later. DNA was found on the gun, and investigators found gunshot residue on his hands, jurors heard.
Thomas initially denied having anything to do with the murder. But in early March, as he finally went to trial, he got on the stand to admit that he had indeed fired, but it had been in self-defense. He claimed that Bell had attacked him over a cellphone.
“He tried to take the phone from me,” Thomas said again on Monday.
Jurors didn’t buy it. The case was tried by prosecutors Flanagan, Tammy Pitiriciu and Joseph-Robert Forman. Thomas was defended by Francisco Marty, who had implored the judge to sentence him to 25 years in prison — the lowest sentence allowed by law.
“It’s heartbreaking. There’s no winners,” said Antherius Thomas, his uncle. “We’re losing. Both sides.”
This story was originally published April 25, 2022 5:04 PM.