Brazen slaying that showed underbelly of Charleston's East Side seen as possible turning point for neighborhood

Tyrel Collins, 26, on trial in the October 2011 killing of Solomon Chisolm on Charleston's East Side. (PROVIDED/CANNON DETENTION CENTER)

When the gunfire echoed through Mall Playground, Sol Chisolm was pondering his hand - a three, a seven and an eight of diamonds, and an eight of spades.

The sun had set over downtown Charleston four minutes earlier. Children still frolicked on the play set. Young men shot hoops on the basketball court.

Many there knew of Solomon Lamont Chisolm, a player in the East Side drug game. He had been suspected of killing at least six people, but he never was prosecuted. He once survived a hail of 30 bullets that rained down on his car.

Chisolm, 24, figured that his enemies were jealous of his success. He liked to show off $100 bills on Facebook.

Leading up to Oct. 27, 2011, his biggest beef was with another 24-year-old drug dealer, Tyrel Rashone Collins. Police think he had wounded Collins and fatally shot another man four days earlier.

But Chisolm wasn't armed that early Thursday evening when a tall, slim man walked onto the playground. The collar of the man's black T-shirt was hiked up over his nose.

He came from behind the bleachers, where Chisolm wagered $1 bills in a game of Tonk. He stepped up to a row above Chisolm, pointed a 9 mm pistol downward and fired six times.

One bullet missed. Two others plunged into Chisolm's back. One of those ended up in his spine. Two more hit his neck and his chest, puncturing his lungs. A final bullet hit the center of his forehead and lodged in his brain.

Chisolm fell between two rows of bleachers, his left hand still clutching the playing cards. The man East Siders called the "Living Legend" was dead.

Before the killer left in a white Ford Crown Victoria, he looked at a surviving card player and pulled down his shirt.

"Yeah," he said, nodding, "I did that."

That was the story that Chisolm's half-brother eventually told the Charleston Police Department.

It was a story of a brazen, daylight slaying, and it startled the authorities. It became a cause celebre for police and prosecutors looking to temper a culture of violence and silence in the neighborhood.

And it led last week to a murder conviction and a lifetime prison sentence for Chisolm's archrival, Collins, known as "Soldier" on the streets.

It hadn't been easy. The same problem of unreliable witnesses that kept Chisolm out of prison could have prompted an acquittal. A jury needed 10 hours to agree on a unanimous verdict.

And the plot twists likely haven't ended. Assistant Solicitor Stephanie Linder said during the trial that a federal indictment could result from a shooting that Collins' brother is accused of carrying out at the home of the eyewitness' mother.

Authorities also were looking into whether Collins had ordered that shooting, she later added.

But Linder rejoiced in the witness' testimony as a possible turning point for the community.

"He came in here against adversity," Linder said during the trial. "He came in here to tell the East Side that enough is enough."

As 17-year-olds, Collins and Chisolm were selling crack cocaine downtown.

At that age, Collins sold $20 worth to a police informant.

Authorities said Chisolm's approach to the trade was more violent. He was 18 when he was jailed after a witness said he fatally shot a family member of the man he intended to target on Nassau Street.

Chisolm avoided prosecution largely because of the "no-snitch" code of the streets where he and Collins operated.

To prosecutors, his killer's reported nod to the eyewitness expressed confidence that the community would again remain silent.

"That's the kind of person who knows the kind of neighborhood the East Side is," Linder said. "Things that happen in the East Side tend to stay in the East Side."

Led by Sgt. David Osborne, Charleston detectives struggled with that obstacle early in the investigation. But leads pointing to Collins emerged.

One of three men stopped while running from the park, Lavar Lemont Anderson, was carrying playing cards and $150 in dollar bills.

When Anderson, now 23, denied playing cards with Chisolm, Osborne called his bluff and arrested him for lying.

Anderson soon pointed to Collins' picture in a photo lineup.

A day later, investigators searched a family home where Collins was seen. In one bedroom, they unearthed a black T-shirt similar to the killer's and some paperwork containing Collins' name. The shirt tested positive for the elements that make up gunshot residue.

During the trial, public defender Jason King showed jurors photos of Collins' 23-year-old brother, Dominique Antwuan Montgomery, who is now jailed on drug charges, posing with a revolver and a Glock pistol. He lived in the house, and attorneys offered the photos as an explanation for the gun-residue particles on the T-shirt.

Collins had long been frustrated by what he called faulty evidence and a fabricated story from the victim's half-brother, Raymond Renard Clement. He wrote a letter to The Post and Courier a year after the shooting to assert his innocence and express the solace his neighborhood might have found in Chisolm's demise.

"I think the community should be reminded," he wrote, "that it is a lot safer since his death."

Collins embarked on his own campaign to push the evidence into his corner. The only witness who would testify against him, Clement, had first told detectives that he didn't see who the shooter was.

Clement had a criminal history, including a federal gun conviction in 2001 that led to a five-year prison term.

It also led to his cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. His work as a paid informant put "lots of people" behind bars, he testified without specifying.

In the Collins case, the ATF offered federal witness-protection money in exchange for his cooperation. "I didn't want to get involved at first," he said. "I didn't want to put my family in danger."

He told detectives that he had been playing cards with Chisolm when Collins opened fire. As he ran for cover, Clement said Collins shot at him. One bullet, he told the police days later, grazed his leg.

Collins knew early on that Clement would be the state's lead witness.

He called Clement from the county jail in April 2012 and persuaded him to sign a notarized statement that he had never seen Collins. But the two used street slang during their conversations. Jurors had a difficult time deciphering them during the trial, and asked several times for recordings of the calls to be replayed.

"He already knew I was going to testify," Clement said. "That's when I started getting threats. ... He wanted me to tell his truth."

Outside the jail, the police said Collins' brother made a last-minute attempt to stop Clement. The brother already had played a role in getting Clement to retract his account of the shooting.

"Inferences can be made" from the recorded jail calls, Linder said, "that Tyrel relies on his brother to handle his situations while he is behind bars."

On Monday night, the day before the trial, 25-year-old Adrian Collins was seen walking away from a disturbance not far from Mall Playground.

When officers tried to talk with him, they said he ran. An officer handcuffed him after a brief struggle outside a Nassau Street house that left a policeman with a slight head injury, a report stated.

Under the house, the officers found the 9 mm SCCY pistol they said he had stashed there. Ballistics testing later matched it to a shooting the night before, when the home of Clement's mother was shot up.

Even if Clement hadn't testified, prosecutors planned to put two other witnesses on the stand.

One of them was Anderson, the card player who had picked Collins from a lineup.

Now imprisoned for distributing crack cocaine, Anderson changed his mind three times as he waited outside the courtroom last week.

He eventually refused to testify, instead deciding to serve 90 days in jail for contempt of court after his current sentence ends.

Prosecutors also had a jailhouse informant in store. James Deangelo White, 36, serving time for distributing crack cocaine, had told Linder that Collins admitted to the slaying while they roomed together at the county jail.

But White also got cold feet. He told a judge that he didn't know that he wasn't allowed to refuse.

"(Linder) never told me that when she came to see me," he said. "I ain't testifying."

The judge ordered a brief recess after White was sentenced. Collins stood and smirked at his friends in the courtroom as he walked out with a stuffed envelope in his hands.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.