Dedicated policing resulted in homicide suspect arrests
The investigation into the murders of Natalie Washington and Mikal Jackson-Stevenson started with a 911 call.
The call came close to 12 hours after police allege Isiah “Zay” Payne shot 52-year-old Washington and 28-year-old Jackson-Stevenson before making off with a stash of crack cocaine and money, according to charges filed by Altoona police.
Initially, when officers responded, they believed it was an overdose, but it was soon apparent that Washington and Jackson-Stevenson died violent deaths.
Police noted the 911 caller was a woman who had dropped Jackson-Stevenson off at 2606 Beale Ave. the night before. She told police she drove to a convenience store to use the Wi-Fi, and when she returned to the apartment, the door was locked. The woman spent the night trying to call Jackson-Stevenson, who had two cellphones, while driving back and forth from the apartment to area convenience stores.
About 11:30 a.m. on May 28, the woman used a credit card to open the apartment door and she found Washington and Jackson-Stevenson on the living room floor. Police said the initial 911 call was for a drug overdose.
When one of the responding officers overheard the woman talking to someone on her cellphone at the scene say, “He had it on him but obviously it’s gone now,” police became even more suspicious that the killings were related to drugs, detectives said in the charges.
Officers had already found items inside the apartment, such as a scale, tied plastic bags and copper scouring pad, that led them to believe there had been a drug-related robbery.
How police arrived at the scene on May 28, with scant information, and built an investigation that led to the arrests of Payne and his girlfriend, Onya Lewis, involved gathering evidence using an array of confidential sources, digital forensics and old-fashioned police work, Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks said after the arrests.
While the case was investigated by the Altoona Police Department, Weeks said it could not have come together without cooperation and assistance from other agencies, including the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and state police that assisted in the investigation, the Logan Township police for their help at the scene, the U.S. Marshals Service in locating and arresting Payne and Lewis, and the Blair County Sheriff’s office for making personnel available to travel to Delaware to bring the pair back to Blair County.
“Specifically, I would like to thank the Altoona Police Department. Detective (Derrick) Tardive, Detective (Shane) Strobel and Detective (David) Dey did outstanding work investigating a case where really there was no answers and no immediate information when law enforcement responded to the scene of the crime,” Weeks said.
Along with Washington’s cellphone, police seized the phone of the woman who called 911 and was overheard talking about suspected drugs so a detective could retrieve any messages or other evidence.
Police also received crucial information from several confidential sources who admitted to police they bought crack cocaine from Payne and Lewis, who were supplied by and selling on behalf of Jackson-Stevenson.
The sources provided police with a wealth of information that helped investigators piece together the timeline of events as well as alleged motivations and movements of the suspects. It also provided police with enough evidence to file drug charges against Payne and Lewis so they could be arrested and brought back to Blair County.
“This case is an example of how powerful digital forensics has become as an investigatory tool for law enforcement — that is what broke this case open,” Weeks said. “What gave the digital forensics context in this case is another aspect of Blair County that is unique from other surrounding counties — especially some of the larger areas we have in Pennsylvania — is that citizens and our police still work together. Not only will they get along, they’ll talk to each other.
“In this case, even the people who were involved in buying the drugs from Mr. Payne, Miss Lewis and the decedents — even those people were willing to come forward and talk to police and give them the context or the back story about what was going on here. Without that information and without that cooperation by citizens, these arrests would not be possible and this investigation would not have been possible,” Weeks said.
“I think that’s something we’ve seen nationally, unfortunately, in the last few months — this huge anti-police surge and this clash between law enforcement and the community — when instead, law enforcement and the community need to be working together,” Weeks said.
Police learned on the day of the killings that a man called “Zay” had been selling crack cocaine for Jackson-Stevenson out of Washington’s apartment, that he had been ripping people off by selling them crushed pills as well as owing Jackson-Stevenson about $2,000.
Police were also told by sources that “Zay” was “staying in Gallitzin with some girl,” Altoona police detectives wrote in the charges.
On May 29, the day after the murders, state police in Pittsburgh were contacted by Altoona police to help in tracking down a confidential source. Altoona police also asked state police if they were aware of any Black women living in Gallitzin, since investigators had received information that “Zay” was living with a Black woman there. One of the troopers told Altoona police he knew of one woman that was living on Main Street who had recently been involved in a domestic and that he would check and let Altoona police know of the address and the names involved, according to the charges.
Altoona police learned from the trooper that at about 7 p.m. on May 28, he was patrolling the Gallitzin area and drove past the address on the 400 block of Main Street where the Black female was living. The trooper noticed a U-Haul truck parked outside and people moving items out of her apartment, according to the charges. The trooper then told Altoona police that the “Zay” they were looking for maybe Isiah Payne, who lived at the address with Onya Lewis.
Once Altoona police had those two names, they were able to pull photographs from JNET — the Pennsylvania Justice Network — to create an eight-person photo lineup. Police then were able to show that lineup to confidential sources who admitted to buying crack cocaine from Payne and Lewis and had been to Washington’s apartment to identify the pair as the suspects.
On June 4, Altoona detectives contacted U-Haul and were told that Lewis rented a truck from the company’s Johnstown location. Police obtained the rental agreement for the truck as well as a photograph of the people renting the U-Haul truck, which police were able to identify as Payne and Lewis. Police also retrieved video footage from multiple Sheetz stores in the Johnstown area and found that Sheetz cameras at the Cresson store captured Payne and Lewis pulling into the parking lot about 1 p.m. on May 28.
Police said Payne was driving a dark-colored Chevrolet sedan, and while both he and Lewis walked in the store with their shirts pulled up over their faces, they eventually uncovered their faces in the video, which clearly showed the vehicle they were driving as well.
Police took that footage and compared it to the video footage from a home on the 800 block of 26th Street that showed a vehicle that matched the vehicle that Lewis drove, parked on 26th Street at 11:53 p.m. on May 27. The footage showed someone get out of the vehicle and walk toward the alley and rear of 2606 Beale Ave., police noted in the charges. The vehicle then backed up and pulled away with the headlights off and turned left on to Broad Avenue.
On June 24, police were able to learn from the family of Jackson-Stevenson about the Instagram accounts of Payne and Lewis.
On June 25, police received information from Harrisburg about the license plate on the Chevrolet Impala that Payne and Lewis were last seen driving. It was a file transfer request that showed the license plate was checked by police in Coweta County, Ga., on June 12. On June 26, Altoona investigators learned from the dispatch center in Coweta County, Ga., that a sheriff’s deputy had pulled over the Impala and that Payne was behind the wheel. Altoona police were able to obtain body cam footage of that traffic stop and confirmed that Payne and Lewis were in the car. Altoona police then obtained felony arrest warrants for Payne and Lewis for allegedly selling crack cocaine.
Altoona police learned in early July that Lewis had not seen her children for several weeks, which was unusual. She had dropped them off at their father’s home in Philadelphia about 6 a.m. on May 28, the morning of the murders, according to police.
Altoona police also learned in early July that one of Lewis’s sisters came and picked up the children and took them to her home, and although police did not know the exact location, it was believed to be in Delaware.
On July 3, Altoona detectives used cellphone records to show Jackson-Stevenson was communicating with Lewis leading up to the killings. Police noted Lewis’s phone had 42 communications with Jackson-Stevenson’s phone from May 18 through May 27. There were 16 text messages between the Lewis phone and Jackson-Stevenson’s phone on the day of the shootings.
Geo-location data from Payne’s cellphone put him in Altoona at the time of the killings, and on July 9, Altoona police were able to use the cellphone data to track Payne’s cellphone as it traveled from Gallitzin to Altoona and back to Gallitzin during the time of the homicide.
Police also completed a search warrant and obtained cellphone data for Lewis’s cellphone to show her location during the time of the homicides, which was in Altoona. Call details and geo-location data from both phone numbers of Payne and Lewis indicated that after the killings the phones traveled back to the Portage area of Cambria County and then to Philadelphia before going to Delaware and then back to the Portage area, according to police.
On July 10, U.S. Marshals contacted Altoona police about Lewis and Payne, according to the charges. Police said U.S. Marshals helped with the search warrant to ping Lewis’s cellphone and they told Altoona investigators that they located the car that Lewis and Payne had been using in Delaware near the location of the cellphone pings.
After conducting surveillance, U.S. Marshals arrested Payne on the Altoona drug warrant as he walked out of their apartment. Lewis was arrested a short time later inside the apartment on her arrest warrant. U.S. Marshals then seized the cellphones that Payne and Lewis had, and their vehicle was towed to the police impound lot.
By the time police spoke with Payne and Lewis after they had been brought back to Altoona on July 15, investigators already knew where the pair had been leading up to during, and then after, the killings, according to the charges.
Police said Lewis confirmed that after returning to their Gallitzin home, Payne drove her to Sheetz and then to the one confidential source’s home to sell some crack. Lewis confirmed with police that she drove to Philadelphia to drop off her children with their father at about 6 a.m. the day of the killings and then drove to Delaware to pick up her sister’s boyfriend before she drove back to Gallitzin.
Lewis also confirmed that the pair drove to Johnstown, rented a U-Haul and returned to Gallitzin pack up the house. She said they moved to an apartment in Johnstown but only stayed two or three days and then decided to go to Atlanta, Ga. Lewis told police they stayed in a hotel in Georgia for a few weeks, and while in Atlanta, Payne sold the gun he used to shoot Washington and Jackson-Stevenson at a pawn shop.
Police noted that Lewis gave a detailed description of the area where the pawn shop is located, and on Friday, police said that part of the investigation is ongoing.
Police said that Payne threw the two cellphones that belonged to Jackson-Stevenson out of the vehicle as the pair drove to Gallitzin after the killings.
Lewis told police that after a few weeks, they decided to go back to Delaware and get her children. Lewis stated that her sister picked up her children from their father’s house and brought them to her in Delaware, according to the charges.
“I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again — drug trafficking equals violent crime. Period,” Weeks said. “Drug trafficking is not victimless. It is not a crime without violence.”
Weeks stressed it was the reason behind Washington’s and Jackson-Stevenson’s deaths and it’s been the reason behind other recent homicides in Blair County. He said police and prosecutors will continue to aggressively pursue drug dealers in the area.
Payne and Lewis remain in Blair County Prison with a preliminary hearing slated for Aug. 5. Payne was denied bail because he is charged with two counts of homicide along with numerous related felonies, and bail for Lewis is set at $1 million.