Art festival shooter worried about life after prison: ‘I accomplished nothing’
Tahaij Wells, the gunman killed in a shootout at an arts festival early Sunday morning, spent most of his life in solitary confinement as authorities claimed they kept him there to prevent his own gang from killing him in prison after they put out a “hit” on him for the “unauthorized” execution of a fellow gangster.
The slay apparently didn’t go over well with top dawgs of the Bloods street gang and they ordered a “terminate on sight” for Wells, according to a Department of Corrections investigator who testified in court proceedings related to Wells’ federal court push to get out of solitary confinement.
The cops got to Wells before the gang did.
Wells, who had a rap sheet that included manslaughter and racketeering convictions, was shot and killed by police early Sunday morning following a shootout with rivals inside a warehouse at the Roebling Market, where thousands gathered for the Art All Night festival, an annual event in Trenton that has attracted artists from all over.
Wells had just been released from prison after serving a 18-year bid in Trenton state prison for aggravated manslaughter, most of that time in solitary confinement, which one expert testified exacerbated his mental health issues and caused him to be “emotionally stunted.”
Trenton is still reeling from the sensational mass shooting that plunged the eight-quare-mile city into the national headlines. Residents fretted about more bad publicity for a city that has seen enough, as news vans camped out in the parking lot of the market Monday, leaving one-by-one as interest in the neighborhood fued waned following a rash of coverage on mass shootings across the nation.
Police still tightly guarded the sprawling crime scene, roped off by yellow tape, and an officer shooed away one man as he tried to duck under the crime tape. Trenton Police set up a command center on South Clinton Avenue as investigators combed through the evidence.
While authorities revealed little else about what sparked the violent mass shooting, a review of hundreds of pages of court transcripts obtained by The Trentonian provided a peek into the behind-bars life of Wells, a bleak existence that perhaps foreshadowed the inglorious kamikaze manner in which he left this life: gun-blazing with an illegal extended clip, mercilessly firing upon rivals during a shootout, before being gunned down by cops.
Wells sadly summed up his life when he testified as part of a federal push he made to get out of solitary confinement, unable to fathom how he’d support himself once he was free.
“I’ve accomplished nothing,” he said, according to the transcript. “The most job training I had was sweeping the floor.”
Darren “Freedom” Green, a community activist who remembered coming across teenage Wells when he was shift commander at the now-shuttered Mercer County Youth Detention Center, said the gunman “wasn’t evil. He never had a chance.”
“There’s a Tahaij Wells in every community,” Green explained, saying he wasn’t justifying the shooting only explaining what factors may have caused Wells to step over the edge. “If we’re not reaching them, we set ourselves up for failure. He was gonna explode somewhere.”
It happened to be as the arts festival was being shut down.
Several fights had been brewing just before the gunfire erupted, injuring a double-digit number of people, including a teenager. The melee happened days after Gov. Phil Murphy signed six gun control bills into law.
Speaking at the Galilee Baptist Church — the site of another gang-related shootout that happened during a funeral in 2014 — Murphy called the shooting “another reminder of the senseless gun violence.”
Police have two other shooting suspects in custody: Amir Armstrong, 23, and another individual they haven’t identified. Investigators are searching for others who may have been involved. Police sources who spoke on condition of anonymity say more than 70 shell casings were found at the scene along with multiple weapons.
Armstrong, who remains hospitalized in stable condition, has only been hit with a weapons charge though heavier charges may be coming.
Court records show Armstrong had a resisting charge downgraded to municipal court in 2017. And a drug distribution charge he faced the year before was dismissed after he completed pretrial intervention, according to court records.
Prior to becoming one of the infamous art festival gunmen, Wells spent years fighting his placement in “involuntary protective custody” at Trenton state prison where he served out most of his aggravated manslaughter conviction for killing Robert McNair after the two had beefed “over something stupid like a car.”
Authorities portrayed the killing as a gangland slay, according to court documents, but Wells disputed his victim was even a gang member.
Wells, an admitted Bloods gangster, was born to an absent father and a drug-addicted mother who had her throat slashed in a grisly murder that happened in July 1996, when Wells was in grade school, court records show.
“I never heard him talk about his parents,” Green said.
Wells struggled in classes, trying to keep up as he bounced from school to school, unable to stay out of trouble, the records show.
Wells attended Monument school before getting shipped to an alternative school — Archway in Atco — where he was bussed to school early every morning, starting in fifth grade.
“I was just acting out and not paying attention, and that was around the time my mother got killed,” Wells, who grew up with his grandmother on Passaic Street, testified at a hearing, according to the transcript. “I was getting in trouble, going to the youth house all the time.”
Wells, 17 years old at the time of McNair’s killing, was tried as an adult. He reached a pact with prosecutors to plead guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter in exchange for an 18-year bid, more than 15 years which were mandatory.
While doing time for McNair’s slaying, Wells got wrapped up as the prison yard “middle man” in a racketeering case aimed at a set of the Bloods. His sister, Ebony Meyers, who died in 2013, went down in the mess, too, hit with a 10-year sentence for her role, according to news reports.
Wells got a concurrent six year bid for admitting his culpability in the racketeering case. He had just been released from prison a few months before the art festival shootout.
Wells landed up in protective custody for about 13 years, based upon intel from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and jail internal affairs officials, who claimed they were trying to protect him behind bars after his death warrant had been signed by the Bloods.
For years, Wells pushed to get out of solitary confinement, but his fight, first with him acting as his own attorney, went nowhere.
A dropout with little more than a ninth-grade education, much of that time spent in special education classes, Wells couldn’t figure out how to navigate the court system. He struggled to gain ay traction, and his case was dismissed a month after being filed. The case was later reinstated, and a law firm eventually took up Wells’ cause in agreeing to represent him pro bono.
With help from the lawyers, Wells successfully convinced a judge to allow him back into the prison’s general population ahead of his February release date.
While in protective custody, Wells and his lawyers contended his life was hell. He was on 22-hour lockdown and had limited interactions with other inmates or access to re-entry programming that would have helped pave the way for his reintegration into society. He ate and showered in his cell and was only allowed out for 90 minutes, three times a week for recreation time.
During rec time, he was placed in a so-called “dog cage.”
Wells was constantly subjected to strip searches and other invasive tactics. The isolation Wells experienced in solitary confinement was harmful, his attorneys said and a clinical psychologist testified, according to court records.
Wells was housed at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility for some time. The DOC’s Special Investigations Division had Wells taken out of general population after allegedly learning he was a marked man.
Throughout his prison stay, Wells either didn’t receive annual reviews of his IPC placement or his placement was reaffirmed following hearings that were “hollow formalities,” as authorities contended the threat was still active, court records show.
Wells felt “perfectly safe” and wanted to go to general population, and his attorneys contested the threat existed or had been exaggerated. Wells testified about the conditions he experienced in solitary confinement at Garden State.
“Disgusting,” he said, according to the transcript. “The room was like super dirty, feces ring around the toilet like they, uh — somebody missed the toilet when he was urinating, so it was pee around toilet and stuff.
Conditions weren’t much better in Trenton as he bounced around prisons across the state.
“The COs have to open all the doors with a key, and the rooms is like not even bigger than a closet,” Wells said. “If you turn over in your bed, your face is literally in the toilet.”
Wells claimed he tried to leave the gang life, graduating from a denouncement program in 2006, while he was at Northern State Prison. From there, he asked to be placed at East Jersey State Prison because he “always heard that they out all day, they got good jobs, and stuff like that, so that’s where I wanted to go.”
Once he arrived, he was in general population for two days before being put back into solitary, according to the court records.
“I went to the big yard, walked around with the mess…They told me to go to the clothing shop, I went and got my clothes. And the next day, like ten officers came in my cell, told me to turn around, back out, put my hands behind my back. I didn’t know — I thought that I did something wrong. They handcuffed me, took me to lock-up, and told me that I’m going back to Trenton, New Jersey,” he testified. “It was deflating, like watching the balloons while you let all the air out of it…I was about to do my time, I was out, going to the big yard, I could sign up for schools and programs down there, but I never got a chance to.”
Wells tried to maintain hope while he was imprisoned, wishing for a better life despite his hardscrabble upbringing. But he was afraid of how he’d get by on the outside, something he shared with Green, the community activist, a couple weeks before the shootout.
“I spent my whole adult life in a cell, all day with nothing to do,” Wells testified. “You concerned about going back out into the real world…It’s going to be difficult and without really education or any kind of trades or anything like that.”
Green said the shooter was “damaged goods,” in trying to understand what contributed to his blowup.
Wells described himself as socially anxious.
“That probably is the most scariest thing, because I never really been around people a lot, so it’s awkward, conversations is awkward,” he testified, adding he struggled with anger from “being in that cell all day. Your emotion is just up and down. You’re angry, sad, mad. You’re all over the place, because you’re in the cell all day, pacing.”
Dr. Maureen Santina, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Wells, testified he suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and was devastated over his mother’s death. He turned to smoking pot, and things worsened from there.
“It was the only thing that made him feel calmer,” Santina said, according to the transcript. “He had given up on himself and life. He said, ‘I just didn’t care anymore.’”
The psychologist pushed for Wells to be put back into general population where he’d have more healthy interactions and opportunities before his release. The expert sounded prophetic on the stand when detailing the impact of Wells’ depression on his ability to blend into society.
“They don’t become mopey and sad and sit around,” Santina said. “The way that adolescents manifest depression is generally in the form of irritability, anger, defiance at school. And these are often the actual clinical manifestations of serious depression in adolescents…I think they will be exacerbated when he is released into the community, because he will not be prepared to be able to respond in a mature, stable matter. He hasn’t had those opportunities. He’s essentially going to be going out with the coping skills and social maturity of a damaged 17-year-old versus having had the opportunities to learn self-control, self-discipline, to learn how to manage anxiety, to keep his emotions under control.”