A New York man who engaged in gang-related sex trafficking in the Richmond area was convicted Thursday of five charges related to the arson death of a local woman who was enticed to work as a prostitute to earn money for the defendant’s gang. The victim’s charred remains were found in Chesterfield County after she was set on fire in a suitcase.
In accordance with a plea agreement, Shykeen “Shoot Em” Delaney, 33, pleaded no contest in Chesterfield Circuit Court to charges of racketeering, gang participation, enticement into a bawdy house, conspiracy to conceal a dead body, and concealment of a body in the 2019 sex trafficking case involving Helena M. Swigert, 24.
A state medical examiner determined that Swigert was still alive when she was set on fire, but unconscious from a heroin overdose, and would not have survived medical intervention. Authorities believe Delaney and a co-defendant, Phaheem Peterson, provided her with the drugs, but she administered them to herself.
Circuit Judge Jayne Pemberton followed the terms of the agreement and sentenced Delaney, a ranking member of the Denver Lane Bloods, to a total of 50 years in prison with 40 years suspended, giving him 10 years to serve. Delaney had been charged with eight other offenses, including murder, abduction and arson, but prosecutors withdrew those counts Thursday because of insufficient evidence.
“We had one witness who was willing to testify about what happened to Helena the day she died,” said Henrico County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Susan Parrish, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case, after the hearing. “Others are fully aware of what happened to her, but throughout this investigation, they have evaded us and refused to cooperate.”
“The detectives went to great lengths to secure their cooperation, but people who were more than happy to profit from Helena and feed her addiction care even less about her now that she is gone,” Parrish added. “Legally, the testimony of one witness is sufficient for a jury to convict; however, we had nothing — no cellphone location data, no text messages, no toll records, no DNA, no other witnesses — to corroborate the testimony of the one witness willing to testify. We felt it important to gain convictions to hold Delaney responsible, but recognized the hurdles of proceeding with a case that relied on the testimony of one witness.”
According to a summary of evidence by Henrico Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sean Breit-Rupe, who co-prosecuted the case, investigators determined that Swigert had been enticed to work as a prostitute by two people, including Delaney. Swigert supplied the money she earned to Delaney and Peterson, both members of the Denver Lane Bloods, a recognized criminal street gang that engaged in drug distribution and sex trafficking in the Richmond area.
Swigert had been staying at hotels in Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond and worked on behalf of the gang, along with several other women. She had been placed in a “safe house” by Henrico police, but left the residence on her own accord and reconnected with the defendants.
Detectives were able to ascertain that on Aug. 26, 2019, Delaney, Peterson, Swigert and a fourth person, Maya Hubbard, acquired some heroin and checked into the Red Roof Inn on Commerce Road in Richmond, about a mile from the Chesterfield line. All four entered the room, and Delaney and Peterson provided the heroin to Swigert.
The defendants told Swigert that she had a “play,” or customer, and would be receiving money for sexual services. Swigert stayed in the room while the others left and sat in a car in the parking lot. When Swigert didn’t answer the door for her “date,” Hubbard entered the room and found Swigert unconscious and not breathing.
Delaney attempted to wake Swigert by “smacking” her but didn’t get a response. Had the case gone to trial, Hubbard would have testified that she told the defendants they should call the police, but Delaney and Peterson indicated they couldn’t because Delaney was “on the run,” Breit-Rupe told the court.
Hubbard also would have testified that Delaney and Peterson emptied a suitcase that Hubbard had provided, and placed Swigert inside. They got into Delaney’s car and drove to Hubbard’s house with the suitcase containing Swigert’s body to retrieve a canister of gasoline, and then to a construction site in the Kingsland Glen neighborhood of Chesterfield.
“Their goal was to dispose of what they believed to be her corpse,” Breit-Rupe told the court. “They put the suitcase in the vacant lot, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.”
At 5:48 p.m. the following day, Chesterfield police responded to the location after receiving a call that construction workers had found what appeared to be the remains of a small female. The victim had been badly burned. Her identify was later confirmed as Swigert through DNA records.
Due to carboxyhemoglobin levels in Swigert’s blood taken during her autopsy, the medical examiner determined that “she was still alive when she was set on fire and died as a result of that,” Breit-Rupe said.
However, the examiner would have testified that due to the levels of illegal substances in Swigert’s body, she would have died of a drug overdose, “even without the steps taken by the defendant to dispose of what he believed to be a corpse.”
Defense attorney John Rockecharlie, who negotiated the plea agreement with prosecutors, told the court that the murder case against his client was “going to be very difficult to sustain because of the testimony of the medical examiner.” The case was further handicapped by the prosecution relying on a single witness, he said.
“This case is a perfect example of the effects of addiction and the current opioid epidemic in this country,” Parrish noted after court. “There is a common belief that drug cases are victimless. Helena had family and friends who loved her.”
“A car accident after which she was prescribed pain medicine started her on the journey that ended with her death,” the prosecutor added. “It led her to a heroin addiction which saw her turn away from people who cared about her towards people who were more than willing to feed her addition and for their own financial gain. While she was alive, her body was literally their source of income.”
At the time of her death, authorities said Swigert did not have stable living arrangements and spent most of her time in hotels and motels. But she had family members who lived in the area and had ties to New Kent County.
Peterson was to have been tried with Delaney during a five-day jury trial beginning Jan. 31. But prosecutors are negotiating with Peterson’s attorney to possibly resolve the case with a plea agreement.