ST. PETERSBURG — The second of two men charged with the 2020 killing of a USF St. Petersburg student pleaded guilty to a murder charge this week and accepted a 20-year prison sentence.
Cekwon Heath admitted Monday to a reduced charge of second-degree murder in the death of Owen Melin, who was shot during what is described in court records as a home invasion-style robbery.
Heath was identified as one of two gunmen who in May 2020 forced their way into an apartment on South Fourth Street, near the university’s campus. But it was a different man, Joshua Pilley Jr., who actually shot Melin, prosecutors said.
“Mr. Heath was less culpable,” said Christopher Boldt, an attorney with the Office of Criminal Conflict Counsel, which represented Heath. “The state attorney took that into account.”
Pilley also pleaded guilty in August to a second-degree murder charge. He received a 27-year prison sentence.
A prosecutor declined to comment on the case. Melin’s family did not return a message left for comment.
Heath’s plea Monday bookended a case that left Melin’s many friends reeling and stunned the university community.
Melin, 22, was studying psychology, but had already earned an associate degree from St. Petersburg College. He’d gone to grade school in St. Petersburg. Friends said he was interested in becoming a therapist. They described him as a fitness buff who spent much time in the gym, and a spiritual person who asked big questions about life.
He was hanging out at a friend’s apartment late the night of May 27, 2020. It was several weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. St. Petersburg police received a call a little after 10 p.m. that a person had been shot inside the apartment at 458 Fourth Ave. S.
Officers found Melin on the floor in the kitchen. He’d been shot in his chest.
Four other young men who were at the apartment gave accounts of what happened. Three said they were chatting in a parking lot outside when a short, shirtless, heavyset man approached. He asked for “Zack,” believed to be one of the residents of the apartment.
When told that Zack was upstairs, the man began talking on a cellphone and walked off toward a nearby alley. He returned a few minutes later with two other men and carrying an assault-style rifle, according to court records. The shirtless man pointed the gun at the trio and told them to get down. One of the other men approached the apartment door, but could not get inside. He demanded the lock code from the men, entered it and opened the door.
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The three heard dogs barking. Moments later, they heard three gunshots.
Zachary Thomas told police he was in the apartment’s bathroom when a man walked in carrying a gun. The man took from him more than $2,000 cash and a cellphone, according to court records. When they heard gunshots, the man stepped out, looked into the kitchen where Melin lay wounded, then fled.
A small dog was also wounded by gunfire and died.
During the robbery, the shirtless gunman was seen leaning on a car that was parked outside. From the car, police obtained a fingerprint that was matched to Pilley.
Detectives found a Facebook video that appeared to show Pilley with items that had been stolen during the robbery. An analysis of his cellphone data also placed him at the crime scene, according to court records. And one of the three men pointed to his image in a photo lineup.
Thomas later told police he recognized Heath as the man who robbed him, according to court records.
Melin did not know either Heath or Pilley.
A third man involved in the robbery has never been charged or publicly identified.