Illinois teens charged with murder in shooting of ride-share driver; police looking for third suspect

Illinois

2015 photo of Kristian Philpotts. Courtesy of Illinois State University.

URBANA, Ill. — As two teenagers face murder charges and a steep bond in the shooting death of a ride-share driver this week, authorities revealed Friday that they are searching for a third person who was in the vehicle.

The two suspects were arraigned Friday, appearing by video from the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center. State’s Attorney Julia Rietz is pursuing the cases in adult court due to the serious nature of the charges. The move to adult court means a decades-long stay in prison if convicted. A juvenile adjudication means a stay in juvenile prison until age 21.

Sixteen-year-old Na’Shown Fenderson and 17-year-old Jahiem Dyer, both of Champaign, are charged with four counts each of first-degree murder in the death of 29-year-old Kristian Philpotts of Chicago. Those charges normally bring a sentencing range of 20 to 60 years in prison, but since a gun was allegedly used, the law allows for 20 years to be added, making the range 45 to 85 years.

Judge Brett Olmstead set bond for both suspects at $3 million, going above Rietz’s recommendation of $2 million. That means the suspects will have to come up with $300,000 each to get out of jail while the case continues.

Both on Friday did not enter a not guilty plea and opted to go back to court on Feb. 2 for preliminary hearings. That’s where prosecutors will present an outline of the evidence to convince a judge there’s enough cause to move forward. That typically happens, and if it does here, pretrial hearings would be held on March 8.

Dyer’s arraignment Friday took longer than usual, as the teen used a hearing aid and a sign language interpreter to understand Judge Olmstead’s instructions.

Rietz on Friday summarized much of the same evidence that will be presented at the preliminary hearing. She said on the night of Jan. 12, Urbana police were called to the area of Vine Street and Burkwood Court West for a person, later identified as Philpotts, lying in the road.

Officers found the victim with no pulse, and he was taken to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, where he was pronounced dead.

Police later learned Philpotts was working as a Lyft driver that night. He was driving a Jeep rented through a program with Lyft and Hertz. Rietz said the two charged suspects and a third suspect who authorities are not naming, requested a Lyft ride starting at Fenderson’s address and got in Philpotts’ vehicle.

Rietz said police believe the suspects tried to get the victim to take a different route to a secluded place so they could rob the man. When the vehicle was in drive at Vine Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Urbana, one of the suspects fired a gun.

Rietz said the bullet entered Philpotts’ back at his upper right shoulder and lodged in the left side of his abdomen. The vehicle then crashed into a parked truck, and the suspects bailed out and ran.

Rietz said the suspects – Fenderson and Dyer in one group and the third suspect solo – went knocking on doors to use a phone and arrange a ride out of the area. Fenderson and Dyer were ultimately arrested, while Rietz said the third suspect was caught on a Ring doorbell camera, and police were able to identify him that way.

Fenderson and Dyer were represented in court Friday by assistant public defender Titus Spitsbergen.

Philpotts was looking to become a veterinarian, according to people who knew him. He graduated from Illinois State University in 2016 and was featured in a 2015 ISU Facebook post about observing surgery of tigers.

“This experience was hands down one of the best experiences I have had here at ISU as well as in my life in general,” Philpotts said at the time. ISU spokesperson Eric Jome called the man’s death a “tragic story.”

Philpotts attended Eastern Illinois University from 2016 to 2018. Rietz said the man was looking to get into the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

In a statement, Lyft told our newsroom, “We are heartbroken by this tragedy and our thoughts are with Kristian’s friends and family during this incredibly difficult time. We’ve attempted to reach his loved ones to offer our support and stand ready to assist law enforcement in any way we can.”

Lyft also highlighted steps it takes to keep drivers safe. The platform allows drivers to request emergency help through the security company ADT with a quick touch through the app. The app also checks in with drivers if they are stopped for a long time.

Lyft said its staffers are on call 24/7 to talk to drivers. Lyft’s statement also said, “In certain markets, we’re working to proactively detect and take action against accounts we believe may exhibit high-risk rider behavior, including those using anonymous payment methods.”

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