Opening statements in murder trial reveal alleged events leading to death of Syracuse University student Xiaopeng ‘Pippen’ Yuan

Courtesy of Onondaga County Sheriff's Office

Cameron Isaac, left, and Ninimbe Mitchell, right, are on trial as they face first- and second-degree murder charges in connection to the death of Syracuse University student Xiaopeng "Pippen" Yuan.

Prosecutors are planning to use cell phone records, cell tower information and video footage to prove that Cameron Isaac and Ninimbe Mitchell over several weeks coordinated a plan to rob Syracuse University student Xiaopeng “Pippen” Yuan of two pounds of marijuana — a robbery that ended in Yuan’s death.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick revealed those details Tuesday during his opening statement in the trial of Isaac and Mitchell, who are charged with first- and second-degree murder, respectively. The defense attorneys for Isaac and Mitchell also gave opening statements, previewing the remainder of a trial that could last until the end of next week.

The opening statements began in the afternoon at the Onondaga County/City of Syracuse Criminal Courthouse following the conclusion of jury selection. The jury consists of 10 women and two men. One witness also testified on Tuesday: Helen Salling, a patrol deputy for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office who received the 911 call reporting that Yuan had been shot.

Yuan, of China, was found dead last September at the Springfield Garden Apartments in DeWitt. Authorities allege that Isaac robbed and subsequently killed Yuan during the drug deal, with Mitchell acting as an accomplice.

Isaac’s attorney, William Sullivan, plans to argue that Isaac wasn’t involved in Yuan’s murder. Sullivan on Tuesday described Yuan as a “thriving” marijuana dealer who had several business rivals who may have had motives to kill him.

Mitchell’s attorney, Paul Carey, will argue that Mitchell was unaware of Isaac’s plans to rob Yuan when he drove him to the apartment complex and simply believed they were participating in a drug deal.

After Carey gave his opening statement, Sullivan asked Judge John Brunetti for a fourth time in two days to sever the trial, which would allow Isaac to get his own trial independent of Mitchell’s trial. Sullivan has said he believes Carey’s defense of Mitchell will incriminate Isaac. Brunetti has instructed jurors to give separate consideration to Isaac and Mitchell and the charges against them.

Brunetti, as he did Monday, refrained from making a decision on Sullivan’s motion for severance.

“Let’s see how the trial plays out,” Brunetti said.

Jurors on Tuesday saw images of Yuan from the scene of his death. The photos, projected onto several screens in the courtroom, showed Yuan lying flat on his stomach in a grassy area of the Springfield Garden Apartment complex, with blood underneath him.

Fitzpatrick said Yuan was shot twice— one nonfatal bullet went into his back and through his right arm. The fatal shot entered his right side and traveled through his chest, killing him after a few seconds.

Fitzpatrick characterized Yuan as a naive college student who was killed because he didn’t know the type of person he was working with when he got involved with Isaac.

“He didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into,” Fitzpatrick said.

Text messages between Isaac and Yuan showed that the two were communicating for several weeks leading up to Yuan’s killing, Fitzpatrick said.

Yuan, according to Fitzpatrick, was waiting to receive a delivery of four pounds of marijuana. Isaac allegedly told him that he would buy two pounds of it, while simultaneously telling friends of his plans to rob Yuan.

Isaac, who didn’t have a license, needed a driver to help in the robbery, which is why prosecutors allege he turned to Mitchell, his nephew. Prosecutors alleged that there was a spike in communication between Isaac and Mitchell beginning in August, around the same time that Yuan and Isaac began communicating frequently.

Isaac and Mitchell spent the night together on Sept. 29 in North Syracuse, according to cell tower records that located their phones, prosecutors alleged. The next morning, the two were together when Isaac received a text from Yuan informing him that he had the marijuana.

Beginning at 11:45 a.m., they allegedly moved south toward DeWitt, according to cell tower data. They pulled into the Springfield Garden Apartments complex at 12:39 p.m., prosecutors alleged. Prosecutors then alleged that Isaac got out of the car and walked toward Yuan, who was in his car. He allegedly then robbed Yuan of the marijuana, and as Yuan chased after him, Isaac shot Yuan twice and killed him.

Isaac allegedly then ran through a dirt path in the complex to nearby Northway Street, where he was picked up by Mitchell. The two then allegedly went to a Cricket Wireless store, where Mitchell is accused of buying a new cell phone with a new number for Isaac and making the purchase under a false name.

“This was a rip-off that went awry and cost Yuan his life,” Fitzpatrick said. “You will see ample evidence of this. Mr. Isaac is a murderer, and Mr. Mitchell was a willing accomplice.”

In his opening statement, Carey — the defense attorney for Mitchell — argued that Mitchell thought Isaac was just buying marijuana from Yuan and didn’t help coordinate the plan.

Carey said that Mitchell was with his girlfriend in Albany on Sept. 28, two nights before Yuan’s death, and at a concert with his grandmother on Sept. 29.

“How do you plan a robber when you’re sitting in the Landmark Theater with your grandmother?” Carey said. “… Please be guided by the evidence, and not the words of a prosecutor.”

Sullivan, the attorney for Isaac, said during his opening statement that Yuan was a successful marijuana dealer, and because of that, got involved with a number of dangerous people.

He said Yuan had $50,000 in one bank account, something Sullivan said was evidence of his lucrative business. Yuan had rival drug dealers who may have been motivated to kill him, Sullivan said.

He added that Yuan was a busy marijuana dealer and often visited the Springfield Garden Apartments.

“There are several other people who could have done this,” Sullivan said.

In the only witness testimony Tuesday, the prosecution called Salling, the patrol deputy for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, to the stand. She said she received a 911 call around 12:51 p.m. on Sept. 30. The caller reported hearing three to four gunshots and seeing Yuan’s body motionless in the grass.

Salling drove to the apartment complex, where she said she found Yuan behind a building. She pronounced him dead at the scene and found no weapons on him, she said.

Another witness, the man who made the 911 call, was also called to the stand but refused to testify. He is being held overnight Tuesday in contempt of court.

The trial resumes Wednesday at 9:15 a.m., when the prosecution will continue presenting its evidence.


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