Waco gang member sentenced to life in prison in 2019 shooting death of teenager

Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 7:03 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - A Waco gang member, dubbed “the embodiment of violence” by a prosecutor, was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday in the September 2019 shooting death of 17-year-old Aquarius McPhaul.

A 54th State District Court jury convicted Elijah Jamal Craven of McPhaul’s murder after a trial in August. McPhaul and his attorney, Abel Reyna, elected to have Judge Susan Kelly assess punishment in the case, and the judge sentenced the 21-year-old Craven to the maximum sentence Wednesday after a sentencing hearing.

In sentencing Craven, Kelly told him she hopes he is the caring, God-fearing young man portrayed in testimony Wednesday by his mother, friends and other family members and that he can come out on parole, turn his life around and make something of his life.

Craven, identified by prosecutors and police investigators as a local gang member, must be given credit for serving at least 30 years in prison before he can seek parole. He will be given credit for the 1,452 days he has spent in the McLennan County Jail waiting for his case to be resolved.

McLennan County District Attorney Josh Tetens, whose office sought the life sentence against Craven, said Judge Kelly “sent a strong message that gang violence will not be tolerated.”

“We appreciate her diligence in making this decision and we are grateful that this cold-blooded killer will be off our streets,” Tetens said.

Reyna asked Kelly for mercy, saying that “punishment without mercy is nothing more than vengeance.”

“While disappointed with the sentence, we have tremendous respect for the court’s decision,” Reyna said. “Today’s decision simply requires us to continue our fight in appellate courts, which we intend to do.”

First Assistant District Attorney Ryan Calvert, who prosecuted the case with Christi Hunting Horse, said he is aware that no verdict can replace what Craven stole from McPhaul and his family.

“But this sentence is as close to justice as the law allows,” Calvert said. “We are grateful for the message the jury and Judge Kelly sent to the community, to those who would commit gang violence, and most importantly to the McPhauls.”

Trial testimony showed Craven tried to steal McPhaul’s watch and then shot him after the teenager fled from the stolen pickup truck they were in. Craven then stood over the fallen McPhaul and fired multiple shots into his body as McPhaul pleaded for his life. Others in the truck testified that Craven laughed as he got back into the truck and drove away, leaving McPhaul’s body in the street just outside Oakwood Cemetery.

Prosecutors were precluded during the trial of informing the jury about Craven’s gang involvement. However, they introduced evidence Wednesday showing text messages and social media photos indicating that Craven was looking for another gun so he could hunt down opposing gang members just four days after he shot and killed McPhaul.

Aquarius McPhaul.  The photo on the right was taken minutes before his death.
Aquarius McPhaul. The photo on the right was taken minutes before his death.(Courtesy Photos)

In other prosecution testimony, McPhaul’s father, Sherman McPhaul, a minister, told the judge his son’s death has been like a nightmare that never ends.

“I felt like a failure as a dad because I was supposed to protect him from bad things and people like this,” he said.He said he and his wife had just returned home from a funeral for another family member the day their son was killed and learned from a television news broadcast that a young man had been killed in Waco that day.

He said his wife told them that they needed to pray for the young man’s family, not knowing that the family they were praying for was their own.

The family turned their son’s bicycle into a table that bears his photo as a tribute to him, he said.

“I wanted you to know that no matter what happens here today, at the end of the day we can only see a memorial to our son, and if his family chooses, they can still see their son,” McPhaul said. “This young man will never know how much he has torn our family apart. It is a nightmare that is neverending.”

Turning to Craven, McPhaul said, “No matter how much time you get, it will never be enough because you brutally, cowardly murdered my son and left him on the side of the road like a piece of trash.”

In defense testimony Wednesday, Reyna called two friends of Craven’s, his mother and his aunt, who all said he is not the violent, gang-banger portrayed by the prosecution.

Craven’s mother, Marquite Harris, said that while her heart goes out to McPhaul and his family, she knows her son didn’t kill him.

“My son is a great person,” she said. “I believe he is innocent. I believe he was framed with a gun and a mask.”

Trial testimony revealed Craven dropped a camouflage ski mask on the ground near McPhaul’s body, and prosecutors introduced DNA evidence linking Craven to the mask and produced photos of him wearing it.

Hunting Horse, in closing statements, told the judge that Craven, who had been released on parole from a state juvenile detention facility four months before he shed a GPS ankle monitor and killed McPhaul, obviously can portray himself in different ways to different people. She compared his personalities to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Craven’s co-defendant, Daezion Watkins, 21, who handed him the .40-caliber pistol he used to kill McPhaul, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.