At sentencing, mother forgives man who fatally shot 2-year-old out of her arms

Man sentenced to 55 to 110 years in prison
Nikolette Rivera memorial
A vigil was set up on Oct. 21, 2019, outside the house of 2-year-old Nikolette Rivera, who was fatally shot in her mother's arms on their Kensington doorstep. Photo credit Shara Dae Howard/KYW Newsradio
By , KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Joan Ortiz clutched pictures of her doe-eyed little girl, Nikolette, before passing them to the court for a judge to sift through.

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At Thursday’s sentencing hearing for Tayvon Thomas, who admitted to killing the toddler as she clutched onto her mother’s neck, Ortiz stunningly told the 27-year-old she forgave him.

Outside the courthouse, Ortiz and her mother, Carmen Ortiz, recalled the nightmare that happened on Oct. 20, 2019, inside her home on Water Street.

She had called for a carpet cleaner to come over. In preparation, they pushed a couch up on its side near a window — having no idea it would later block bullets from entering their home.

Carmen had just put a diaper on 2-year-old Nikolette, who hugged her grandmother and told her, “You’re my best friend.”

Hearing the cries of her youngest grandchild, Carmen ran upstairs to soothe the baby in the bassinet, while Joan, a mother of four, stayed downstairs with Nikolette in her arms.

Nikolette Rivera
Nikolette Rivera Photo credit Joan Ortiz

She answered the door for the carpet cleaner, but he couldn’t find parking, so he told her he would have to come back another day.

At that moment, a series of bangs — Nikolette grabbed her mother across the chest.

The cleaner was shot throughout his body: stomach, arms and legs.

Nikolette grasped her mother’s neck, her tiny face covering her mother’s heart. The 2-year-old screamed, “Mommy!” but, as Joan tearfully remembers, Nikolette never finished the word before she was blown from her arms.

Believing her only daughter was still alive, Joan told Nikolette to “stay low.” She turned to call 911 and felt blood drip down her arm, as well as a thick oily substance she only later realized was her daughter’s brain matter. She stuck her hand inside her daughter’s head to stop the flow, bending down to relentlessly kiss her bloodied face.

“They killed my child!” she wailed.

Joan said she believes Nikolette was sent from heaven to save her. “Her head blocked my heart. She was protecting me.”

At the hearing, Joan told Judge Lillian Ransom that her daughter was the embodiment of love, and if Thomas had met Nikolette, she “would have softened his heart.”

“My life is in the cemetery,” Joan said through tears. “I don’t have a life anymore.”

Thomas sat with his hands crossed, nervously shaking his legs under the table.


Prosecutors say Thomas and another man, Freddie Perez, were upset that the drug organization they belonged to “didn’t have their back” after they were arrested on drug charges. Together, they plotted for revenge, acquiring an AK-47 and going to a home near Boudinot and Clearfield streets, which they believed belonged to the home of one of the gang members.

Outside the house, prosecutors say a man in wheelchair, his caretaker and an 11-year-old girl were taking groceries out of a car when a barrage of bullets spewed into their home and vehicle. Miraculously, no one was injured. Bullet casings were recovered from car and the house.

Thomas and Perez then headed over to Water Street, authorities say, where they mistakenly identified the carpet cleaner at Joan’s door as Nikoli Rivera, Nikolette’s father.

They fired into the house, shooting the toddler, her mother and the carpet cleaner.

Investigators eventually tied Thomas and Perez to the shooting. In January 2020, New Jersey officials found the gun that fired the fatal bullet into Nikolette’s head. Perez is expected to be sentenced next month.

Prosecutors reviewed Thomas’ extensive rap sheet: He was first arrested at age 15 for assaulting another student. Some of his prior arrests include an assault over a cellphone, drugs, robbery and threats.

Prosecutors say in May 2020, while he was in prison, Thomas clogged the toilet of his cell, which flooded. Three officers entered, and Thomas attacked them with a shank, stabbing all three. They each survived, but prosecutors say one of the officers suffers flashbacks and chose to leave his position for fear of Thomas.

In all, Thomas has been arrested 15 times as an adult with seven convictions. Prosecutors said they believe no one is safe from this defendant.

But that wasn’t the whole story, according to his defense attorney, Earl G. Kauffman. Thomas’ life was in peril starting in utero: His mother drank and did drugs while pregnant.

It was at 8 months old though, Kauffman said, that his life changed forever. His uncle, a mentally disabled man, put Thomas in a pot of boiling water, forever scarring his face, chest and body.

He was unwillingly nicknamed “Freek” and taunted throughout school and adulthood.

“Even with a face that a mother couldn’t love — because that’s what I’ve heard people say before — I know my daughter would have loved him, because she was love,” said Joan. “[Nikolette] was made out of love.”

Tayvon Thomas
Tayvon Thomas Photo credit Philadelphia Police Department

Regardless, the trauma endured for Thomas, Kauffman said. His mother physically and emotionally abused him throughout childhood. One time, she hit him over the head with a frying pan.

Thomas had to care and cook for his siblings, as Kauffman said his mother wouldn’t do it or was never there. He was in and out of foster care.

No one from the Thomas family was in court on Thursday.

Kauffman asked the judge for the lowest sentence possible “so he can see the light of day.”

When asked to speak, Thomas said, “I apologize for taking a life. I didn’t mean to do that and I take full responsibility.”

The judge then went through each charge: For the third-degree murder of Nikolette, the shooting of Joan and the carpet cleaner, the attempted murders of the man in the wheelchair and his caretaker, and the assaults of three corrections officers, she sentenced him to 55 to 110 years in prison.

Joan whispered to the victim advocate to let Thomas know one more something.

The prosecutor turned around, listened, then stood up as Thomas left: “Ms. Ortiz would like the defendant to know she forgives him.”

“I just felt I needed to tell him that so he can go do his time in peace,” said Joan. “I don’t hate him. He did sound remorseful.

“It’s for my own peace as well. I don’t hate him, things happen for a reason. And I know in his dying days, the last person he is going to think about is my daughter.”

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Shara Dae Howard/KYW Newsradio