Downtown called safe despite recent shootings

Three incidents so far this year indicative of crime uptick?


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On Saturday, after a chill had lifted and ushered in a sparkling spring afternoon, Point State Park was bustling with activity.

Picnickers lazed in the sun and couples canoodled. On the concrete steps close to the water's edge, rambunctious children were sipping juice and young women were sunbathing while sweat-slicked cyclists and runners zipped around the pathways.

About 24 hours earlier and a half-mile up the Allegheny River from this scene of tranquility, two men were shot under the Warhol (Seventh Street) Bridge in what police described as a drug-deal turned robbery, leaving a streak of blood on the concrete river walk. It was the second shooting to take place in broad daylight Downtown this month and the second shooting along the riverfront this year.

Still, residents and visitors said the news of the latest shooting didn't change their view of Downtown much: a place they considered largely safe but regarded with a bit of trepidation once nightfall hits.

Nick Bilotto, who moved into the 151 First Side condo building three years ago, said that as a 71-year-old man, he uses caution when walking around Downtown, particularly in the evening.

But caution, he said, is not the same as fear.

"Drug deals? Hey, they're all over," he said, speaking of the circumstances that led to Friday's shooting. "They're in the suburbs."

In the latest incident, police said Matthew Graner, a 23-year-old who has been convicted of child pornography possession and indecent assault, took a bus Downtown from his workplace in Moon. He met up with a homeless man, Wykie Pace, and the pair arranged to buy drugs on the secluded walkway underneath the bridge from Cheyenne Miller, 21, of Uptown, and Tyrus Campbell, 22, of Arnold. Graner went first to an ATM to fetch $160 for two bundles of heroin.

Mr. Campbell told police he intended to rob Graner and was pointing a gun at him when the gun went off. The bullet grazed the side of Graner's head but then struck Mr. Miller, Mr. Campbell's accomplice, in the head.

Pittsburgh police Lt. Scott Lukitsch of Zone 2 said there are four bicycle patrol officers who concentrate solely on Downtown and the riverfront trails. Two are assigned for the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift and two are assigned to the 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A pair of them -- Officers Kevin Sorenson and Ronald Spangler -- happened to be on patrol near the river walk and saw the robbery and heard the gunshot. In a criminal complaint, Detective Robert Shaw said the two officers "know this area to be a high drug activity area."

Officer Sorensen tended to Graner's wounds while Officer Spangler went after Mr. Campbell and Mr. Pace and detained both. Mr. Miller, who was shot in the head and "gravely" wounded, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital.

Mr. Campbell was arraigned Saturday morning on two counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault, as well as robbery, conspiracy, and carrying a firearm without a license. He remained at the Allegheny County Jail, unable to post bond. Mr. Pace was arraigned on robbery and conspiracy charges. He also remains in the county jail.

Three weeks prior, a tussle between three men erupted into gunfire at around 4 p.m. at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Wood Street. Two men were injured in the gun battle, which sent Downtown workers and pedestrians fleeing for cover.

And in January, two people smoking marijuana were shot at the intersection of Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Seventh Street at around 8 p.m. in an apparent robbery attempt.

The incidents come as developers and city leaders attempt to lure residents Downtown with high-priced condominiums, new restaurants and boutiques, and a rehabilitated Market Square.

But despite the frightening incidents, Connie George of VisitPittsburgh said the city is comparably safe when examined with other cities of its size. She praised the swiftness of police in catching the men involved in Friday's shooting.

"We just feel confident that our city is going to remain safe," she said.

That confidence is backed up by numbers. "The crime statistics in Downtown over the last three or four years, in the central business district, has continued to decrease," said Leigh White, spokeswoman and vice president of marketing and communications for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

She likewise noted that the city's police have been responsive, both to the concerns of residents and businesses, and to the crimes themselves.

"The police were there immediately," she said of both the Friday shooting and the shooting at Fifth and Wood. Still, that doesn't preclude the police and Downtown advocates from keeping an eye on emerging or potential trouble spots -- such as the trails.

"Obviously, [it] deserves a harder look."

Also deserving a closer look, said Pittsburgh City Council District 6 candidate Franco "Dok" Harris, who lives Downtown, is the gun trade. "Guns don't just end up in the 'hood. Someone brings them in there." Often, he said, it's drug addicts and gun owners from the suburbs, who come to the city to exchange guns for drugs, recounting some of the information he gleaned from Thursday's town hall meeting on gun violence, held in Homewood.

"There's no hard wall around Pittsburgh," Mr. Harris said.

Curled up with chemistry homework at Point State Park on Saturday, 19-year-old Kiersten Young, a freshman at Duquesne University, said she hadn't heard about the shooting on the river walk. She said that after she and her friends were harassed by a man screaming at them for no apparent reason last week, she's decided to not go Downtown after dark by herself.

"At night it's kind of uncomfortable, but I've never thought about it during the day," she said.

Still, she said the view from the steps along the riverfront was difficult to beat.

"It gets you away from campus and you don't look at the rush of everything," she said. "It's peaceful."

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter: @MoriahBee. Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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