'Trouble and drama every day' in struggling McKeesport

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Joy Burgwin on Tuesday stood outside the McKeesport home where her nephew was killed and tried to describe his short life.

"He was just a young man in a city where trouble and drama is every day," Ms. Burgwin said of Jabar Ford, 20, who was shot once in the chest about 11 p.m. Monday when he answered a knock at the door of the home on Coursin Street.

Allegheny County police said the gunman fired through the door before Mr. Ford could open it. Detectives were trying to learn whether he was the target. "He's dead because he answered the door. That puts the fear of God in anybody. Now we can't even answer our doors?"

Mr. Ford's killing was the seventh deadly shooting this year in McKeesport, a city that saw just three homicides in all of 2011. It came on the heels of the early Sunday slaying of 37-year-old Tameko Wall, who was gunned down outside an after-hours club on Fifth Avenue. A Braddock man, Vondre Griffin, 23, has been charged in that case. But police had made no arrests in connection with Mr. Ford's death as of late Tuesday.

"It's just a reality now. You wake up and turn on your phone or TV to see who is gone," Ms. Burgwin said. "Our community is losing our young men."

The reasons for the spike in violence were the subject of debate on Tuesday, but many residents shared Ms. Burgwin's frustration and anguish.

Joe Layhue followed behind his 3-year-old son at a celebration of National Night Out in the parking lot of the McKeesport Alliance Church.

Mr. Layhue, 26, said the escalating violence makes him fearful of his son's future as a young man growing up in the area, as well as the present.

Others expressed their desire to find a safer place to raise their families.

"I don't even like them playing out front to be honest," said Michelle Rydzak of her sons, 9 and 11. "If I could move, I would."

McKeesport police said they have stepped up patrols in recent weeks in light of the gunplay, flooding the city's rough spots with both plainclothes and uniformed officers.

The "saturation patrols" are "above and beyond normal patrols," Mayor Michael Cherepko said, adding that officers are "looking for anything and everything" criminal. Still, he said, the police efforts are a short-term solution to the crime that is vexing the community.

"We're doing conflict resolution, but sometimes it's like these kids are addicted to anger," said McKeesport police Chief Bryan Washowich.

Among this year's troubling killings was the June death of Voltaire "Volt" Meade, 45, of Clairton, who was shot dead inside of Meade Brothers Trucking Inc., the business he owned; the July slaying of Chauncey Williams, 18, a former standout football player at East Allegheny High School; and the death later that month of Mario Berry, 35, of Duquesne, who was shot at a family gathering in Renziehausen Park, where hundreds had congregated but few have cooperated with police.

Nonfatal shootings in McKeesport this summer have also been particularly jarring, such as the July home invasion in which a man fired shots at responding police officers, one of which hit his high school classmate in the arm.

"A lot of this is drug-related," Mr. Cherepko said. "Overall, there's really no link between them."

In the case of Mr. Ford, detectives were investigating whether "ongoing gang activity" spawned the violence, said Allegheny County homicide Lt. Andrew Schurman.

Tensions among drug crews from the Harrison Village and Crawford Village housing developments as well as one from Bailey Avenue have been high for years, and the house on Coursin Street is associated with the group from Bailey Avenue, police said. Lt. Schurman noted that several possible motives for the violence remain under probe, and detectives were seeking witnesses. It was unclear whether Mr. Ford was the target; two other people were inside the home during the shooting.

Court records show Mr. Ford was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to drug possession in 2011; he pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and other summary offenses earlier this year. Ms. Burgwin said he was eager to be a father and was trying to stay out of the fray since finishing probation.

Mr. Cherepko recently began holding meetings among community leaders, police, city officials and local pastors to swap ideas.

Ms. Burgwin was among them. She said she encouraged the group to include young men in future meetings to learn "what's bugging you? What's eating you up?"

Until then, she feared the violence would continue.

"This is only going to end up in more bloodshed. Because he has friends, who have friends who have guns. It's a rehashing of the same sick thought process."

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Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. Staff writer Taryn Luna contributed.


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