Within minutes, the impromptu get-together to welcome the new family on Pitt Street in Elizabeth Township became uncomfortable.
In March 2004, Rachel Booth scaled the fence of her family's McKeesport home in a photograph taken for a story about homeowner evictions.
Click photo for larger image.
New resident Matthew Booth Sr. interrupted the small talk on that April 2006 day by pointing to his then-12-year-old daughter Rachel and nonchalantly remarking, "She's been raped."
Neighbors were stunned to silence.
They turned to other topics with the father, daughter and a son, Matthew Jr., 13 at the time.
And then Rachel held out her arm, revealing healing slashes.
"Look at this, I tried to kill myself," Rachel said matter of factly.
Thus began the Booth residency on the tiny, gravel cul-de-sac with six houses. It ended July 30 when Rachel, now 13, used a shotgun to shoot her sleeping father in the head. She told a neighbor and authorities, who initially charged her as an adult with murder, that she needed to stop the sexual and physical abuse she had endured from him for six years.
Mr. Booth, 34, also physically abused his son, neighbors and authorities said.
Since the slaying, Rachel's plight and that of her brother -- in addition to the abuse, they lived in a house infested with fleas and littered with animal feces, often appeared to be hungry and wore filthy clothing -- has come to light.
The Allegheny County district attorney's office joined with Rachel's defense attorney to have her murder charge transferred to juvenile court where, at worst, she could be sent to a juvenile facility until she was 21.
After four days in jail followed by a court-ordered stint in Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic, Rachel was transferred Thursday to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center to await adjudication on the homicide charge.
Like many others, Pitt Street neighbors are pleased the judicial system is dealing with Rachel as a juvenile.
"She never had a childhood," said neighbor Gloria Brown. "She's not a maniac, she just snapped. All they needed was a good home."
Ms. Brown and others who knew her said the girl was bright, motivated and had great potential.
Another neighbor, Jason Mervosh, said: "Everybody wants Rachel to get help and for her to be able to live her life. And young Matt too. We just want to see the kids get help."
Given what Rachel in particular went through, neighbors and others say, it's amazing she survived at all.
Explaining away the bruises
Matthew Booth ruled his brood with an iron fist and a steely glare while he and Michelle Fazek raised three children in a small house isolated at the end of Beale Street in McKeesport, according to neighbors.
The Beale Street home was built by Mr. Booth's paternal grandparents a half century ago. It was left to him when he was barely 18 and caring for his grandmother, who subsequently died.
Ms. Fazek was a teenager when she moved in with Mr. Booth on Beale Street. In fewer than three years, the unmarried couple had three children.
They also began to accumulate pets, including dogs that barked incessantly, neighbors said. Their cats, never spayed or neutered, had offspring that still roam the neighborhood.
In time, neighbors said, Mr. Booth began to develop a reputation as the neighborhood sloth. So bad were conditions in the house that his own mother wouldn't go inside, said Maryann Styche, 69, a Beale Street neighbor and Mr. Booth's second cousin.
Anyone standing downwind of the Booths' home was overcome by the stench, neighbors said.
The young couple's children -- Matthew Jr., Rachel and Elizabeth, a year younger than her sister -- had few clothes. What they had was threadbare and dirty. Neighbors said they tried to help by donating clothing; the children would wear them until they were filthy, worn out and smelly.
Sarah Kraus, 16, said she often acted as a buffer between Rachel and other children at school who teased her, sometimes leading to angry outbursts from Rachel and to fights. At the time of the killing, both Rachel and Matthew Jr. were enrolled in a cyber charter school.
At a New Year's Eve party at the Kraus house, Mr. Booth struck and ridiculed his son, who has a deformed hand.
"He whacked him and said something like, 'Look at that hand,' " said Norma Kraus, a neighbor who lives around the corner from the old Booth home.
Melanie Beresford, 30, whose back yard abuts the Booths' former home, said the children never complained about their father or their plight, but it was apparent they were always hungry. Initially, she would invite them to her home for small meals, a practice that became regular whenever she was cooking on her backyard grill.
Neighbors reported a tumultuous relationship between Mr. Booth, who they said drank heavily, and his children and their mother. The couple eventually split up, with Ms. Fazek taking Elizabeth while Matthew and Rachel remained with their father.
Civil court documents filed over the years by Mr. Booth and Ms. Fazek indicate that the Allegheny County office of Children and Youth and Families responded to calls made regarding the family, that Ms. Fazek sought custody of her other two children, and that the acrimony among the family members continued.
Rachel often had bruises on her body, Sarah Kraus said. "She was a tomboy and sometimes she explained the bruises that way. She had a lot of excuses for [the bruising]."
In time, Mr. Booth lost ownership of his grandparents' home to unpaid taxes. Mark and Siti Anna Dinkel of Irwin, who bought the house at sheriff's sale, allowed him to rent the place.
It was then that law enforcement in Westmoreland County investigated charges that a relative of the Dinkels had raped Rachel -- apparently the sexual assault Mr. Booth later brought up with the Pitt Street neighbors. The investigation ended when the suspect hanged himself.
The Dinkels eventually evicted Mr. Booth and his family from Beale Street because of unpaid bills.
The house now is occupied by Chrissy Walker, her children and her fiance, Danny McKee, a construction worker hired by the Dinkels. Before the couple moved in, however, the dwelling had to be disinfected, cleaned, and refurbished from top to basement.
The Booths moved about two miles away to Pitt Street.
Rachel finds a friend
About a year ago, unknown, unannounced and unsolicited, Rachel walked into the Boston Stitchery store and entered Deborah Sherer's life.
"God sent her to me," said Ms. Sherer, 56, the mother of three and grandmother of eight.
Rachel had walked to the store from her Pitt Street home about a half mile away looking for sewing lessons, something Ms. Sherer didn't normally offer at her 8-year-old business. But she was so struck by Rachel's demeanor that she agreed to take her under her wing about two months ago.
"She had all of this enthusiasm, a natural instinct, all of this talent that was dying to come out," said Ms. Sherer, who initially thought Rachel was 16 or 17. "She was very proud she had found some scraps and was piecing together a quilt.
"She's a very natural, pretty girl. She's naturally full of a sweet personality. She's very caring, she's assertive, she's opinionated, she's very thoughtful, very analytical and she's funny. This little girl had good life skills."
Rachel would come to the store daily, learning from Ms. Sherer and performing small tasks, taking upon herself the renovation of a powder room that was being used for storage. She loved waiting on customers and answering the phone. She referred to herself as Ms. Sherer's assistant and told the owner that in a few years she'd be able to run the store for her.
Rachel was clean but her clothes badly needed to be laundered. Ms. Sherer gave her clothing and showed Rachel how to make peasant blouses, an accomplishment that gave her immense pride. Ms. Sherer said she regularly gave Rachel money but Mr. Booth would take it from her.
Just the other day, Ms. Sherer said, she found sketches Rachel had drawn for her planned fairy costume for Halloween. That reminded Ms. Sherer that Rachel once asked to borrow her book "Grimm's Fairy Tales," which she devoured while curled up in the store.
"This isn't a little girl with any kind of criminal mind," Ms. Sherer said referring to the shooting. "She was saving her own life, that's an absolute truth. We never talked about her home life. She told me she pretty much was her own person. She portrayed to me the person she is, not the person she was forced to be."
But there were hints of her hidden problems.
"I was starting to pick up on it. She was showing me signs. She'd come in telling me her shoulder hurt and she was in pain, she would show me marks on her back. Of course she'd have some reason. She fell or whatever.
"She'd be tired in the morning but we'd go eat and she'd be OK. I could tell she was reaching ... but you'd have to know Rachel's personality, she's a proud girl."
Knowing what she now knows, Ms. Sherer is amazed that "she rose above it. A lot of times, kids in situations like this express their frustration and anger out on the street doing things they shouldn't be doing. In Rachel's case, she'd rather read a book, she'd rather sew, she'd look at more wholesome ways to release herself from all of that.
"I often wonder what was going through her head when she was at the sewing machine. What went through that poor little girl's mind?"
On Pitt Street, the home the Booths rented is boarded up, condemned and soon will be demolished. And that can't happen soon enough for the tight-knit group of residents there.
The house, they say, seems cursed. In addition to the squalor and horrors purportedly visited there during the Booth residency, its rumored history also includes two unrelated suicides, a hanging and a shooting.
Even from the outside, the house is an eyesore -- much of the aluminum siding is missing, stripped by the hard-drinking Mr. Booth, who sold it for scrap to get money to buy beer and cigarettes, according to neighbors. And, neighbors are upset that it has become a macabre tourist attraction, luring motorists who pull up, stare and point at the scene of the crimes.
Neighbors are also riled that, in their estimation, their neighborhood has been portrayed in the news media as uncaring about the Booth children.
Ms. Brown said she and other women on the street had a feeling all was not right in the Booth household, particularly because Rachel always had bruises.
"As a mother you have a gut feeling there's something going on behind closed doors," she said last week. "She'd always say she bumped something. We'd say, 'You seem upset,' and she would change the subject. We'd say, 'If he's hurting you, you can come to one of houses and he won't get to you.' But she was afraid to break away."
Additionally, she said, neighbors would see police there and they knew county Children Youth and Families officials visited the house three or four times.
Elizabeth Township police records show officers responded six times last year to check on the children's welfare at the request of Ms. Fazek, who was estranged from Mr. Booth and the two older children. Officers found nothing amiss. Similarly, CYF apparently found nothing that precipitated taking the children out of the house. CYF is prohibited by state law from discussing cases.
Mr. Mervosh said Rachel has been calling the neighbors, many of whom have attended her hearings and have visited her at Western Psych. Pitt Street residents also sent Rachel a large basket with clothing and personal care items.
"She says she misses everyone on the street. She seems happy. She sounded in good spirits," Mr. Mervosh said.
Ms. Brown said Rachel told her by phone that "the only family she has is on Pitt Street and she wants to come back."
Rachel also called Ms. Sherer, who said she may be among those seeking guardianship of her at a hearing later this month.
"Rachel is a child with aspirations, with potential, an intelligent girl who has her whole life ahead of her," Ms. Sherer said. "Rachel is a strong girl and she needs to be in an environment where she's nurtured and channeled because she has something to offer the world. She really does."