Media tie attack to 'knockout'; police disagree

David Conti
| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 11:49 p.m.

High school teacher James Addlespurger didn't believe his shocking attack in a Downtown alley was linked to the “knockout game” grabbing headlines around the world this week.

But watching surveillance video of the assault matched to footage of more recent attacks in other cities makes him wonder.

“The thing that really gets you is the reaction of the actors and the other kids,” said Addlespurger, 51, a teacher at the Creative and Performing Arts High School, Downtown, whose random attack in October 2012 has been cited by media as evidence of a growing trend. “It certainly gives you thoughts that there is this thing going on.”

Pittsburgh police said on Thursday that they don't believe Dajour Washington, 16, who sucker-punched Addlespurger as he walked on Tito Way last year, was participating in knockout, in which passers-by are targeted with a goal of knocking someone out with one punch.

“There was some discussion that it could be and that we were possibly on the cusp of some trend here,” said Cmdr. Eric Holmes, whose investigators in the Hill District station determined there was no connection. “It never played out in that direction.”

Washington was adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court of aggravated assault. He could not be reached.

Police in several cities are reviewing incidents to determine if they're related to the game, including attacks in New York and Washington, a fatal attack in Jersey City and two incidents in Lower Merion, a tony Philadelphia suburb.

Some experts question whether a trend exists, or if media hype during November TV ratings sweeps is feeding a frenzy.

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, called the response an example of what late colleague Jock Young coined “moral panic.”

“It's a hysterical reaction to something that is shocking ... independent of actual facts of the matter,” said Butts, who fielded interview requests on knockout from as far away as Japan.

Knockout is not new, as some media outlets claim in breathless introductions to horrifying videos. Authorities have no indication it's happening more frequently. Lower Merion Lt. Frank Higgins said he's learning more about knockout from media reports than fellow law officers as his department tries to determine if that's why at least one victim there was attacked.

“Some of the reporting lacks what I call critical thinking. Where's the proof these things are actually related to each other?” asked Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member and media expert at Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

News stories cite a report by a CBS affiliate in New York and link to a video report that includes footage of Addlespurger's attack and interviews with anonymous teens in Jersey City explaining the game.

“Note that none of those people claim to be involved,” Butts said. “They're repeating what they've heard.”

All of the teens pictured are black, which helps feed the frenzy, Butts said. He and Tompkins said they've observed such reactions to isolated crimes such as the 1989 “wilding” attacks in New York, in which people ran wild in Central Park.

“The problem is you become afraid of the wrong things,” Tompkins said.

Pittsburgh police, city school police and Allegheny County authorities said they know of no examples of kids here copying the game.

Addlespurger returned to teaching and plays blues in the Jimmy Adler Band. Seeing his attack replayed by national media this week is hard, he said. He wonders if Washington or the teens with him knew about knockout.

“If he's rehabilitated, that should include reflection, and maybe someone can find out why he did it,” Addlespurger said.

Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed. David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at

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