Recent Winchester Thurston grad killed during late-night party in Penn Hills

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 7:51 a.m.

A recent high school graduate killed during a Penn Hills party was a dynamic, mature young man who carried himself “like a 30-year-old kid,” his former school headmaster said on Thursday.

“It's just unbelievable,” said Gary Niels, headmaster at Winchester Thurston, a private school with campuses in Shadyside and Hampton. “I literally just handed him his diploma.”

Allegheny County Police charged Damien Franklin, 21, of Penn Hills with killing Nathan Hurrell, 18, also of Penn Hills. Franklin told police that he was checking whether his gun was loaded when he fired the fatal shot.

Hurrell graduated from Winchester Thurston on June 8, and played one of the lead roles in the spring musical, Niels said. He was a member of the jazz band and planned to attend DePaul University in Chicago.

“He was very well-known and very well-liked,” Niels said. “Everybody just has a punched-in-the-stomach kind of reaction.”

Franklin told police that Hurrell was among a group of friends gathered about 1 a.m. Thursday on the rear porch of his home on Springwood Drive and messing around with what Franklin referred to as his “drones” — two rifles, a shotgun and a handgun.

Someone stole three of the guns from Franklin in a burglary two years ago. He said Penn Hills police returned them to him on Wednesday, according to the criminal complaint.

Hurrell first pointed the shotgun at Franklin, and Franklin said he told him to put the gun down and stop playing, the complaint said. Franklin told police that he picked up the MSAR .223 rifle and thought it felt heavy, as though it was loaded.

Then he said Hurrell aimed the VZ 58 7.62 X 39 caliber assault rifle at him and asked him what he would do if someone had a “strap” pointed at his face, the complaint said.

Franklin told police that he rested the MSAR rifle on a hot tub to check whether it was loaded and as he pulled the slide back, he fired the gun, striking Hurrell, the complaint said. He died at the scene.

Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton said police suspect that Hurrell loaded the gun.

“When they're returned, they're not loaded, I guarantee you,” Burton said. “We have no ammunition in them. We don't let people have loaded guns in the station.”

Other than the burglary, Burton said, Penn Hills police don't have a record of incidents at the home. The chief said police arrested a suspect in the burglary but kept the guns while the case made its way through court. He said police conduct background checks on people before returning firearms.

“We make every effort to make sure he's allowed to have the guns,” Burton said.

Police took Franklin to the Allegheny County Jail, where he is awaiting arraignment on the homicide charge.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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