Grisly murder of North Side boy still felt 15 years later
Almost nobody looks south.
Every day, 24,000 cars drive this stretch of East Ohio Street, between Madison Avenue and Chestnut Street in the North Side, and nearly every driver looks north to the side of the street with hope. A hotel is planned, perhaps a restaurant, plus new sidewalks, curbs and street lights.
On the other side of the street sits an isolated wedge of trash-strewn grass. There is no pedestrian access, and for good reason: There's nothing there.
Nothing but a single tree and a small plaque marking the spot of perhaps the city's most gruesome murder.
“As soon as I got there, I saw it was a case I had never seen before or even read about,” said Ron Freeman, a retired city police homicide detective and commander. “There were things at the scene done to him ... the time he spent in the killing and the time he spent in doing other things suggested (the killer) liked it. He enjoyed it, he took his time and he got a thrill out of it. He did things that people don't normally do when they kill.”
Scott Drake was 11 when last seen alive, 15 years ago, Sept. 24, 2000.
He was well-known in the neighborhood. He lived with his family on Lockhart Street, played with kids at Allegheny Center Alliance Church and rode his bike on East Ohio Street, where waitresses and business owners chatted with him and slipped him pieces of candy.
He was “everybody's child,” Freeman said.
And then, he was gone.
“There was panic. His family was hanging signs, asking, ‘Have you seen him?' ” recalled Barbara Burns, a former councilwoman who represented the North Side. “I'd seen him the day before. He was born and raised here. He was a part of the landscape.”
As missing-persons detectives canvassed the area, homicide Lt. Mike Sippey called his boss, Freeman, and asked for permission to help.
It was raining the next night when Sippey and an officer searched through bushes on that wedge of tall grass off East Ohio Street, three blocks from Scott Drake's home.
“I found him,” Sippey told Freeman over the phone. “It's bad.”
Scott's abdomen had been cut open, from navel to neck, exposing internal organs. His genitals had been cut off. The boy was naked, his hands pinned beneath him. His clothes were stacked neatly nearby, next to the silver Mongoose bike he always rode around the neighborhood.
Freeman immediately called the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va. A profiler listened to the details and told Freeman:
You don't want to hear this, but listen — this guy is going to do it again. You need to get him. Soon.
What followed was the largest investigation in Freeman's 34-year career in homicide. County police and the FBI sent dozens of investigators. They talked to everyone on the North Side who might have known or seen the boy.
“We learned a lot about him,” Freeman said. “He had a nice mom, but the dad was incarcerated. He didn't have the home life he deserved, but the whole neighborhood liked him. All the merchants knew him. One waitress cried when we came in and she found out who it was.
“That's the thing that stuck out with me: He was everybody's child. And we adopted him. This was a child, not somebody who can fight back.”
Mayor Tom Murphy, a North Side resident, called a news conference. With Burns sobbing in the background, he urged anyone with information to come forward.
“I was thinking of my son, who was not much older than Scott,” Murphy said. “For any parent, it was hard. And to be mayor, I was so angry that something like that could happen in my city.”
“The fact that this was such a gruesome end to a child was heartbreaking,” Burns added. “It still upsets me. He had a right to grow up.”
Tips poured in, including three from people who said they saw Scott talking with a bearded man on East Ohio Street about the time he disappeared.
Police focused on Joseph Glenn Cornelius, then 47. A drifter from Uniontown, he had arrived shortly before in Pittsburgh. Those who knew him here said Cornelius was mad at the world and everyone in it. People in Uniontown recalled his unnerving habit of stashing mannequins in the basement of his mother's house.
Cornelius denied involvement; police let him go. Then investigators discovered an outstanding warrant on unrelated charges and picked him up again. Three days after Scott Drake's disappearance, Cornelius confessed — to Murphy.
“We had a press conference at police headquarters, and Cornelius walked by me,” Murphy said. “I recognized him because I would see him when I was running on the North Side. I went into the room, and I said, ‘Why did you do such a horrible thing?' And then he confessed to me. I was looking at Freeman like, what do I do here?”
Cornelius is serving a life sentence in SCI Graterford in Montgomery County.
Most of Drake's family have moved away. His grandmother, who lived with him, died in 2012.
What remains in the North Side are memories of a little boy who loved swimming and aquariums; who watched reruns of “Saved By the Bell” and “CHiPs;” who wanted to be a safety patrol guard at his school in Spring Hill; who often stared at an old black-and-white photo of his grandfather, a city police officer who died before Scott was born; a boy who spent his last hours helping a neighbor plant flowers in pots on her front porch, then took off for a bike ride he did not know would be his last.
And there's a little tree and a plaque.
In Memory of Scott Drake. A Northside Boy.
Most people don't see it. They look north when they drive past.
Barbara Burns sees it. So do Murphy and Freeman and the haunted few who cannot forget or ignore it.
“I find myself there literally two times a week,” Freeman said, “and I always look. Every time. It never fails.”