2003 ending deadly
Fueled by a spreading heroin trade and cycles of retaliatory violence, Allegheny County matched the annual homicide record Sunday with a killing that police called revenge for a previous shooting.
Ivan Peguese, 26, of Homewood, died last night after he was shot five times in an early-morning hail of automatic gunfire from an assault rifle, Pittsburgh police said. His death, allegedly at the hands of a teen-ager, brings the year's homicide total to 118, the same number as in all of 1993, when gang violence fueled by the crack cocaine trade sent the homicide rate to an all-time high.
Law enforcement and community leaders have struggled to explain the surge in slayings -- and to put a stop to them -- since the rate began to take off in June.
The majority of this year's killings -- 74 -- occurred within Pittsburgh. The larger increase was in the suburbs, which saw 44 homicides, compared to 35 in 1993.
But like many of this year's killings, Peguese's death crossed municipal boundaries and likely was a case of retaliation. And like two-thirds of this year's victims, he was shot to death.
"The rock-bottom cause is the continued, almost unabated, trafficking of drugs and guns in this region," said Pittsburgh Councilman Sala Udin.
Udin's district, which includes the North Side, Downtown, the Hill District, the Strip District and part of Oakland, accounted for a third of the city's 74 killings.
Of the 44 killings in the suburbs, a third took place in the Mon Valley. Police attributed many of the suburban slayings to squabbles over drug dealing and to gun-toting men bent on revenge for anything from a word of disrespect to a previous shooting or killing.
"There's a common perception out there that life is like 'The Jerry Springer Show,' that you can take out your anger with violence and not be held accountable," said Richard Olasz Jr., a district justice in the Mon Valley for the past 15 years. "I've never seen such a lack of respect for one another."
Peguese died at 6:43 p.m. in UPMC Presbyterian hospital, Oakland, almost 19 hours after crawling from a car to a nearby home for help.
Police arrested Silas Joseph Adams, 19, of Homewood, in Peguese's shooting shortly after two officers on patrol near Collier Street and Hamilton Avenue heard gunfire around midnight.
Officers Philip Mercurio and Robert Kavels chased Adams -- who was lugging an assault rifle -- and two unknown men who ran from the victim's bullet-strafed Pontiac Grand Am. After firing several bullets at the pursuing officers, Adams kicked in the door of an apartment on nearby Bennett Street and held five women at gunpoint in an attempt to get away, police said. Police entered the building and arrested Adams without incident.
Police believe the shooting is connected to a Dec. 19 case in Penn Hills, where Byron Jamar Lewis, a 16-year-old from Homewood, was shot and killed.
"We have information that suggests this is a retaliatory shooting relating to that incident, but we're still trying to verify that," city major crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus said.
A drug connection
Ask any law enforcement or community leader why the killings spiked this year, and the first word of explanation is drugs.
"Ninety percent of the criminal cases I see are connected to drugs in some way," Olasz said.
"There's so much heroin out there, it's frightening," said Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief William Mullen. "It used to be a big deal to arrest someone with 50 bags (of heroin). Now, we get 500 bags or more in several busts every weekend."
"So many of the victims we see are either drug users, drug dealers or drug stealers," county police Assistant Superintendent James Morton said.
There are differences in how the drug trade has fueled this year's homicide trend compared to 1993. Ten years ago, the crack cocaine epidemic was controlled by a group of violent gangs. The city's East End and eastern suburbs were plagued by thugs wearing the colors of Crips and Bloods, pledging allegiance to organized, structured groups like the Larimer Avenue-Wilkinsburg gang.
"It's very splintered now," Mullen said. "It's smaller groups that battle not over turf but silly things like girlfriends."
Still, many of the killings can be linked, spinning off each other. This year's trend has been the revenge killing.
One of those cycles began Aug. 13, when Darion Parker, 16, of Homewood, was fatally shot on the porch of a friend. Word on the street was that Michael Baccus, 18, pulled the trigger. Six days later, according to police, a mutual friend of both men -- Dante Lamont Wilson, 21, of Homewood -- led Baccus to an alley in Wilkinsburg and put a bullet in his head.
Wilson, who has been charged in Baccus' killing but not captured, began hiding out with Anthony Hammond, 23, of Homewood. On Aug. 28, Hammond was fatally shot outside the Hill District home of a friend. On Sept. 8, Markel Williamson, 20, of Lawrenceville -- whom police described as an associate of Wilson and Hammond -- was killed in Brinton Manor in Braddock Hills.
Police said the four-killing string began when one or more of the parties robbed drug dealers.
Similar cycles played out elsewhere in the city and in the suburbs, particularly on the North Side. Laurence Bush, 28, of Penn Hills, was shot Aug. 2 in Allegheny Commons. His suspected killer told a girlfriend that he did it because Bush had killed his cousin in 1994, police said. Bush had been acquitted of that killing just a week before his death.
Ronald Holland, 18, whom police suspected in a previous shooting, was killed Sept. 9 near his Woods Run home. Police said his killing was likely tied to a running battle between groups from Manchester and Northview Heights that claimed the lives of Edward Howard, 24, on Nov. 4, and Marcus Sewell, 20, three days later.
"A lot of these guys deal drugs, but the killings aren't strictly about drugs," Mullen said.
Task force in works
Sixty-three of the city's 74 homicide victims were black. Fifty-six of them were black men.
"Black men are in a myopic stage," said Sandra Bey, 56, a black community activist from Beechview who works with the families left behind by killings.
"They don't get the full picture, because as a group, they are so destructed with drugs and alcohol and guns."
Bey takes to the airwaves on WAMO radio -- the core audience of which is black -- in an attempt to promote peace.
"I tell listeners that the excuses can only go so far," she said. "Black people can talk about what the white man did to us for hundreds of years. But white people don't hate us nearly as much as we hate ourselves now. That shows in these killings."
Of the suburban killings, fewer than half of the victims were black men. Drug disputes and domestic battles were the leading motives in suburban slayings, police said.
And most of the killings occurred in economically distressed areas. The Mon Valley and Wilkinsburg accounted for half of the homicides outside the city.
"The economy has lagged behind here for some time," Olasz said of the Mon Valley. "Many of the youth go home to poor, single-parent homes where money is tight and drug use is rampant."
Community leaders in depressed towns and neighborhoods are working hard to reverse those trends, according to Udin. But they can't do it alone.
"I've been saying for years that the larger powers in this region need to come together and make a concentrated effort to solve the underlying problems," he said. "Public and social service agencies need to work in concert with law enforcement."
The answer to the spike in killings in 1993 was task forces. Federal, county and local law enforcement agencies came together to break the gangs and put their leaders in jail, while social groups brokered peace in neighborhoods and sought treatment for drug addicts, he and other leaders said.
Udin said he has been working for the past month with Mayor Tom Murphy and the Pittsburgh Interfaith Network to form another task force.
"The problem is we may not know what effects we can have for a while," Udin said.
Police contend the only way they can prevent more homicides is to arrest killers: 73 percent of the suburban homicides are considered solved, as are about two-thirds of the city's killings.
"There are multiple people in this city who have done multiple homicides," said Mullen, who oversees city investigations. "The more they get away with it, the more they do. We have to catch them."