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Revenge fueling murders

| Friday, Sept. 12, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

In the days before his death, Markel "Maurice" Williamson talked nervously about the recent killings of his crime associates, police said.

He probably never saw the gunman who crept out of the shadows of Brinton Manor in Braddock Hills on Monday night and put a bullet in the back of his head.

Williamson, 20, of Lawrenceville, who police said made a living robbing drug dealers, become another victim of a cycle of retaliatory slayings that has put Allegheny County on pace to equal the record-setting year of 1993, when 118 people died as gangs and crack cocaine took hold of the region.

There have been 79 homicides in the city and county this year, averaging about nine a month. The total was 18 in August, with four more in the first days of September.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County police are struggling to infiltrate the culture that holds to a street code that punishes wrongdoing with death. In the city, where 22 of this year's 48 killings remain unsolved, police have tracked separate patterns of retaliation in three major neighborhoods -- the North Side, the Hill District and Homewood.

"I can't say our hands are tied, but it's very hard," said Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief William Mullen, who oversees the investigation branch. "We're trying new things. But when you have these killings going on in different areas, it's impossible to predict where it will heat up next."

In August, shootings began in the Hill neighborhoods of Bedford Square, Elmore Square and Sugartop. Three people died in five days -- Tamara Robinson, 21, on Aug. 17; Shane Folks, 17, on Aug. 21; and Michael Johnson, 25, on Aug. 22.

"It started over a simple thing. Someone from one side disrespected the girlfriend of someone from another section," Mullen said.

Police focused their patrols on the Hill and sent the narcotics impact squad there. They seized guns from homes and made several arrests.

"They're locking more of these thugs up here," said Roland Drees, 53, a longtime Hill resident. "That's all the police can do."

Then other neighborhoods erupted.

On the North Side, drug dealers began shooting each other in small turf battles. Police have linked two killings -- including Tuesday's drive-by shooting of Ronald Holland -- to that cycle.

In Homewood, Darion Parker, 16, died on the front porch of a friend's home Aug. 13 when someone opened fire with an assault rifle. On Aug. 19, a suspect in that shooting, Michael Baccus, 18, was killed in Wilkinsburg. Baccus' suspected killer, Dante Wilson, has not been caught. His friend, Anthony "Smoke" Hammond, 23, was fatally shot Aug. 28.

Then Williamson -- who police said knew Wilson, Baccus and Hammond -- was killed Monday. County police are handling that case and are trying to track how they are connected.

"It's a lot of robbery and retaliation," county homicide Sgt. Christopher Kearns said. "But finding out what they're retaliating for is a challenge. Drug dealers don't call the police when they're robbed. They take care of it themselves."

County police hope that arresting a few key players -- such as Wilson -- will put a lid on the killings.

City police want to do the same. Investigators also are trying to arrest those who carry guns and deal drugs before they start killing. When city police arrest someone carrying a gun illegally, the information is sent to U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan's office for review.

"If they can take the prosecution, we can get people off the street faster and longer," Mullen said. "We did it on the North Side last year, and it stopped a crew of guys who were killing people in broad daylight."

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