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Birthday party ends in tragedy

| Friday, Aug. 3, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Dion DeShawn Bray would have turned 25 on Friday. Instead of celebrating, his family will make funeral arrangements.

Bray, of Fineview, and his uncle, Jewel Russell Upsher, 32, of the Hill District, were heading home from an early birthday party when they were gunned down on a Bloomfield street Thursday morning by unknown assailants in a red sports car, police said.

Their deaths, combined with the death hours later of a Hazelwood man shot seven weeks ago, brought the number of killings in the city this year to 42 - one short of the total for all of last year.

'There has to be a way to get out of this mess and stand up to the killers in our community,' said Adrienne Young, a counselor for the victim advocacy group Tree of Hope and a friend of Bray's family.

A third man riding with Bray and Upsher when they were attacked on South Atlantic Avenue - identified by relatives as Steve Brown, 24, of Garfield - was critically injured and a fourth occupant escaped unhurt.

Pittsburgh police said last night they have no suspects or motive in the shooting. There is no indication the attack is related to any other violence in the city this year, police said.

'The survivor stated he doesn't know what happened or why anyone would have attacked them,' Assistant Chief William Mullen said. 'He said there had been no altercation at the bar they attended before the shooting and he was only able to give a vague description of the shooters' car.'

However, investigators said they are concerned that the survivor - who drove the other victims to the hospital - knows more than he has told them.

'When he got to the emergency room, he said, 'There's going to be a war,' which indicates he knows those responsible,' one investigator said.

The night started with a party at the Dynasty Tavern on Centre Avenue in Bloomfield. Loretta Bray, of Garfield, said the four went out to celebrate her nephew's birthday.

Upsher was driving them to Garfield when they approached a traffic light at Penn Avenue about 2 a.m. A red sports car, possibly a Camaro or Trans-Am with at least two black men inside, crossed in front of their car on Penn and shots rang out from the passing vehicle, witnesses told police.

'It appears bullets were fired into the driver's side first, and then the passenger's side,' Mullen said. 'We found four shell casings at the scene, but we're not sure yet exactly how many shots were fired.'

The victims' car lurched across Penn Avenue. When it stopped, Brown and the other back seat passenger pulled Bray and Upsher into the back. The fourth passenger, who police declined to identify, then drove to nearby Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

Upsher died at the hospital at 2:33 a.m. from a gunshot wound to the chest, the Allegheny County Coroner's office said. Bray and Brown were taken to UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Oakland, where Bray died from gunshot wounds to the chest at 2:46 a.m. Brown was in critical condition yesterday, and police said he will likely survive his injuries.

Mullen said police did not find any drugs or weapons in the victims' car, and Bray's family said he was not involved in drugs. Upsher pleaded guilty in 1989 and '92 in Allegheny County Court to drug charges from separate arrests, records state.

Bray's mother, Casandra Bray, of Friendship, said her son was a well-liked man and an aspiring artist.

'Just this month he was talking about going to art school,' she said. 'And he wanted to draw cartoon characters for the kids in my day care.'

Dion Bray, who grew up in Garfield, had a 3-year-old son, DeShawn Bray, with his girlfriend, Diamond Stamper, with whom he lived in Fineview, his mother said.

Young said Dion was close friends with her son, Javon Thompson, until he was killed in 1994.

'Dion and his other friends sat with me through the whole trial for my son's murderer,' Young said. 'But I think they all lost a lot of steam when Javon was killed, because he was doing everything right and got killed anyway.'

Casandra Bray said she did not know Upsher, the brother of her ex-husband, very well.

'He was crazy about his nephew,' she said. 'But I don't know what he did. He was quiet.'

Upsher and Brown's immediate families could not be reached for comment.

Young said her group, Tree of Life, will help Bray's family make funeral arrangements, as it does for other families of victims. The arrangements were incomplete last night.

She urged anyone interested in providing help or requesting assistance from her group to call (412) 886-1212.

David Conti can be reached at dconti@tribweb.com or (412) 441-0976.

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