Alarming rash of violent crime has put Johnstown on the edge

JOHNSTOWN – Hours before dawn on June 28, a gunman riddled 37-year-old Jamil Gray with bullets in a Johnstown alley.

Gray, a native of Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood with a long criminal record, died three blocks from the Johnstown City Hall and four blocks from its police headquarters. His death remains unsolved.

Gray is one of five people murdered in Johnstown so far this year – a statistic that, adjusted for population, places the city’s homicide rate at more than double Philadelphia’s.

In 2011, the latest year for which state authorities provide a count, Pennsylvania’s overall murder rate stood at five deaths per 100,000 people. As of mid-August, Johnstown’s is more than 23 per 100,000.

For some in Johnstown – a city with economic and social concerns sometimes compared to Altoona’s – this year’s rash of deaths and shootings is emblematic of a deeper distress, one that won’t be cured easily.

“Some people don’t look at it like it’s a real problem, like we need to prevent it,” said Emily Ross, who was raised in Altoona and now lives in Moxham, a Johnstown neighborhood that has seen three murders and several shootings and robberies since January. “If it’s not happening directly to them, they don’t want to believe it’s happening at all.”

Standing along a tree-lined Moxham street Aug. 13, Ross gestured toward rows of nearby houses: some beautifully maintained, some obviously abandoned.

“We’ve had people found dead in these homes,” she said. “They don’t know how long they’ve been there.”

A different mentality

Joshua Price, 29, died because he wanted to borrow a man’s car, police said.

After he asked to use 19-year-old Shahliek Greene’s car Feb. 6 at Price’s Moxham home, the men became embroiled in an argument, police said. Price was shot at least four times with a .380-caliber handgun. He died at the scene.

“How can all of this be true?” Price’s sister, Jackie, wrote in an obituary in the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. “I can’t believe you are really gone. I still can’t accept it.”

Less than three weeks later, in the same neighborhood, two men allegedly forced their way into a home where they’d sent a package of marijuana. The pair had reportedly thought the house was abandoned; when the drugs arrived, the surprised inhabitants contacted police.

One of the men beat an inhabitant with a pistol until the second intruder’s gun went off, the bullet wounding both the gunman and a victim, police said at the time.

While no one was killed in the home invasion, its alleged cause – an increasingly pervasive drug trade – has claimed its share of lives in recent months.

“Two of the homicides that we’re investigating are absolutely drug-related,” Johnstown Police Chief Craig Foust said last week.

In one, a state parolee shot 37-year-old Leslie Schetrompf in the leg July 24 when Schetrompf arrived at his home to collect a debt, police said. Schetrompf died days later from blood loss.

Foust cited Gray’s unsolved death as drug-related, as well. Buried in Pittsburgh, he left behind six children.

“It just seems like lately there’s been an influx of out-of-town people who have a different mentality, who resort to violence quicker than other people,” Foust said, explaining that drug traffickers move from larger cities to join the trade in Johnstown. “They make more money, have less competition.”

Last week, U.S. Marshals combed Johnstown for James Lawrence, a Pittsburgh murder suspect. Officials said Lawrence, at the time believed to be hiding in the area, and another man dragged a victim from a Pittsburgh bus March 30, beat him on the ground and shot him repeatedly.

Lawrence was apprehended Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

“These guys come from Philadelphia, from Baltimore, from D.C.,” said Ben Gallagher, who owns the Village Street Cafe in Moxham. “They can make so much money. The economics of it is ridiculous. What they get $5 for there, they get $15 for here.”

“Like the wild west”

Outsiders can’t be blamed for all of Johnstown’s drug trade, however, nor for its latest and most personal violence.

Early Aug. 6, Demetrius Gibson, 21, met with his girlfriend, Liz Miller, at a Moxham car wash. After an argument, Gibson allegedly stabbed the 21-year-old woman with a survival knife and left her to die.

Four-year-old photographs revealed shortly after the slaying showed a smiling Gibson wearing a suit, a crown and the sash of Greater Johnstown High School’s homecoming king. Friends described the suspect, who turned himself in to police Aug. 17, as a beloved companion who dropped out of Howard University and fell into a life of crime.

“There’s nothing around here that protects our kids,” Ross said. “A homecoming king? I mean, how does he get to that point?”

Four days earlier, Jonathan Robert Kuzma, 31, bludgeoned his father to death with a hammer before stealing cash to buy heroin, police said.

Johnstown’s decades-old economic problems have likely contributed to a sense of cynicism and a growing criminal culture, said D.C. Nokes Jr., a city native and attorney who has long worked with community and charity groups.

“Growing up, we were always the lowest crime rate in the nation,” Nokes said. “Now it feels like we’re right behind Detroit and Washington, D.C. And that’s a frightening proposition.”

In fact, using the latest full-year statistics for major cities, Johnstown’s 2013 murder rate surpasses that of Washington. Among Pennsylvania cities, Johnstown outstrips almost every community around its size.

“You kind of almost acquiesce to the fact that you’re going to have crime. You don’t have jobs; you’re going to have crime,” Nokes said. “In the past it was, ‘How do we find employment?’ Now it’s whether you can walk down the street safely.”

There’s little question that Johnstown’s economy has declined: At around 20,000, the city’s population is less than a third of its interwar height. Last year it marked the dubious distinction of 20 years in the state’s Act 47 distress program, a label Altoona took on last year.

Johnstown’s share of residents in poverty is double that of Altoona, according to census data. Persistent poverty and violent crime are closely linked, studies have shown.

Foust, the police chief, acknowledged that this year’s violent crimes have put a strain on the city but stopped short of suggesting they’re the start of a long-term trend.

“This amount of homicides in a short period is not normal,” he said. “But the vast majority of the residents of Johnstown are good, honest … no criminal records. It just takes a few bad people to bring a neighborhood down.”

The rash of crime – or at least its perception – has spurred a sort of gallows humor among some in Johnstown. Online, hundreds have shared images with sarcastic labels like, “Drove through Moxham – didn’t get shot or robbed.”

That’s not an easy image for a city to fight, said Brad Clemenson, coordinator of Lift Johnstown, a partnership working to reinvent Johnstown and raise it from economic distress.

“It’s obviously a challenge to combat a perception like that. Any time there’s a murder, in particular, it gets lots of headlines,” Clemenson said.

Some in the city described a cyclical decline: As murders, shootings and manhunts appear on TV news and in headlines, hard-hit neighborhoods lose real estate value and their longtime residents. And a sense of rampant crime, justified or not, can look like a business opportunity for ambitious outsiders.

“It’s like the wild west,” Nokes said.

Less time, more crime

Asked what’s to blame for the city’s high murder rate and its citizens’ feelings of lawlessness, many have come to the same conclusion: There simply aren’t enough police officers.

In the past five years, the Johnstown Police Department has dropped from 52 to 37 officers, Foust said – losing almost a third of its manpower. That drop can be doubly harmful, as more emergency response work spread among fewer officers means less time spent working with the community.

Where a patrolman might once have stopped a teenage vandal and set him straight, some city residents said, that young man might now move on to more serious crime.

“The less time they have to do proactive police work, the more crime you get,” Foust said.

Kevin Dickerson, a maintenance worker in Moxham, put it more simply.

“Everyone knows we don’t have enough police in this town. That’s a fact,” he said.

In early 2010, for example, the city laid off four officers in a budget that furloughed 14 employees and raised taxes to cut out a budget deficit. The remaining officers reportedly racked up considerable overtime expenses as they struggled to plug the gap.

“It creates a tremendous strain on our resources,” Foust said of this year’s violent crime. “There’s a lot of talk now about providing additional police officers, which is one of the main things we need.”

In the meantime, some in hard-hit neighborhoods have considered taking action themselves.

A city renaissance

Moxham Renaissance, a community group based in the landmark Russell House, has long worked to preserve the turn-of-the-century homes that dot the neighborhood’s nationally recognized historic district, said Gallagher of the Village Street Cafe.

Lately, however, they’ve moved their focus toward crimefighting.

“Now, you know, a lot of their goal is just trying to help Moxham clean up and build back up,” he said.

With a declining city population and an influx of sometimes-feared outsiders, both city officials and residents have pointed to absentee landlords and semi-abandoned drug houses as growing threats to struggling neighborhoods.

Business owners are working to raise money for surveillance cameras, Gallagher said, of the type sometimes used in major cities. Cameras could be placed at trouble spots, their recordings inaccessible to those who installed them but available for police review during investigations, he said.

“It’s kind of like having a big dog in the house. That’s the idea,” Gallagher said.

But in a city that’s seen as many murders in the last eight months as in the combined four years that preceded them, it might take more than cameras to change outsiders’ perceptions – especially when, according to police, crime has shifted to once-quiet neighborhoods.

First, Ross said, people in Johnstown have to address the roots of the problem: a flood of drugs; exploitative housing; and old prejudices that have persisted over the decades.

“There are really, really good people here,” she said. “But it has to be a collection of everybody in the city. Not just a neighborhood.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.