The billboard idea began with a group of women in Pittsburgh whose sons had been murdered.
By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- When the first anniversary of Nick Paolone's death fell on Mother's Day, his mother made -- and threw -- pies.
Kathy Perla said her son "had a really great sense of humor, he was always trying to pull a joke on somebody."
So, she commemorated the date with a pie fight. Her sister, daughter, granddaughter and niece joined in.
"We just threw pies at each other and cried," said Perla, of Pittsburgh. "Nick would have loved that. It was something so different, but it was him."
More than five years later, Perla still grieves the loss of her son, who was murdered on Youngstown's South Side in 1997. She's frustrated that no one has been arrested, but she's not giving up her search for the killer.
On Friday, Lamar Advertising Co. will post a new billboard on South Avenue near Hilton Avenue.
It shouts "Murder! In Youngstown" next to a photograph of Paolone and offers a $1,000 reward for help solving the case. A confidential phone number directs anyone with information to call the Witness Protection Program at the Pittsburgh Police Department.
"I'm thinking somebody out there does know something and, if I keep at it, somebody might break," Perla said. "... I'm not going to rest until I find out what happened. I may not rest after that, but at least I can put it behind me."
The cost of the billboard was donated by Lamar, said Bobby Soule, vice president and general manager of the company's Youngstown division. He said it is the first of its kind in the city.
Paolone was 18, and a new father, when he was found dead of a head wound in his East Florida Avenue home May 10, 1997.
His mother has tried to do many things on her own, including going to the neighborhood and talking to people. As time goes by, her hope dwindles, but she is determined to keep trying.
Came up with idea
The idea of solving murders with billboards was conceived by Valerie Dixon, a Pittsburgh mother whose 22-year-old son, Robert James Dixon, was murdered last year in the East Liberty section of that city. As she tinkered with a billboard design, four of her friends also lost sons to murder.
By December 2001, they had decided to place five faces on the billboard.
When they approached Lamar Advertising, the company chose to donate space for two billboards. They stayed up for a month.
In March, two more billboards went up.
In August, up went 20 billboards, searching for justice in the death of 18 people. They will stay up five months.
The bulk of the cost --about $40,000 -- has been donated by Lamar, Dixon said. She and her friends have collected an additional $10,000 through the new Divine Intervention Ministries they've formed through the Central (Baptist Church) New Development Corp.
Half of that amount came from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Witness Protection Program, Dixon explained, and half was raised by Allegheny County Chief Executive Officer Jim Roddey.
An additional $1,950 for future billboards came from the United Way of Allegheny County.
Sgt. Lavonnie Bickerstaff of the Witness Protection Program said she has received about a half dozen calls related to the murders since the billboards went up. Before that, none.
She said the Witness Protection Program helps remove a stigma attached to cooperating with police. It also helps remove fear, because people know the program will assist crime witnesses with finding a safe place to live.
After the crime
Paolone's wife, Michelle, told police she came home from getting a pizza to find her husband dead.
Capt. Robert Kane said in 1998 that she held the key to the case. The couple were divorcing, and Michelle Paolone took a lie-detector test and "failed it miserably," Kane said at the time.
Kane said this week that the department tried to interview her again but she refused to answer questions.
The Mahoning County Sheriff's Department also investigated the case, with help from the state Bureau of Criminal Identification & amp; Investigation.
Sheriff's Maj. Michael Budd said such cases are never closed, but looked at in "order of solvability." In the Paolone case, there's little police can do unless further leads arise, he said.
Michelle and Nicholas Paolone had a 15-month-old son, Brian. Now 7, he lives with Nicholas' aunt and uncle.
Brian asks about his father, Perla said. On a recent visit to her home, he saw family pictures and asked, "What did Daddy Nick look like when he died?"
His grandmother played a home movie.
"Wow, was that Daddy Nick?" Brian asked. "He was cool.
"... Tell me about him. Tell me everything."