Youngstown cops: men ambushed on East Side

By Joe Gorman

and Josh Stipanovich


Keil’n Thurston was remembered as a great player to coach and a teammate who was always there for his friends by his high school coaches and a good friend.

Thurston, 20, was shot and killed Thursday night, and another man was wounded in what city Police Chief Rod Foley said was an ambush.

The shooting took place about 9:30 p.m. at 720 Kendis Circle on the East Side. Treated for a bullet wound to the head at St. Elizabeth Health Center was 18-year-old James Merchant.

Doctors recovered the bullet from Merchant’s head and it was given to police as evidence.

Thurston’s death is the city’s seventh homicide of 2013. There were 14 homicides at this time in 2012.

Vindicator archives show Thurston was the state’s Division V co-Defensive Player of The Year in 2010 for Ursuline High School.

Thurston was an outside linebacker for the Fighting Irish, who also won the state championship that year. According to Vindicator files, he had committed to playing football at Snow College in Utah, but it is unclear if he ever played there.

Larry Kempe was an assistant coach when Thurston played at Ursuline. Thurston played with Kempe’s oldest son, Paul, he said.

“He was a great kid to coach,” Kempe said. “He played very hard.”

Kempe said he was sick when he found out Thurston was killed.

“We were extremely sickened, saddened and shocked that his life was taken so senselessly,” Kempe said.

Thurston was one of 10 football seniors who graduated and played the game they loved the most.

Zach Conlan played ball, had classes with and graduated with Thurston. Conlan was in his room at Walsh College when he received a text message from a friend explaining that Thurston was killed.

“I was really taken back,” Conlan said. “No matter what, [Thurston] was always there for you.”

Conlan said he and the other nine seniors were very close and met regularly. They’re meeting today in Youngstown at a local bar, without Thurston. But Conlan said the support they have within the group is what will help them get through it.

Dan Reardon, former Ursuline head coach, said he’ll never forget how quickly Thurston improved as a football player. He said Thurston started as a part-time junior varsity player, and in one year turned himself into the top defensive player for the state’s best team in Division V.

“To make that jump is nothing short of remarkable,” Reardon said.

When Reardon learned of Thurston’s death, he said he was beyond himself. “I was sick to my stomach,” Reardon said. “[Thurston] was the type of kid everybody loved. It’s a really sad, sad situation.”

Sean Durkin, Ursuline athletic director, refused to comment Friday night because of the suddenness of Thurston’s death.

Foley said investigators were trying to confirm reports that Thurston and Merchant had an ongoing feud with someone. He said it appeared that someone waited for them in a wooded area off Kendis Circle and opened fire.

When police were called, they found Thurston in the back of a van that was pulling out of the parking lot wounded. He was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center, where he later died.

Merchant told police at the hospital he was going to an apartment in the 700 block of Kendis Circle to get a cellphone charger when he heard several shots.

The last homicide in the city was May 21, when 20-year-old Orora Wilkins was shot on the front porch of a Park Avenue home on the North Side as she held an infant. The infant was not harmed.

Willie Wilks, 41, of Elm Street, is charged with aggravated murder and felonious assault, and is in the Mahoning County jail awaiting trial.

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