RELATED: City was in chaos, detectives recall
By JOE GORMAN
Jan. 10, 1995, 2:29 p.m.
City police Detective Sgt. John Perdue is called to Hillman Street at Cohasset Drive where 16-year-old Shanikki Speller is dead inside a car — a gunshot wound to the neck.
She was the first Youngstown murder victim in 1995.
There would be 67 more — the most homicides in any one year in the city during a decade that saw plenty of bloodshed.
The year before, 1994, the city recorded 54 homicides, the most until the bloodletting in 1995.
Twenty years later, it is hard to imagine the scope of the carnage that took place.
At one crime scene, a witness who was watching as police processed one homicide left and tripped over a body on her way home. In another case, two patrol officers still on the force today — Detective Sgt. Zaida Miranda and Sonia Wilson — answered two murder calls on the same shift.
Officers of the time said 1995, and the years before and after, were a whirl. Besides working homicide cases, there were plenty of other shootings to investigate and when they weren’t on the streets or investigating, they were in court testifying in cases where suspects were charged, sometimes testifying in two murder trials in the same day.
In the 1990s, the city recorded more than 500 murders.
“It was a very busy time,” said David McKnight, who was a detective at the time and retired as a police department captain. “I would literally be working at one murder scene and then have to go to another murder.”
“There were times we did two or three a day,” added Detective Sgt. Jose Morales, who was a detective then and is now in Internal Affairs.
McKnight and Morales said the city’s skyrocketing homicide rate in the 1990s resulted from the influx of crack cocaine and various gangs vying for a piece of the cocaine pie. Morales told tales of people from out of Youngstown who came with drugs to sell but had more sinister plans of robbing and killing the people they were supposed to meet. In most of those cases, their bodies were found in car trunks, and he ended up investigating their deaths.
Today, 20 years later, all signs point to heroin supplanting crack cocaine as the prime drug of choice, but the level of violence has been lower in the heroin trade. Police Chief Robin Lees, who worked drug investigations for several years and was with the department in 1995, said that historically the heroin trade has less violence than the cocaine trade, which may explain the decline in violence.
Lees also said almost all of those involved in the drug trade in the ‘90s are either dead or in prison and are not around to ply their trade.
Morales said each neighborhood had its own gang, and many homicides were retaliation for other shootings and murders. Groups such as the Down Da Hill Crips, the B.G.D. Folks, the 51/50s and the Bloods held sway in several neighborhoods. In all, the murders were spread evenly through three sides of town: The East Side and South Side both saw 25 murders; the North Side saw 17; and one was downtown. There were no murders that year on the West Side.
Murder victim Richard Taylor, 21, of New York Avenue, was shot to death Aug. 15, 1995, in front of a Wirt Street apartment. He had been charged with a 1994 murder but the charge was dismissed after a key witness developed a “lapse in memory,” according to court records.
Several teenagers also were among the dead, including Anthony Brown, 16, of Akron, who was stabbed to death at a home on Firnley Avenue on March 20, 1995. Brown had an unborn child he would never see.
The city ended the year much as it began, with a double murder in a Wright Drive apartment, as Mary Jones and Steven White, ages unavailable, were found shot, both with multiple gunshot wounds. Morales caught the case and said he remembers getting ready to spend New Year’s with his family when he was called to the murder scene. In the end, there were no witnesses, not a lot of evidence and Morales said he thinks the victims knew whoever killed them because there was no sign anyone forced their way inside their apartment.
Perdue was able to solve the Speller case, almost the same day. He said she was an innocent bystander; she was in a car with a man who was the target of a gang-related shooting and ended up getting shot instead. Police caught the men responsible almost immediately after a car chase on the East Side.
Yet for all the violence, Morales said if people were not involved in the drug trade, for the most part, they were safe.
“If you stayed away from that type of activity or that area, you would be OK,” Morales said.