27 Investigates: A look at violence in Youngstown’s neighborhoods

27 Investigates

The balloons and candles on the side of roads are a grim reminder of the violence that gripped and continues to grip some Youngstown neighborhoods

Youngstown homicide project

Faded flowers and deflated balloons mark the spot where two men were killed on Thanksgiving Day 2000 at Ellenwood and Belleview avenues, a dumping spot for garbage in the city.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Take a drive around Youngstown, especially the South Side.

See those balloons and candles on the side of the road? Those are shrines; someone died there.

Sometimes it’s from an accident. But mostly, they’re left by family and friends of murder victims.

It’s a grim reminder of the violence that gripped and continues to grip some neighborhoods.

Although the city’s homicide rate has declined considerably since the horror of the 1990s, when an average of just over 49 people a year were murdered, the city still ranks highly in murders per capita throughout the country.

Youngstown has always had a reputation for violence, cemented in the 1960s with the Crimetown USA moniker after the murder of Cadillac Charlie Cavallaro and his son in the driveway of their North Side home. That’s when a bomb intended for the elder Cavallaro in his car exploded the day after Thanksgiving in 1962 as he was taking his sons to football practice. One of those sons survived the blast but was maimed for life.

But national publications shied away for their own reasons when the murder rate skyrocketed in the 90s and settled down in the new millennium as the population decreased.

Spectacular killings like Cavalaro’s, or the bombing that took the life of Vince DeNiro, or the slayings of three of the Naples’ brothers, are considered exciting in some circles, stories of the Mafia and their codes and secrets and modes of settling disputes, which have fascinated people for generations.

But the murders of hundreds of people, mostly young, Black men in impoverished neighborhoods, are not the stuff of Hollywood. No one leaves memorials on city streets for murdered mobsters. But they do for friends, neighbors, family members, sons and brothers and cousins and daughters, mothers and fathers.

Some of the victims were people going about their business, while others engaged in some kind of criminal activity, most likely buying, selling or using drugs. Yet the deaths of all of them leave a gaping hole behind in the lives of those who were close to them, and in some cases, in their neighborhoods and also the city itself.

Over the next several weeks, wkbn.com will try and tell those stories – the stories of how some neighborhoods spiraled into mind-numbing levels of violence, why they did and how that trend is continuing in some areas. Using census and unemployment data as well as police and other law enforcement records, WKBN will track homicides throughout the city, spotlight some of the neighborhoods with the highest homicide rates and explain why those areas are dangerous.

But while numbers tell part of the story, they do not come close to telling it all. After each homicide are friends and family members who are haunted and sometimes tormented by the crushing grief and guilt that accompanies sudden and unexpected violent death. What impact does violence have on not just the individual, but their families and neighborhoods? How does grief and trauma shape life for children of survivors, for neighbors who hear the gunshots and see the bodies carted away? Why do they stay? Why do they leave?

Those are questions that can only be answered by people, and in the coming weeks, some of those people will speak about how violence and crime have taken hold of their lives and how they have overcome it. Or, perhaps, not overcome it.

But it’s not just residents or neighbors who grapple with violence. There are police officers, paramedics, investigators and detectives, who deal with violence every day and in some cases, have tremendous pressure on them, when grieving, angry family and friends are turning to them for justice and don’t know or care about the legal hurdles they must overcome before someone can be arrested. Their stories will be told also.

The numbers are good, but they also have their limits.

Youngstown homicide project (2)
The door of a house at West Delason Avenue and Summer Street where three men were shot to death in December is covered with a tribute to the victims.

Youngstown has always been a violent place. At the turn of the century, the city was a boomtown, not unlike an outpost in the west during the Gold Rush, as people flooded into the city to work in the mills. Railroad workers were coming and going and were in and out of poolrooms, bars and hotels downtown.

Railroad workers were usually well paid and because of that, they were targets for robberies, which sometimes went awry and resulted in the victim being robbed of not just their money, but also their lives.

Fights were also common, especially in the poolhalls and hotels. In October of 1918, the “Youngstown Telegram” reported on the death of a waiter at the Hotel Vanier at Champion and Boardman streets at the hands of a patron who was outraged that he was charged 50 cents for a shot and a beer, rather than the 35 cents he expected

“Fifteen cents was the price put on the life of George Jacobs, 50 years old, waiter in the Grill Room at the Hotel Vanier,” the lead by the unnamed reporter read. The paper said witnesses told police that the suspect shot George Jacobs right in front of them inside the hotel.

City police were taking no chances when dealing with ruffians. In 1915, the same year the city Health Inspector said there were 16 homicides in the city, police arrested a staggering 14,618 people — 14,029 of them were men. Just two years later, the department arrested 19,776 people, with 18,710 of those being men.

There was still crime in the city, though, and it was reported regularly in the pages of The Telegram. In April 1918, a man was arrested for murder after he confessed to stabbing a cab driver and leaving his body on Salt Springs Road during a robbery. In March of 1918, a man was acquitted in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court of the stabbing death of Louis Hunt the previous September in the Westlakes Poolhall.

Stories then, and well into the 1970s, did not dwell much on the big picture or investigating the who’s or why’s of crime. Stories were straight out recitations of police reports with an occasional comment thrown in by a ranking officer or government official, but there was not much in the way of examination of what was going on in the neighborhoods and why those things were taking place.

(One thing readers of The Telegram were treated to was the exploits of city police Capt. A.T. Jenkins, who was proclaimed “Night Captain Of Police.” Jenkins was part spy, part beat cop, part detective, and 100% full throttle. Apparently in charge of the department’s midnight shift, he was always up to something, whether it was busting up an illegal poker game, infiltrating an anti-war demonstration or taking part in the capture of two men who killed a New Castle, Pa. policeman in 1918 before escaping to Youngstown.

In that case, Jenkins, the paper reported, found the cab the men were in on West Federal Street, then commandeered the cab and made the driver take him and several other police officers to the spot where the suspects were dropped off. When they were spotted, Jenkins grabbed both their guns, which started off a brawl. Somehow, in the melee, someone got ahold of Jenkins’ revolver and fired a shot, which went through his right cheek. One of the men escaped while the other was found near Texas Alley in the 1200 block of West Federal Street, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Jenkins returned to work shortly after he was wounded.)

Even the flu pandemic of 1918 did not slow down crime. At the last city council meeting of the year, Mayor Alvin W. Craver detailed a plan to have returning World War I veterans patrol the streets of Youngstown and assist police in clamping down on violent crime. 

“Returned soldiers armed with riot guns and given orders to shoot to kill,” The Telegram reported in one of the few local stories above the fold on the front page during that time, “will patrol the streets of Youngstown in an effort to end the carnival of violence and vice which has got beyond the control of the police.”

In 1962, the year Cavallaro and his son were killed by the bomb that blew apart their car, the city had a population of over 160,000 and recorded just 13 homicides. The year before, Youngstown had nine homicides.

The year after Cavallaro died, Youngstown recorded 12 homicides. The city would then record single-digit homicide numbers in 1964 (six), 1965 (9), and 1966 (7). In 1961, the city had nine homicides. In 1960, Youngstown had 17 homicides.

With a population estimated at about 65,000 people today, those are numbers that would have city officials crawling across cut glass to shout their successes into the nearest microphone.  

But 1966 was the high point. It was the last year the city ever recorded single digits in homicides. In 1967, there were 15 murders. The rate edged up to 25 in 1970 and, depending on whose stats you believe, exploded in 1971 with 31 homicides according to statistics the city kept, the first year homicide numbers are available that were compiled by the city. FBI stats for the same year have the city at 23 homicides.

The disparity continued in 1973, as city numbers post 39 homicides while the FBI recorded just 24. It is not uncommon to have disparities in the two agencies statistics, by a handful of crimes, but being off by 15 is a pretty big number. Nevertheless, it is clear that there was something going on beginning in 1967 that caused the homicide rate to start ticking upward.

The 70s, if you go by the city’s numbers, had 297 homicides, or 29.7 homicides a year. The 60s, using FBI stats, saw 136 homicides, an average of 13.6 homicides a year.

The question is what happened in 1967, the year the city started trending permanently toward double-digit homicides, despite the fact population was decreasing by over 20,000 each decade, and beyond.

It is important to note, however, that homicide numbers were not the only crimes increasing at that time. Burglaries increased by more than 500 from 1,071 in 1966 to 1600 in 1967. They trended down in 1969, but then skyrocketed to over 2,500 in 1970. Robberies also increased from 164 in 1966 to 440 in 1970.

Richard L. Rogers, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Forensic Studies at Youngstown State University, said criminologists disagree about what was happening in the late 60s and early 70s to cause the crime rate to go up, but he said he thinks it was a combination of the civil unrest in the late 1960s and the rise of drug use.

The homicide rate stagnated in the 80s, when Youngstown saw an average of 23 homicides a year, then exploded in the bloodletting of the 1990s, when the city saw 492 homicides, an average of 49.2 killings per year. For a city that was still struggling mightily with the aftermath of the massive layoffs from Black Monday in 1977 and its aftermath, some would argue it quashed any chance of a comeback for the city.

Although the homicide rate has abated somewhat during the millennium, Youngstown still has a high per capita homicide rate, in some circles, in the top 20 in the country.

Police Chief Robin Lees, who was on the department in the 90s and helping with drug investigations, said a decline in population is one reason why homicides have declined over the last 20 years. According to the U.S. Census, the city’s population in April of 2019 was 65,469, a decrease of just 2.2% from the 2010 census. Lees also said in the 90s, there were a lot of gangs in neighborhoods who were not just vying for control of the crack cocaine trade in their area, but also used violence to quash a lot of personal beefs.

In the first part of the new decade, an effort by federal and local officials to curtail gang violence and drug sales led to the breakup of a lot of gangs. Lees said this may have made an impression on a lot of people to stay away from gangs because if they weren’t killed themselves, they were looking at serving a lengthy sentence in federal prison. Gang members were prosecuted under the RICO statute, which was first put into place to battle organized crime like The Mob. The feds used it to take on local gangs like the Ayers Street Playas or the Ready Rock Boys, who are credited with introducing crack to Youngstown through connections in Detroit, and dismantling their organizations.

The 90s were a perfect storm for violence in Youngstown – high unemployment, poverty and the introduction of a new drug – crack cocaine — that was popular and cheap.

But the killing couldn’t last forever. Or could it?

Youngstown Homicide Project
Source: Youngstown Police Dept., FBI Uniform Crime Reports, U.S. Census *City statistics for that year are not available, only FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

It couldn’t, but even though the homicide rate has come down from the 90s, it is still high for a city with Youngstown’s population. From 2001 to 2010, the city recorded 288 homicides, an average of 28.7 per year. From 2011 to 2019, Youngstown has seen 210 homicides, an average of 23.3 homicides per year. So far in 2020, Youngstown has seen 18 homicides, just two behind of 2019’s total of 20.

The highest number of homicides recorded in the city during the millennium was 2007, when 39 homicides were recorded. The lowest were in 2003 and 2016, when 19 homicides were recorded in each of those years.

The part of town with the most homicides in the millennium is the South Side, which recorded 232 homicides. The East Side recorded 141 homicides, the North Side 93 and the West Side 21, with four downtown. The rest of the millennium’s homicides have either been recorded as taking place on Interstate 680 or listed St. Elizabeth Health Center as the place of death in police records, without saying where the person received the wounds that took them to the hospital.

In the 90s, the South Side also recorded the most homicides, with that part of town seeing 206 homicides. The North Side saw 140 homicides, the East Side 130 and the West Side just nine. Of the two remaining homicides, one was listed at St. Elizabeth and the other was recorded as taking place at the former North Side hospital.

The street with the most homicides in the 1990s was Griffith Street on the North Side, which had 18. In the 2000s, South Avenue has the most homicides, with 14.

Besides having a higher population than other areas of the city, the South Side has several neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and unemployment, which criminologists say are two of the main drivers of violence and homicide. While other sides of town have their own pockets of high poverty and unemployment, no area has a greater concentration than the South Side.

And, it appears, no area of the city has a greater concentration of roadside shrines than the South Side. Two were added just this year: a shrine on South Avenue near the Interstate 680 south entrance ramp honoring Urrayne Bulls, 24, who was found shot and killed on Mother’s Day on Interstate 680 south, and at the Market Street 680 south exit ramp for Shon Rankin, 41, who was found shot and killed early Father’s Day in a car on the ramp.

But for every shrine that is new, there is one that is old. Tucked away between Market Street and South Avenue at Belleview and Ellenwood, there are deflated balloons and faded flowers next to a utility pole in the area where Ervin C, May, 19 and Kendall Jones, 23, were found shot to death in a car on Thanksgiving Day 2000. The two were killed in a dispute over a gun. The suspect served a prison term for their death.

The area around the makeshift memorial is now devoid of almost all houses. People dump garbage, tires and appliances next to it. They do not seem to know, nor probably care, that they are littering the final resting place of two men who left behind grieving family and friends.

But somebody cares enough to come back to this desolate place and remember them. Lost amid the numbers and statistics is the heartache of homicide. That can’t be measured on a chart. But it can be measured on the streets. But only if you know how to look.

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A makeshift memorial was put up on Market Street by the Interstate 680 south off ramp where Shon Rankin, 41, was found shot to death in a car early June 21. Rankin was wounded in a 1996 shooting that took the life of his brother. Police have yet to make an arrest.

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