Detectives, victims’ relatives remember Youngstown’s surge of violence in 1990s

27 Investigates

Dave McKnight, a retired Youngstown police officer, had never seen anything like the surge of violence that hit Youngstown in the 1990s, plunging neighborhoods into chaos

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – When the bodies started piling up in 1991, Dave McKnight was not surprised.

McKnight, a retired police captain who back then was a homicide detective, said he had an inkling he would be busy that year because of his caseload the year before.

In 1990, Youngstown recorded 19 homicides, but McKnight and his partner, the late Detective Sgt. Joe Fajack, had a lot of unsolved shooting cases from the year before. He figured those people would be out looking for revenge.

“I had a lot of cases where people were shot in the head the year before, and they all survived,” McKnight said.

McKnight and Fajack were in for a busy year in 1991. And there was only one other pair of homicide detectives to help them.

In 1991, the city recorded 59 homicides, an all-time high at the time, kicking off a decade in which Youngstown recorded 492 homicides, an average of 49.2 homicides a year.

McKnight, 63, was a homicide detective from 1987 to 1995 and a police officer for over 30 years. He now works as a security officer in the city’s municipal court building on Front Street.

Neither he nor the city had seen anything like the violence that was unleashed in 1991, as several city neighborhoods were plunged into chaos.

And McKnight and his fellow detectives knew the neighborhoods. He said it was essential in his line of work, starting from his time as a rookie patrol officer. 

McKnight grew up on the North Side and graduated from Ursuline. His partner, Fajack, was a South High graduate.

The other detective team consisted of Gerald, or “Jerry” Maietta a Hubbard High graduate, and Bill Blanchard, a Cardinal Mooney graduate. They were supervised by the legendary late Chief Of Detectives Capt. Robert Kane, known in some circles as “Bee-Bop.”

In ’91 and for the rest of the decade, they were thrust into what at times seemed an unending stream of bloodshed, retaliation, grief, rage, endless callouts and even a few laughs.

McKnight is also the only member of the original team of homicide detectives from that year still alive.

Maietta died in April of 2011 at 61, less than a month after he ended a career of 35 years by retiring. Blanchard, who retired after 36 years and was a defense lawyer in private practice, died suddenly in June of 2017 at the age of 66. Kane died in November of 2009 just after he retired with an illness, and Fajack died in December of 2016 at the age of 83. He retired in 1992, ending his career as the city was on the precipice of the bloodiest time in its history.

Dave McKnight and Joe Fajack
Photo of Dave McKnight and Joe Fajack

In 1991, the city’s unemployment rate for a population of 95,706 was at 15.6%, and the poverty rate in several neighborhoods was over 40%, hovering just over 50% in some areas. For the entire city, the overall poverty rate was 24.6 %. The jobless rate in several of those neighborhoods was over 20%.

Added to the high crime and high unemployment in a lot of neighborhoods was the introduction of a potent and cheap new drug: crack cocaine. Some say it came to Youngstown via the Ready Rock Boys gang through connections from Detroit, but wherever it came from, it fueled a wave of gang and street violence that made conditions in some poor neighborhoods worse.

Crack cocaine led to a rise in homicides and violent crimes in cities across the country, not just Youngstown, beginning in the middle 1980s. And it hit poor neighborhoods the hardest.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, tract 8044 was the poorest in the city, with a poverty rate of 52.3%, which was actually a decline from 1980, when the poverty rate was a staggering 59.6%, an increase from the 33.2% rate in 1970.

The tract, which encompassed the former Westlake Terrace Homes Public Housing Project, is home to Griffith Street, the street with the most homicides during the decade at 18. Add in four more homicides on Martin Luther King Boulevard and four others labeled in police records as “Westlake,” plus six on Wirt Street, and the tract saw 32 homicides during the decade.

Stories of Westlake back in the day are legendary. Dave Wilson, a longtime city police officer who retired this month, worked a special unit that tried to clamp down on the drug trade in the projects and the area surrounding it. He said it was no easy task.

Wilson said the projects were so bad then that officers were forbidden from answering calls unless they had backup. When Wilson and his unit had to go inside, he said there was always gunfire. While it wasn’t specifically directed at police, it intensified when they were there, a sure sign they were not welcome.

Wilson also used to “spot,” or squat in a nearby vacant apartment on Lexington Avenue and peer through a pair of binoculars at drug deals on the street. When a car would leave and head his way, he would alert other officers via radio that a suspect car was approaching so they could make a traffic stop and search it for drugs or weapons.

But Westlake wasn’t the only hotspot Wilson was working at during the 90s. He was also a community police officer on the South Side in the area west of Market Street to Glenwood Avenue. That area, north of West Indianola Avenue to Marshall Street, saw the most homicides in the city for the decade, racking up 117 murders, more than half of the 206 recorded in the 90s on the South Side.

One of those neighborhoods was West Myrtle to West Woodland Avenue, Census Tract 8020, which had the second-highest poverty rate in the city at 50.9%, with a 30.7% unemployment rate. That area saw 21 homicides during the decade, including nine on West Woodland Avenue.

One house on West Woodland Avenue — 854 West Woodland Avenue — recorded four homicides alone between 1994 and 1997. The last one, on May 15, 1997, was also hit by an arsonist. Today, that house and most of the others on the block are gone.

Wilson said though the people were good and hard-working, the violence was driven by a few people, he said, and he told the neighbors he would do whatever it took to make it safe. He formed block watches and met regularly with members to see where the hot spots were. He could use their tips to direct other units to serve warrants looking for guns and drugs.

Once, he said, he was meeting with a group of people on Oak Hill Avenue and he had a stack of papers on the roof of his car when he drove away, forgetting about the papers, which were scattered in the wind. When he spotted them fluttering in the air through his rearview mirror, he stopped only to see several neighbors in the street picking up his papers for him. He was surprised they were helping him.

“They told me, ‘You’re our police officer,'” Wilson said. 

Youngstown police officer Dave Wilson
Youngstown police officer Dave Wilson stands outside the police station last month. Wilson, who retired in August, worked as a community police officer in the 90s and also on a special unit that tried to stop the drug trade on the North Side. The 90s saw Youngstown compile 492 homicides, an average of 49.2 a year.

Community leaders were telling both city officials and the public that the root causes of the violence in the city were poverty and unemployment, and until those things could be improved in the neighborhoods, the violence would continue.

Dr. Victor Wan-Tatah, a professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown State University who was a member of a community group trying to stop the violence at the time, said that the violence was tied directly to the poverty rate.

“We have a really frightful situation in places like Youngstown,” Wan-Tatah was quoted in the Jan. 1, 1996 edition of “The Vindicator,” the day after the city closed out 1995 with a record 68 homicides. “It’s obvious the violence is tied directly to the poverty level.”

“If you have a family whose parents lack a good job, you can expect a lot of problems due to that lack of a job.”

Wan-Tatah said the city was relying too much on an “understaffed police department” and not enough on social services and other measures that could help people find jobs and other social services to help people stay away from violence.

Former First Ward Councilman Robert Jennings said jobs were the key in reversing the violence.

“The greatest problem we have is lack of adequate employment. That is the key to bringing some of the crime under control,” Jennings was quoted that same day in the newspaper.

Next to the story on the front page was a related article about a double homicide on New Year’s Eve at a Wright Drive apartment on the East Side (the case is still unsolved). It was the second year in a row the city ended the year with a homicide; on Dec. 31, 1994, a man was shot dead on Fairmont Avenue.

Youngstown Homicides 1990s

In 1991, William Ross made sure he kept moving.

Now 53 and a welder, the then-21-year-old Ross was living in the Victory public housing project on the East Side as the city began coming apart. The year was especially painful for him.

First, there was the Labor Day Massacre, the Sept. 2, 1991 quadruple homicide on McGuffey Road where four men were killed by Flip Williams.

Ross said he knew all four men, and also knew of Williams’ reputation. Williams was well known to police, had spent some time in California where he was rumored to be a member of the Crips, and then came back to Youngstown looking to cement his hold on the drug trade.

Word has it he once walked into the police department to ask for information on his rivals in the drug trade. Some officers, while disliking him, still had a grudging respect for him because he never mouthed off and was always well dressed and respectful.

“Flip was a little guy, and he was quiet, but he was a dangerous guy,” Ross said.

Ross’ sister, Rynita, also knew Williams, and the four people who were killed. She was friends with Williams’ wife at the time. She said Williams was loyal to those who knew him.

“If you knew him, he would take care of you,” Rynita said. 

But still, Rynita said Williams scared her. She knew of his reputation and the talk around the neighborhood.

“I knew what he was capable of,” Rynita said.

While William and Rynita were still grieving their four friends, their little brother, Lewis Ross, was killed Sept. 17, 1991, on McGuffey Road. Ross was shot several times at McGuffey and Stewart Avenue, staggered into the former McGuffey Food Mart, and died on the floor. His death was a milestone; it was the first time the city had 50 homicides.

William Ross said his brother was just 19 when he was killed and he left behind two children. He did not graduate from high school and had been in some trouble before, but he was trying to stay out of trouble when he was killed. His brother speculated that Lewis may have been killed because he was a witness in a case where someone was caught with a gun after a chase by police. The case is still unsolved.

“He stood up on his own. He was strong,” Ross said of his baby brother. 

Lewis Ross, Youngstown
Lewis Ross as an older teen. He was killed in September of 1991 on McGuffey Road, one of 492 homicides Youngstown recorded in the 1990s.

Once, Ross said, his brother wanted to pay for the funeral of a child that died as an infant and went to the L.E. Black Funeral Home on McGuffey Road to see how much it would cost. When he found out, he came back the next day and paid in cash, Ross said.

“The year he was killed everything was going for him,” Ross said.

Ross said the East Side was a dangerous place in the nineties, beginning with 1991.

“It was a terrible year,” Ross said. “People were dropping dead all over.”

William Clinkscale, now 33, spent part of his childhood on the East Side during that time also, in the North Truesdale-Ayers Street-Shehy-Rigby-South Bruce Street area known by the locals as La La Land.

“There was a lot of violence, drug deals, murders,” Clinkscale, now 33 and a bus driver in Columbus, said. “It wasn’t safe. My parents wouldn’t let us walk to the store at Shehy and Truesdale.

“They were very dangerous times. But you knew where to go and where not to go.”

Even though he was young, a friend of his, Justin Gaddis, was killed behind that market Oct. 16, 1999. Gaddis, 19, was shot four times and had several bags of crack cocaine in his pants when he was found.

Just about five years earlier, almost to the day, in 1994, “Dirty” Dave Parker, 20, was shot and killed in front of that same market. His sister, Perstephaine Parker, grew up on North Fruit Street and said that part of the East Side was treacherous.

“There was a lot of drugs and drama and killings,” she said on the phone from Pittsburgh, where she is a chef. “I was afraid, but there was nothing I could do.”

One of this year’s homicide victims is also linked to La La Land; Shon Rankin, 41, was found shot and killed early Father’s Day on an Interstate 680 south exit ramp to Market Street. In 1996, Rankin was wounded in the back in a shooting at his home on North Fruit Street where his brother, Terrance Rankin, 18, was killed.

All told in the 1990s, La La Land accounted for 21 homicides, part of the 130 total on the East Side during the decade. The total for that part of town almost matches the total average for the entire decade of the 60s when the city had a population of over 160,000 and averaged 13.6 homicides a year.

Starting in 1970, La La Land, which was Census Tract 8007, had unemployment and poverty rates higher than the rest of the city at 9.3% unemployment and an overall poverty rate of 13.2%. The city’s unemployment rate at the time was 6.1% and 11.1% for poverty.

In the 80s, both figures increased, with unemployment shooting up to 31.5% and poverty to 20.8%. The 90s saw the unemployment rate go down to 24%, but the poverty rate continued going up to 43.8%.  

The population also plummeted from 4,296 in 1970 to 3,171 in 1900 to 2,132 in 2000. For the 2010 census, the boundaries were redrawn and La La Land was included in a different tract, 8137, which stretches west to cover parts of the downtown and Smoky Hollow and east down Wilson Avenue to the border with Campbell. 

According to a study on the tract by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., poverty is still a large problem, with a 59% poverty rate as well as a 28% unemployment rate.

The area where Ross was killed is a little harder to pin down statistically, because he lived in the Victorys apartment complex on Magnolia in a tract in 1991 that bordered two other tracts, in the McGuffey Road-Stewart Avenue area. McGuffey Road did see the most homicides of any street on the East Side during the decade with 12, although four of those were from the Labor Day Massacre.

Magnolia is in tract 8003, where the poverty rate of 6.4% in 1970 was lower than the city average of 11.1. It was at a manageable 11.1% in 1980 only to go up to 24.4% in 1990. While unemployment rates were in double digits in 1980 and 1990, they were nowhere near as bad as those in the Westlake or some areas of the South Side.

Lewis Ross was killed after he was shot on a pathway near the Plaza View apartment complex before he was able to make his way to the store where he died. Neighbors and an employee told “The Vindicator” that the area was rife with gunfire and they did not feel safe.

It’s been almost 31 years, but Lewis Ross is still remembered by his two older siblings. Clinkscale, also, remembers Gaddis — and others he was close to who were snuffed out by violence, including a pair of cousins who were suffocated and then burned in an SUV in 2009 by the Mahoning River. Another friend was killed this year, gunned down in a West Indianola Avenue barber shop. Police have not made any arrests in the case.

It is one of the reasons Clinkscale said he moved his family out of the city. But he still can’t get away from the violence, he said.

“Sometimes,” he said, “life takes a twist of its own.”

Although William Ross has stayed in the city, he said the pain of losing four friends, a baby brother and living with violence day to day for years made him realize he couldn’t stay in one place. 

“Anyone can be killed at any given time,” he said, looking back on those years. “You have to keep moving.”

Youngstown Homicides 1990s

While Wilson and McKnight had their hands full, so did the areas of the city where the violence was exploding. It seemed like every day people were watching or reading about savage crimes that after awhile were so commonplace they were mind-numbing:

A man was gunned down in a South Side driveway trying to get back the wedding ring his wife had bartered for drugs.

A man came to the South Side from Pennsylvania to buy $1,200 worth of cocaine for a Super Bowl party, but he never made it back after he was shot and killed.

A former minister who was a recovering drug addict was found shot dead in the middle of a street trying to buy drugs.

A mother, her toddler child and her unborn baby were killed during a drug robbery at a Lansdowne Boulevard home. Another child was shot in the head but survived.

A teen was found shot to death next to a Molotov Cocktail he and two others were going to use on a house until an argument ensued and the teen was shot dead by one of his accomplices. He laid where he was for several hours before someone found his body.

At one crime scene in 1995, the year the city saw a record 68 homicides, a woman who was part of a crowd watching police process a homicide scene went to walk home and tripped over another body.

It was not uncommon for someone to be wounded in a shooting, and then a few hours later, someone was dead because of the payback. Sometimes, an innocent would be the one who wound up dead.

That is what happened June 11, 1996, when 3-year-old Jessica Ballew was killed on the front porch of an Oak Park Lane home on the North Side by a member of a Crips set who was looking for someone at the home who had shot at them earlier in the day and belonged to the Bloods.

McKnight said retaliation fueled a lot of the violence he investigated during that time.

“You got into a groove,” McKnight said. “A lot of times, someone would get in an argument and be wounded and he would survive, and then the next week, that same person was a murder suspect.”

People were also killed doing the mundane:

One man was shot and killed while going to get snacks for his wife.

Another was shot and killed on the way to the store to get laundry detergent.

A North Side man was killed after he was beaten with a baseball bat during an argument over a lawnmower on Elm Street.

A former police secretary was riding on an East Side street in the middle of the afternoon when she was killed by a bullet to the head that seemingly came from nowhere.

A common thread in a lot of the homicides was drugs, but Richard L. Rogers, an associate professor at Youngstown State University in the Criminal Justice and Forensic Studies department, said he believes there was more to the violence than drugs.

Rogers said in the mid-80s to the 90s, the country was seeing an increase in homicides, especially urban areas as the rise of crack cocaine began to take effect. But he said drugs are not the sole explanation for the uptick in violence, especially in Youngstown.

To go from 19 murders one year to 59 the next and sustain that wave for several years, Rogers said, is not normal.

“That jump to 59 is really unusual,” Rogers said. “That’s just a massive percentage increase.”

Kane seemed to know that also. At one point during 1991, he was quoted in “The Vindicator” as saying, “I don’t see how or why the killing will stop.”

Youngstown Homicides by side of town, 1990s
The two homicides categorized as “other” were deaths that occurred at local hospitals, and the shooting locations weren’t specified.

As the violence increased, so did the cases that city police had to handle. National guidelines call for homicide detectives to handle only five cases a year in which they are lead detective, because of how much work a case requires.

McKnight was the lead detective in 13 cases that year, according to police department records. And because he was paired with Fajack and the two worked as a team, there were an additional 15 cases in which he assisted Fajack when he was the lead detective for a total of 28 homicides he had a hand in investigating in just one year.

That doesn’t count other shootings, rapes, or suspicious deaths he was also called out to investigate over the course of the year. It would probably not be inaccurate to say McKnight was called out at least 40 times in 1991. The father of three children, he said the work could put a strain on family life. There were a lot of baseball games or birthday parties that McKnight missed.

“It seemed like every weekend you’d get called out,” McKnight said.

McKnight said he wanted to be a police officer from a young age, because he said he couldn’t stand it when somebody did something wrong and got away with it. “I was the guy always trying to break up fights,” he said.

After high school, McKnight got a degree from YSU in criminal justice and joined the police department, patrolling the same North Side neighborhoods where he grew up. It cemented his knowledge of the neighborhoods and the people, which would help him when he became a detective.

McKnight said he wanted to investigate homicides because it is the ultimate in police work.

“It was a challenge,” McKnight said. When asked what the challenge is, he replied: “The challenge is who’s taken someone’s life?”

He was especially pleased that he was paired with Fajack, an older detective he looked up to because of his style, McKnight said. He called working with Fajack a “blessing.”

Fajack was a good dresser and he had a way of putting people in stressful situations at ease and comfortable, McKnight said. Fajack honed his people skills for several years in the Juvenile Bureau before becoming a detective.

“Working with Joe was such an honor. He could be debonair,” McKnight said. 

McKnight also had high praise for the other pair of detectives, Maietta and Blanchard, saying they were great investigators. The pair worked the Labor Day Massacre case. Blanchard was the lead, but Maietta put in as much work as Blanchard and after an arrest, escape, an attempted break-in at the Mahoning County Juvenile Justice Center and after a trial, Williams was convicted, sentenced to death and executed in 2005.

Heading up the teams was Kane, who had been Chief Of Detectives for years — some people have said it was the only job he ever wanted.

“He was a joy to work for. He was so knowledgeable,” McKnight said. “He had a million stories.”

For such a heavy caseload, the two teams of detectives had a high clearance rate for some years. According to the department’s annual report, detectives cleared 31 of 53 homicides in 1992, a clearance rate of almost 59%. In 1993, they cleared 35 of 48 murders, a clearance rate of 75.92%. The national clearance rate, according to the FBI, is 62.3%.

The key to clearing cases was the knowledge each detective had of the city’s neighborhoods, McKnight said. He said they knew who to talk to when things were at a standstill or who the major families or players in the neighborhood were, which was a powerful edge to have.

McKnight and the other detectives also had their hands full with shootings and other crimes where people were seriously injured. Those cases, which were classified as aggravated assaults, jumped from 348 in 1989 to 644 in 1990, then 1,285 in 1991. They were down slightly in 1992, with the department handling 945 aggravated assaults.

Drug cases were going up also, from 83 in 1990 to 155 in 1991 and 256 in 1992, according to the department’s 1993 annual report. Current police Chief Robin Lees, who was on the department in the 90s primarily doing drug investigations, said he estimated the department was serving three high-risk search warrants a week for drug investigations.

One major case Lees worked was the Roberto Roper case, involving a group of Dominicans who were dealing drugs in Youngstown. Investigators were able to break up the ring and several members went to prison.

Court records show Roper began moving drugs from New York City to Youngstown via a woman he was living with in 1989, and later in the year, he moved to Youngstown.

He lived with the same woman and they were dealing one to two kilos of cocaine a month out of a house in the city, which Roper paid $26,000 a month to his supplier for the cocaine.

The woman moved out and turned on Roper — because he denied being the father of their child. She used cocaine herself and admitted to writing a note saying she would get her revenge. 

Another woman began selling cocaine for Roper, at first moving two or three ounces a day which increased up to 10 ounces. She and Roper used several houses in Youngstown to “break down,” or dilute up to three kilograms of cocaine.

When a search warrant was served in March of 1992, investigators found over $32,000 cash, cocaine and a 9mm handgun. Roper was ultimately convicted in federal court and received a prison sentence of over 21 and a half years.

The Roper case was an exception in the sense that it involved a group of outsiders who were trying to do business in Youngstown. That typically did not end well — for the outsiders. Often, they were found stuffed in trunks or burning cars, which is a major reason why, for the most part, out-of -owners give the city a wide berth when it comes to setting up shop in Youngstown to deal drugs.

“The out-of-towners failed to appreciate the level of violence our local drug dealers would bring when they are challenged,” Chief Lees said.

***

It wasn’t just the out-of-towners. City residents were also stunned by how bad things had gotten. But they still found good things that they carry with them to this day.

LaToya Hicks also grew up in La La Land on South Truesdale and her uncle, Nathan Axel, 38, also of South Truesdale, was found shot to death Jan. 16, 1995, at Clingan and Bryant on the Sharon Line. The case has never been solved.

“We had a lot of sadness,” Hicks said. “I lost a lot of friends between Shehy and Rigby.”

She may have lost a lot of friends but she said she had plenty of others. Hicks said the neighborhood was filled with good people who looked out for each other the best they could, and she was close to several of them.

“I was never afraid,” Hicks said. “I kept my nose clean. I saw a lot, but I was never afraid.”

“There wasn’t one house I couldn’t go to if I was afraid.”

As the years have gone, and the people have moved out, and the houses have either been torn down, burned down or stood vacant, Hicks said there was always a place she could find refuge in. It’s not uncommon talk in Youngstown, where people are fiercely loyal to the neighborhood they grew up in. Some people killed for them. Others died for them. But for the most part, they were people like Hicks, who did the best they could to stay away from trouble and survive. 

Anyone with information on the following homicides can contact the Youngstown Police Detective Bureau at 330-742-8911:

  • Lewis Ross, 19, died Sept. 16, 1991, after being shot on McGuffey Road.
  • Nathan Axel, 38, was found shot and killed Jan. 16, 1995, Clingan and Bryant avenues.
  • “Dirty Dave” Parker, was shot and killed Oct. 18, 1994, in front of a market in the 1300 block of Shehy Street.
  • Justin Gaddis, 19, was shot and killed Oct. 16, 1999, behind a market in the 1300 block of Shehy Street.

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