Lack of cooperation key in open shooting cases, Youngstown detectives say

27 Investigates

The city has seen at least 62 non-fatal shootings in 2020 and just four charges have been filed

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — You can call them the walking wounded, but, according to detectives, not the talking wounded.

That would be the victims of 62 non-fatal shootings in Youngstown this year, which has seen an increase in shootings and homicides.

Overall, according to statistics that WKBN compiled, 85 people have been shot in the city of Youngstown this year, including 23 of the city’s 24 homicide victims. In 2019, Youngstown had 20 homicides.

Non-fatal shootings in Youngstown in 2020 (1)

The city also closes out a rough month, as October has seen 15 people shot as of Thursday, two of them fatally, while reports of gunfire and houses shot up, almost all of them on the South Side, were regular occurrences.

The side of town that has seen the most people wounded is also the South Side, with 33 non-fatal shootings and 12 homicides for 45 shootings overall, more than half of the city’s total.

The next highest number of shootings in the city has been on the East Side, with five fatal and 10 non-fatal shootings. The West Side has seen 10 total shootings, with two of those fatal; and the North Side has seen seven shootings, with three of those fatal, all from one incident in February at a bar/after-hours club on Logan Avenue.

Two homicide victims were found shot to death on Interstate 680 South, while three shooting victims were shot in unknown locations, according to records reviewed by WKBN.

Fatal shootings in Youngstown in 2020 (1)

But Youngstown detectives will tell you that solving a non-fatal shooting is harder than solving a homicide, mainly because of a lack of cooperation from victims. Of the 24 homicides this year, police have solved or cleared 10 of those; of the 62 non-fatal shootings, charges have been filed in just four cases — and one of those suspects was murdered in Toledo a week after a warrant was issued for him before he could be taken into custody.

This is a problem that is not unique to Youngstown. A study by the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy released in August 2019, “Why do gun murders have a higher arrest rate than gun assaults?” that was published in the journal “Criminology and Public Policy,” tracked shootings and homicides for a four-year period from 2010-2014 by the Boston Police Department and determined that 43% of homicides saw an arrest as compared to just 19% of non-fatal shootings.

The study said one of the main reasons for the disparities in arrest rates was the fact that often, more resources are used to investigate a homicide than a non-fatal shooting. There are more detectives, crime scene personnel and patrol personnel assigned to and processing homicides as opposed to a non-fatal shooting.

It was often easier to solve a non-fatal shooting when more resources were devoted to the case or when police received cooperation, the study found. And sometimes, the cooperation could lead to more resources allocated for a case because investigators would have other avenues to pursue and would need help from other detectives and investigators to track down leads that were generated because of the cooperation.

Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees said lots of times, victims are not just uncooperative, but they will actually lie to detectives and send them in a completely wrong direction on a case.

Detective Sgt. Chad Zubal said he was investigating a shooting earlier this year when the victim’s grandmother told him not to cooperate with police.

Other factors also work against detectives. A large number of shooting cases are assigned after a person is driven to the hospital by a private vehicle without anyone notifying police until the victim is at the hospital. Because of that, it is sometimes hard to find a crime scene, and it is not uncommon for someone to show up in the emergency room at St. Elizabeth with a gunshot wound and claim ignorance.

“They say, ‘We don’t know where we were,'” said Detective Sgt. Anthony Vitullo.

Some of these shootings happen in the dead of night and are not assigned until a detective starts their shift the next morning, or, if it happens over a weekend, on Monday morning. Detectives are often not called out for a non-fatal shooting unless the person is seriously wounded and may not survive, or if multiple victims are shot.

When someone shows up at the hospital with a gunshot wound, they may give a general area of where they were shot but not an exact location. Patrol officers are sent in the dark to look for a crime scene if it happens after dark, and if one is found, someone from the Crime Lab is called to collect the evidence.

Earlier this week, a man told police he was walking on Willis Avenue near Edwards Street when he told police he was shot, ran into the home of someone he claimed he didn’t know, and they took him to the hospital. The person who drove the man to the hospital was not there when police arrived, and the victim said he did not know what house he ran into after he was wounded.

Detective Sgt. Robert Gentile said one of the reasons people don’t cooperate is because of the stigma in some circles of talking to the police.

“They don’t want to be a snitch,” Gentile said. “They want to take care of it themselves.”

Vitullo was a little more philosophical as to why some victims do not want to talk.

“They survived. They’re good,” Vitullo said. “Why create trouble for themselves?”

Gentile said a heavy caseload can also impact a detective’s work on any kind of case. He said he may come in after the weekend and have to work a burglary, gun case, theft case and shooting. That’s a lot of legwork for one person, he said.

Detectives do send out evidence, such as shell casings, to be tested to see if they can be linked to cases collected at other shootings. But that can often take months, said Detective Sgt. Michael Lambert, sometimes up to nine months.

In fact, Lambert said sometimes he can get the results of a DNA test back in less time than it takes to get a ballistic report back.

“All that juicy stuff, like DNA, is fast,” Lambert said.

Plus, having shell casings match other shootings is one thing, but finding out who has the gun they were fired from is something else entirely.

Lees said non-fatal shooting cases are important because, if arrests aren’t made, the person can go looking for revenge. They shoot at or wound someone else, then that person comes back looking for them, and it leads to a string of shootings that can culminate in a homicide.

“If we can solve a shooting, we may be able to put a stop to a homicide,” Lees said.

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