Editor’s note: This story contained an inaccurate list of local cold cases along the Sharon Line, some of those which were actually solved. WKBN regrets the error, and the list has been removed.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Nature is taking over the spot where Nathan Axel was found shot to death in 1995.
But nothing can take over the place he has in the heart of his niece, LaToya Hicks, who still thinks of her uncle every day and can not mention him without breaking into tears.
“I get very emotional,” Hicks said. “I never stop thinking about him. He was like a brother. He was everything to us.”
Hicks was 18 when Axel, 38, of South Truesdale Avenue, was found about 4:40 p.m. Jan. 16, 1995, shot to death at the intersection of Clingan and Bryant avenues in the Sharon Line area of Youngstown’s east side.
His death followed the shooting death of his 18-year-old son, Emanuel Axel, who was shot in November 1994 at a Girard bar. That case was also never solved.
The Sharon Line area over the years is one that has a reputation as a dumping ground, not just for trash, but also bodies, because of how rural it is.
Situated roughly between state Route 616 and Liberty Road, bounded by McGuffey Road and Hubbard Township with Jacobs Road cutting through the heart of it. The area got its name from a streetcar that used to run through it from Sharon, Pa. It’s the least-populated census tract in Youngstown, according to the last census available, the 2010 census.
That census showed the population in the area—census tract 8004 — at 951, down from 1,782 in the 2000 census, according to a Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. analysis of census data.
More current numbers can not be found.
That made for a population decrease of 47%, which was higher than the overall 30% rate of population decrease in the city between the 2000 and 2010 census.
Because of the population decrease in an area that was already largely rural and sparsely populated, the city decided earlier this decade to close off several streets, which has caused the woods to take them over one by one.
The police department also cut back the number of cars on the East Side because of overall population loss, not just on the Sharon Line, going from three cars to two.
The spot where Axel was found is closed as well, blocked off at Clingan and Shaw avenues. Weeds sprout from the pavement, and the occasional Bessemer block, made in Youngstown, can also be seen under the withering pavement. Birds chirp loudly, deer roam freely and the sound of critters crawling through the woods can be heard in the still air far from the city and, it seems civilization itself.
Axel’s death is one of several unsolved homicides in the Sharon Line between 1992 and today.
Hicks said her family believes Axel took on a drug debt for a woman he knew and he was killed because of that debt.
She said Axel was a truck driver and cook at the former Queeners Barbecue on McCartney Road, where he was seen getting into a car with someone the day he died. That was the last time anyone ever saw him alive, she said.
Her uncle had a drug problem and tried several times to kick his habit for good, Hicks says. But she added that did not diminish the role he had in their large family and in her life.
“He was working to better himself,” Hicks said.
A memory etched in her mind is the time he was driving her home from school as a child in a snowstorm and his car broke down.
“He put me on his back and carried me all the way home through the snow,” she said through sobs.
Her uncle’s death is one of the 492 homicides during the decade, when the city saw an explosion of violence that pushed the yearly homicide rate from an average of 26.2 murders per year the previous two decades to 49.2 for the 1990s. In the previous two decades, the city had a combined 520 homicides.
Axel’s homicide was the second in a year that saw a record 68 homicides. The lead investigator, Detective Sgt. John Perdue, passed away in early 2019.
Axel’s death, it was also noted in newspaper reports, was one of several recent homicides that had either taken place in the Sharon Line or was a murder where the victim was killed somewhere else and dumped there.
Retired Detective Sgt. Darryl Martin said what makes a case so hard to investigate on the Sharon Line is because the area is so sparsely populated, there are not a lot of witnesses or cameras, which police have been relying on more frequently over the last 10 years.
Also, when a body is transported somewhere, you now have two crime scenes, he said. Although some clues can be found with a body, it is harder to link a suspect to the actual crime scene.
Also, if a body is not discovered for several days, it can be harder to find any fresh evidence, Martin said.
“If it lays out there, evidence disappears,” Martin said.
Martin had one of the more peculiar cases in the city on the Sharon Line, when the skull of a man who had been reported missing for several months was found by a dog on a snowy, frigid Saturday.
Police searched the area after the dog’s owner called police, but they could find no other signs of the victim. In the days that followed, the same dog brought back pieces of the victim’s body piecemeal.
That led investigators to seek out a cadaver sniffing dog from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office to look for the man’s remains, but as that dog searched, the first dog continued bringing back body parts while the cadaver sniffing dog found nothing.
In frustration, police attached a GPS unit to the first dog in hopes it would lead them to the victim’s skeleton, and while it bought back a few more parts, investigators never found the entire skeleton.
Nevertheless, Martin had enough to make an arrest and secure a conviction for manslaughter.
Current Chief of Detectives Capt. Brad Blackburn agreed with Martin that the remoteness of the area is a hurdle for investigators to overcome.
“It’s just so desolate out there,” Blackburn said. “The roads are not well-traveled and it’s not very populous, and I think that’s the appeal of it. In an urban environment, there’s no place you can to these kind of things without someone looking out the window or driving by.”
LaToya said her uncle’s death made an already dark time darker because they were still mourning the loss of Emanuel, who was killed in a shooting that wounded another man Nov. 20, 1994, in the parking lot of a South Lorain Street bar in Girard.
In that shooting, “The Vindicator” said witnesses told police a man fired a gun that had a towel wrapped around it.
Police collected 11 spent 9mm shell casings from the parking lot. There was a suspect, but no arrests were ever made.
LaToya said her cousin liked to fish and watch karate movies. His death was the start of a dark time for her family, she said.
“He was a fun person to be around,” LaToya said. “He was like his dad.”
And so, she said, was her uncle. He was the person who was the gentle one in the family and his loss is still one that is felt to this day.
“I get these small bouts of depression and I miss my uncle,” LaToya said. “It’s been 25 years but to this day, I still cry daily.”
Anyone with information can call the Detective Bureau at the police department at 330-742-8911.
This story is part of a series of cold cases that WKBN is examining.
Do you have a cold case that you’d like us to look into further? Submit a cold case to WKBN.