Thursday, Jan. 5, 10 p.m.
It was a quiet start to the new year, but Lt. Mohammad Awad had a feeling it would not stay that way.
Awad is a detective supervisor for the Youngstown Police Department and a veteran cop with over 12 years of experience. He has a sixth sense about these things.
The on-call supervisor since Monday, Awad was trying to relax at home but was having difficulty doing so because the city’s gunshot sensor system kept going off on his phone for shots fired on the South Side, especially Glenwood Avenue.
Known as “Mo” throughout the building on West Boardman Street, he was later chastised for having the app in the first place. But because of the volume of gunfire, he decided to turn in about 10 p.m. He had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
He was right. He didn’t make it an hour before he got a call from the patrol supervisor. There was a double shooting on Interstate 680 North. Both victims were dead.
The quiet start to the year was over.
Awad was one of three investigators called out to probe the Jan. 5 double homicide of Marquis Whitted and his girlfriend, Kylearia Day, both 19, who were shot and killed as a car Whitted was driving was riddled with bullets just past the exit for the Madison Avenue Expressway.
The car hit a concrete abutment before coming to rest underneath the bridge for the expressway. Day had a pulse when a crew from EMT Ambulance arrived, but she died on the way to the hospital. Whitted was dead in the driver’s seat, slumped over to his right across the center console.
Joining Awad at the crime scene were detective sergeants Michael Cox and George Anderson, the two detectives who were on call that week with Awad. Right away, they had an idea of why the shooting took place when Anderson found a picture taped to the dashboard of Whitted’s brother, Rawsheem Aponte, 24, who was killed in an April 2022 shooting on Mohawk Avenue that also wounded a woman and a 3-year-old girl.
The case is one that has several all too familiar themes for detectives; little evidence and lack of cooperation.
But it also shows how detectives build their case in a methodical way, by studying social media posts, phone records, witness interviews, evidence collection and search warrants, steps that are often out of the public eye and frankly, not terribly exciting.
But while the steps may not be exciting, they are necessary, and crucial, to working a case and ultimately getting enough evidence to secure an indictment.
Last year, Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon agreed to allow a reporter from WKBN to be embedded with detectives when they are called out to follow a homicide investigation from the time it starts until either an arrest is made or the case goes cold. This is the second case that has been covered from start to finish.
In August 2022, a reporter accompanied detectives when they were called to investigate a set of human remains that were found in a wooded area of the East Side which were later discovered to belong to Amy Hambrick, who had been missing since 2017.
Thursday, Jan. 5, 10:43 p.m.
The first call that came into the 911 Center said nothing of a shooting or any gunfire, only an accident.
“Six eighty, I guess you’d call it the Northbound side, right before you hit 711, you got a car in the middle of the highway, I think he hit the wall or something,” a male caller says. “He’s just sitting in the middle of the highway. He’s just sitting in the middle of the road waiting there. Looks like he’s trying to move maybe now.”
Another caller seconds later tells the call-taker he sees evidence of a shooting.
“At Connecticut/Belle Vista heading west, there’s a car sitting in the middle of the road that got a bullet hole in it.”
“Got a bullet hole in it?” the call-taker asks.
“I seen the bullet hole in the driver’s side,” the male caller says. “Going west before the Connecticut exit. Got a bullet hole in the driver’s side. Hurry up.”
A call is put into EMT Ambulance for a possible shooting. “We think someone may have been shot in the car,” the EMT dispatcher is told.
As that call is made, another caller says the car is just sitting in the middle of the freeway.
“He’s stuck in the road, no lights on. Someone’s gonna hit him.”
As the ambulance and officers are on the way; a caller from the Trumbull County 911 Center says one of their off-duty employees saw the car as well.
“He said there was a subject who is unconscious and there appears to be blood everywhere inside the vehicle,” she tells her Youngstown counterpart.
The midnight turn K9 officer, Officer Jacob Short in Car 654, had also radioed in to report a series of shots he heard in the area.
As calls are being fielded, midnight turn dispatcher Mike Brindisi is already sending cars to the scene, dispatching two West Side cars, Officer Ken Blair in 207 and Steven Gibson in 209.
“We were told there’s a car that spun out, but 654 talked about a volley of gunfire and a second caller said the car’s all shot up,” Brindisi tells them. “It’s unknown if there’s anyone in the vehicle.”
The cars make it to the scene in less than two minutes.
“We need a 55 [ambulance] immediately,” Gibson advises Brindisi.
“Yes, sir, do we have a victim?” Brindisi asks.
“Possibly,” Gibson answers. “I gotta make entry into the car.”
Brindisi begins calling other cars to start heading for the freeway before 209 radios in again and says he needs the “freeway closed.” Another car chimes in and that officer, Detective Sgt. Ed Kenney, says he is heading to St. Elizabeth Hospital on Belmont Avenue to await any victims so he can relay a condition back to Brindisi.
Within four minutes of the call going out, an ambulance arrives and Brindisi is told another ambulance is needed as soon as possible. Also, in case they are needed, two fire department engines are toned out as well, Engine 7 from the main fire station downtown and Engine 9 from East Midlothian Boulevard.
Brindisi is the main conduit for all the information coming in on everything relating to the scene, shifting cars around to not only block traffic on the freeway but to head to the hospital in case a large crowd shows up when the victims arrive, which has happened countless times. Witnesses also sometimes end up at the hospital, and officers are needed to take them to the Detective Bureau for questioning.
Blair asks to speak to the supervisor on the scene, Detective Sgt. Mike Sobinovosky, and says he found some shell casings on the pavement. Should he start marking them for evidence?
“Affirmative,” Sobinovosky replies as Brindisi informs him that detectives and the Crime Lab are on their way. A few minutes later, the coroner’s office is called to send out an investigator because of the body that is still in the car. They do not learn that Day has passed on until 11:27 p.m., when Kenney passes on the news from the hospital.
As all this is going on Day’s sister, who is in the back of a cruiser, calls 911 to ask to be let out. She tells the call-taker she got an alert on her phone that her sister was in an accident so she drove to the scene, parking on the opposite side of the freeway and walking over. When she was seen by officers, she was placed in the cruiser so that detectives could speak to her when they arrived.
On her second call, she says she shouldn’t be detained because she didn’t see what happened but just responded to the alert for an accident. She says she needs to be with her family, especially her mother, who is not answering her phone.
“I have to get to my mom’s house,” she says. “This is our baby. I’ve got to get to my mom’s house.”
The call-taker says she will pass the information on and see if the officers will let her out.
“Thank you so much,” the woman replies. “God bless.”
Blair later takes her to the police department’s fourth floor, where the detective bureau is, so she can be questioned by detectives.
By now, police have the freeway blocked off at the entrance ramp to the Madison Avenue Expressway. A car with the coroner’s investigator on call arrives and is allowed past the roadblock to get closer to the scene. Awad and his two detectives are there also. Judging by the number of bullet holes, Awad doesn’t think the victims were picked at random or that there was some sort of road rage event that led up to the shooting.
“This is an assassination,” Awad says.
The night is raw and cold and a slight breeze is made worse by a light rain that intensifies at times but never becomes more than a heavy drizzle, and the air still smells of gunpowder. Everybody is bundled up, and hats are a necessity. Cox and Anderson both check out the car, which still has Whitted’s body inside. The coroner’s investigator is busy taking pictures of the car, a greenish Nissan Altima 2.5 with tinted windows. She does not do an examination of the victim until he is taken out of the car by the body removal team contracted by the coroner’s office. Whitted’s hands are bagged so investigators can test for gunshot residue, which is standard in all homicide investigations. However, there was no gun in the car, and investigators learned later that Whitted tested negative for gunshot residue.
On the pavement on the passenger’s side of the car is a camouflage-style jacket that is covered in blood that was probably taken off by paramedics as they were treating one of the two victims, then left there in haste when they went to the hospital. Every couple of minutes, Day’s cell phone, which is on the passenger side floorboard, alerts them that she has been in an accident. “You’ve been in a crash,” it repeatedly says.
Awad and Cox are both in heavy communication with Sobinvosky, who is directing officers to preserve evidence, grab any witnesses and is also in contact with officers at the hospital by phone and radio to get condition updates as well as to find out what family members are there. An officer at the hospital takes two women to the Detective Bureau to be interviewed.
Starting from about 75 yards before where the car ended up, a series of evidence markers is placed on the pavement to mark several shell casings and at least one mashed slug. However, it is impossible to describe how dark the interstate is, even under lights, because of the black pavement covered by a sheen of moisture from the light rain. At least 10 markers are placed on the freeway.
Since detectives already have a general idea of what happened based on the picture of Whitted’s brother taped to the windshield, they try to confirm his identity because he did not have a wallet. There are calls to officers at the hospital to try and figure it out.
Detectives stay at the scene until 12:39 a.m. before heading to the police department, checking the car again before they leave to make sure they miss nothing. Although there is no gun, they did find phones for both victims, which were taken as evidence. They head downtown as the rain stops but the chill in the air lingers.
Downtown is dark and quiet, the streets deserted, as Cox arrives at the station, pulling up across the street from the thick, black slab of concrete in his take-home car, a dark blue four-door Ford Taurus. There is someone waiting to greet him, however; a woman who is related to one of the victims. It is unclear if she was told to go to the police station by an officer or if she went on her own, but she tells Cox who she is and he asks her to come inside so she can be questioned.
Before Cox can ask any questions, he needs a Coke from one of the vending machines on the first floor, but he has no change. He bums a dollar off a reporter before boarding the ancient elevator that has a history of breaking down or stopping with no warning with his witness. The elevator stops on the second floor, where another witness is waiting with a female officer. Cox confers briefly with the officer and the elevator continues to the fourth floor, where the Detective Bureau is located. No one speaks. There is a tension that is noticeable in that cramped space to someone who is unfamiliar with the process, but for Cox, it is routine and he later says he does not notice it.
When the elevator stops and the pockmarked door opens, there is a third witness, a woman, sitting in a row of heavily scraped chairs set against a wall. An officer is standing next to her. It has been standard procedure for who knows how long to separate witnesses, so they can’t collaborate on their stories, which is why the other witness is on the second floor, waiting to be summoned for questioning.
Cox opens the door to the Detective Bureau as Awad and Anderson arrive. Awad fills up the coffee pot with water and turns it on and in a few minutes, the room is filled with the aroma of coffee, although no one ever drinks any.
“It’s going to be a long evening,” Awad says.
In the hallway, shouting can be heard from several different voices before Anderson, Awad and Cox head to separate interview rooms with their witnesses. The building is middle of the night quiet, although occasionally, shouting from one of the interview rooms breaks the silence, as does crying and a shout of “They killed my brother!” Sometimes, a disembodied voice from the police radio chimes in, also from the uniformed officer who is in the hallway, but whatever is being transmitted is hard to hear through the distortion.
The questioning goes on until 1:45 a.m., when the women are free to leave. A female officer tells Awad she got a statement from a witness at the hospital before they came to the Detective Bureau and she recorded it on her body camera. Awad thanks her before Cox and Anderson file into the office and head for their desks. Already, the series of paperwork known as “Detective Notes,” which are given to defense attorneys during discovery, begins. The notes are where detectives summarize each step of their investigation.
Awad says that investigators have a pretty good idea of what happened; Whitted had been in a social media feud with members of the family who had killed his brother, and during the week, the feud had escalated. Detectives have been monitoring the feud for several weeks, and there was a lot of back and forth going on in the hours before Whitted and Day were killed.
“We knew right away,” Awad says. It was when Anderson found Aponte’s picture on the dashboard that pointed investigators in that direction almost instantly, Awad says.
Anderson goes on Facebook to look for pictures of Whitted, who uses a picture of Aponte as his profile pic on his own Facebook page, as Awad recounts the earlier notifications he got on his phone from the Shotspotter gunshot sensor before typing a media release on the shooting.
“I don’t even know why you have that thing on your phone,” Anderson tells him before the three quietly immerse themselves in their work as the rest of the city sleeps on.
This story is part one of a series of stories on the killings on Interstate 680 in January 2023.