City Plagued by Gun Violence

STEUBENVILLE – As ongoing violence tightens its grip on Steubenville, a veteran police officer’s plea for more manpower to battle invading criminals has gone unanswered and the outlook has become increasingly despairing for weary residents who want the crime to stop.

Since July 1, 2012, Steubenville police have responded to 60 reports of shots being fired. That amounts to about one instance of shots ringing out in the city every week for the past year. Those numbers also include Thursday’s shooting, when a man was shot in the jaw on Sherman Avenue in the city’s north end.

Also in the past year, Steubenville police have recovered 86 illegal firearms. That does not include the numbers of guns other law enforcement – sheriff’s deputies, state troopers – have seized within city limits.

The Front Lines

“The drug trade fuels all this,” said city Police Chief William McCafferty. “You have people from out of town, namely Chicago, who have been involved in the majority of these shootings.”

But locals also are getting in on the action. Police in New Jersey arrested a Steubenville man last month with 1.5 pounds of heroin. He planned to sell the $20,000 worth of drugs for $120,000 in the Ohio Valley. With the opportunity for such a profit margin, the heroin trade is thriving in Steubenville and the Ohio Valley, McCafferty acknowledged.

“You could say, ‘If I had 10 more officers,’ but that’s no guarantee that these shootings are going to stop,” McCafferty said. “These people want to shoot each other. For one reason or another, they want to commit this crime. Even with more officers, we couldn’t have someone in every place every time one of these shootings occurs.”

No amount of arrests will end the ongoing violence, an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent recently told McCafferty. Now the police chief and his department, along with elected city leaders, are collaborating with BCI, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and federal prosecutors to combat the violence.

Nearby Toronto has battled heroin for years, and Wheeling is dealing with illegal prescription pills flowing into the city. But neither of those cities has seen the violent crime that has plagued Steubenville in recent years.

McCafferty pointed to the number of available rental units in the city, and landlords who look the other way. Some of those renters turn their homes into “safe houses” and harbor multiple people illegally.

He also pointed to the state’s relatively weak gun laws and local judges bound by sentencing limitations as reasons for the increase in gun violence.

Steubenville’s Elected Leaders

In May 2012, then-City Manager Cathy Davison vowed to bring about change following another shooting. By the following April, the violent crimes had not ceased and Davison said city government was considering bringing in the National Guard. She resigned less than a month later, saying she and City Council did not “have the same vision for the city of Steubenville.”

Longtime Mayor Dominic Mucci has been doubling as city manager until council hires a full-time replacement for Davison. Mucci said calling in the National Guard was never a realistic proposal, in his opinion. He’s now calling for community members with knowledge of illegal activity to come forward and speak out. Those engaged in lawlessness represent a small fraction of the 18,500 Steubenville residents, and Mucci said he refuses to let those “thugs and wannabes” paint the image of a city ruled by crime and violence.

State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said Gov. John Kasich has balanced the state’s budget on the backs of cities such as Steubenville. Cuts to city budgets have enabled Kasich’s administration to secure a record $1.5 billion rainy-day fund – but it continues to pour in Steubenville, Gentile said.

“I care deeply about this city and the people that live here,” Gentile said. “There are a lot of good people in our community and it’s not fair to look at some acts of violence and paint a broad brush stroke.”

An Officer Calls For Help

Jim Marquis has been a Steubenville police officer for 23 years. He has served as president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1 for the past 15 years, and vice president before that. In April, Marquis called a press conference and pleaded for help from city officials in the department’s battle with armed and reckless criminals.

The heroin plaguing the Steubenville area is more toxic than the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, Marquis said, and the city is more violent than at any point in his law enforcement career. Gang activity is one of the culprits, he said, and one shooting often results in retaliatory gunfire soon after. Marquis understands the city is hindered financially by cuts handed down from Columbus, but said the ongoing violence justifies cuts to other departments to help fund police.

“Snuffing out crime is our No. 1 priority,” he said.

Without criticizing Davison, Marquis said he hopes the next city manager understands the police department’s needs. Retired city police officer Robert Villamagna’s election to City Council is encouraging, he added. But the future city manager has yet to be hired, and Villamagna will not join council until January. So for now, Marquis tells his fellow officers to be careful, and cautions city residents to be aware of their surroundings.

The Hilltops

Most blighted by drug crime and gun violence are Steubenville’s two hilltop neighborhoods, La Belle and Pleasant Heights. As job opportunities left the area over the decades, the two neighborhoods have undergone a visible deterioration, coinciding with a rise in crime.

Councilman Gerald DiLoreto’s 1st Ward includes a small section of Pleasant Heights where Derrick Williams was killed earlier this month. Shots fired outside a home came through the house and struck 18-year-old Williams inside. Less than an hour later, more shots were fired at a home only about a block from where Williams was killed.

DiLoreto said 72 percent of the properties on La Belle and Pleasant Heights are rentals. A small number of landlords own most of those properties, the councilman added, many of whom do not even live in the Ohio Valley, let alone Steubenville. DiLoreto said those “absentee landlords” show little discretion when selecting their tenants.

“Certain landlords don’t care who they rent to,” he said. “I’m not going to mention any names, but they know who they are.”

Councilman Greg Metcalf’s 3rd Ward includes about half of the La Belle neighborhood, including the street where two Chicago men were shot, one fatally, in April.

“We are all concerned, myself included, with the increase in crime and shootings,” Metcalf said. “The constituents are upset and nervous.”

He said he still maintains confidence in the police department to handle the matter. Metcalf lives west of Brady Avenue, which divides the 3rd Ward into starkly different halves. Metcalf’s neighborhood is the more affluent and scenic side, while the crime and violence of La Belle sits just blocks away east of Brady Avenue.

Metcalf acknowledged the La Belle his grandparents lived in has decayed since he was a boy. He attributed that to drug crime and a lack of pride in property. He said he has friends in La Belle, and his three daughters have visited their own friends who live there. When asked if he would live on the other other side of Brady Avenue, Metcalf said, “I’ve made my home where I’ve made my home.”

Councilman Rick Perkins represents the 2nd Ward, the only ward to house sections of both La Belle and Pleasant Heights – the “safe side” of Pleasant Heights, Perkins pointed out. It was in the 2nd Ward’s section of La Belle where a robbery suspect opened fire on two police officers in April.

“Our officers are doing everything they can to stop the violence,” Perkins said, “but you have a lot of people from out of town who have guns and no respect for life. That’s the thing – they have zero respect for life.”

Perkins gave his unequivocal support for the police, but doubted putting more officers on the street would effect a drastic change. He also acknowledged the conundrum of Steubenville’s law enforcement: the number of police is justified by the city’s population, but the crime rate begs for more officers.

Section 8 Housing

Steubenville is home to a large percentage of Jefferson County’s Section 8 housing. City leaders said the abundance of low-income housing, coupled with a thriving drug trade, has enticed out-of-town criminals to set up shop in Steubenville. And with so many rental properties located on La Belle and Pleasant Heights, the hilltop has become the hub of criminal activity.

Councilman DiLoreto also believes overcrowding at the Jefferson County Jail shows criminals that if caught, their incarceration will be brief. DiLoreto wants a cap on the number of Section 8 units in Steubenville, which would take an act of Congress. At the least, he wants to see the Section 8 housing distributed proportionately throughout the county, allowing that Steubenville “will take our fair share, but not over and above.”

The Community Speaks Out

Laura Sirilla took over as president of the Hilltop Community Development Corp. in April. She and her husband rented on Pleasant Heights before buying a home on one of La Belle’s safer and cared-for streets 10 years ago.

“It’s not the ghetto war zone that people want to think it is,” she said. “But obviously there is some crime, and it kind of seems to be within a certain group of people.”

Sirilla acknowledged, however, the potential for innocent bystanders to get caught in a hail of gunfire. She recalled the terrifying moments when her two sons were walking the neighborhood alone and shots were fired. Still, the upstate New York native spoke positively of the neighborhoods and any remaining historic charm. She is optimistic her group will serve as an intermediary between hilltop community members and city officials, so the streets and their residents are not forsaken.

“It’s my hope that the city doesn’t abandon these neighborhoods,” Sirilla said. “I’ve talked to the people that live on tougher streets. They deserve better. They deserve to not be afraid of what’s going on on these two hilltops and downtown.”

Dawud Abdullah was among those who in April 2012 organized the first of several weekly marches through the crime-ridden sections of the city. Frustrated by endless talks behind closed doors, organizers took to the streets to call for an end to violence. But more than a year later, the shootings continue and the number of marchers has dwindled.

Abdullah remains undeterred, though, and promised that even if he is alone, he will continue walking for peace through the same streets where violence often rules.