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A boy pays the price: Slain youth's life was at a crossroads

Michael Ellerbe, shot during a police chase, 'could have gone to good or to bad'

Monday, January 13, 2003

By Cindi Lash and Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Second of two parts

After a night of singing and dancing in a Christmas pageant the weekend before he died, Michael Ellerbe told pageant director Leah Massey he had enjoyed it so much that he wanted to come to church every week.

A bouquet of flowers in memory of Michael Ellerbe hangs on Diane Pletcher's backyard fence, which the stolen SUV struck on Christmas Eve. Ellerbe was shot a few houses away. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Watching Ellerbe grin as he stood among the other children who had performed that night, Massey felt gratified by his joy and his professed desire to continue worshipping God.

Two days later, after Ellerbe had been shot to death while running away from a stolen sport utility vehicle, Massey was heartsick.

"I saw potential in Michael," said Massey, 24, who is resident manager of Uniontown's City Mission.

"At church, he was starting to see things he was interested in. But at this point in his life, he was pretty much shooting in either direction. He could have gone to good or to bad."

Massey's impressions mirror other accounts provided by people who knew Ellerbe from school, church or the Uniontown streets he haunted when he felt cooped up in the home he shared with his father, stepmother and several siblings.

Some tell of a charming, respectful child who shoveled snow and carried groceries for candy money, who bubbled over when talking about his puppy, who loved playing computer games, snacking on bananas and whizzing through town on his bike.

Others recalled a boy who spurred them to worry after seeing him wandering or riding in a car with older youths late at night, or who made them bridle in anger after hearing him cuss in defiance after they scolded him for teasing their younger children.

Michael Ellerbe

Part One: What happened to Michael Ellerbe on Dec. 24?

Like Massey, some had encountered both sides of Ellerbe and had prayed that his good impulses would prevail.

"I would say that kid was an angel compared to some of them," said Donald Arthur, 45, owner of the Byers Market convenience store on Connellsville Street, a few blocks from Ellerbe's home.

Arthur, who said he knew and liked Ellerbe's father, Michael Hickenbottom, often paid Ellerbe $5 to sweep up his store's parking lot.

Ellerbe was polite, calling Arthur "Mr. Don." Without being asked, he held the door open and carried groceries for older women.

Ellerbe also went door to door with a snow shovel in the winter, Arthur said, and he didn't emulate older teenagers from the neighborhood who tried to shoplift from his store.

Uniontown police knew Ellerbe to be an occasional runaway. His stepmother, Rene Randolph, would look for him in the middle of the night in the Lemonwood Acres public housing complex. But, they said, they had no other problems or encounters with him.

Massey met Ellerbe about two months ago after he signed on to participate in the Christmas pageant she directed at Antioch Church in Edenborn in Fayette County. Massey knew Anita Kennedy, the mother of one of Ellerbe's stepbrothers, and Kennedy's son already was active in the church.

"His brother is in every program I have, and [Ellerbe] would come, too," she said. "He was polite and very quiet, but when he did talk, he had a good conversation with you. You had to press yourself on him to get him comfortable with you, but then he would smile and joke around a lot."

Massey said she believed some of Ellerbe's reserve was the result of his conflicted feelings about missing his mother, Valerie Ellerbe of Latta, S.C., after he moved in with his father, stepmother and blended family of siblings and half-siblings in Uniontown.

She also knew that he occasionally ran away. He would turn up at the home of his friend and her cousin, 15-year-old Laudia Jones of Uniontown.

"He was always going from house to house. He was the type who was out a lot on his own," she said. "Whatever he was going through, I think he was willing to change. But he looked like he carried a lot on his mind."

That sentiment would not surprise anyone who knew Ellerbe and his family. His uncle, Neil Hickenbottom, has a record in Uniontown for drug possession. He uses a wheelchair, crippled from a gunshot wound.

Ellerbe's father has been arrested at least five times since 1993, on drug possession charges and vehicle code offenses. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and fleeing police. A charge of reckless endangerment was dropped.

During a sentencing in February 2001, Hickenbottom's attorney, Samuel L. Davis, told Fayette County Common Pleas Judge Ralph C. Warman: "He has had problems in the past, and we don't deny that, but it seems to me that his life has turned around. He's trying to do better. He's had some drug problems and he's trying to rehabilitate himself. He's married. He's a good father, and he's been a good provider, and I would ask the court to show any leniency it can."

Warman responded: "We considered your prior record, and that prior record includes delivering cocaine and possession of marijuana. It's very likely that these drug offenses are your problem, being involved in illegal drug activities."

Despite Hickenbottom's record, people close to the family said he tried to be a good father, even steering his son from Lafayette Middle School in the Uniontown School District to a church-run program in Perryopolis called New Directions.

While Ellerbe charmed some grown-ups such as Tina Whitehead, wife of a pastor in his neighborhood, who last saw him when she gave him a lift to New Directions two weeks before his death, other adults said they saw the potential for him to choose the wrong path. When he was in the company of other children, they said, he could be sarcastic or mouthy.

In mid-December, he alarmed Diane Pletcher after she spotted him lurking at night in the alley behind her house -- the same alley where, a week or so later, he would run from a wrecked SUV, with two state troopers chasing him. He died a block away, after being shot in the back.

Pletcher, a longtime foster parent who had just moved into a house on Edgemont Drive, said she became nervous after her dog began barking at Ellerbe. He repeatedly walked down the alley, then returned to a parked car with other youths in it.

After seeing his face and realizing how young he was, she said, she resolved to go outside and confront him if he came back one more time. He didn't.

The next time Pletcher saw Ellerbe's face was in a newspaper picture after his death.

"I thought if I could put a scare on him, he might think about whatever he was doing and go home," said Pletcher, who placed fresh purple and yellow flowers atop her fence in Ellerbe's memory.

"He shouldn't have been out there that night. He shouldn't have been in that stolen car. It's a very hard world we're living in."

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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