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The Wilkinsburg shootings: A year of coping

Residents remember the rampage

Sunday, February 25, 2001

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The door. This is where it all began.

On the threshold of the fifth-floor apartment, the feeling is both eerie and inconceivable.

ARTHUR MOORE At the door where it all began, Arthur Moore and his mother, Clarita, believe they may have saved lives during a Wilkinsburg shooting rampage in which three men were killed and two others were wounded. The Moores were neighbors of suspect Ronald Taylor at the Woodside Garden Apartments. Arthur discovered Taylor's apartment was burning, then kicked in the door and attempted to douse the flames. "Damn, I was ready to save some killer's life," he said. "I didn't know he was taking other people's lives." Clarita had summoned maintenance worker John DeWitt to open a locked bedroom in her apartment, and likely saved DeWitt's life. Taylor killed DeWitt's colleague, John Kroll, and was searching for DeWitt. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"All that, over a door? Arthur Moore mused. "Over petty stuff?"

He shook his head, drawing his lips tight at the memory of how the events of March 1 played out in Wilkinsburg after Ronald Taylor argued with two maintenance men who were replacing his apartment door. He thought they had taken too long to fix it.

Thursday will mark the first anniversary of the shooting spree that followed. Three men died, two more were wounded and untold others were traumatized. Even with the passage of a year, the events are no easier to understand.

Moore, 23, is among those with more questions than answers.

He stared at the door last week, numberless now, unlike the others in the hall. It is a different door from the one that sparked the argument. That one was burned by a fire Taylor set in the apartment at the start of the rampage.

A short time later, Moore kicked it in after spotting smoke and fearing Taylor might be inside.

"Damn, I was ready to save some killer's life," he said with an acute realization that a year's worth of reflection had not dulled. "I didn't know he was taking other people's lives."

Taylor, 40, a black man with a mental health history whose writings, statements and actions in targeting white victims exposed a seething racism, is in the county jail. He awaits a trial in May at which his attorney will mount an insanity defense. A death sentence is being sought.

The specter of the tragedy that began in his apartment building remains, as surely as does his name on a list of residents in the lobby of the Woodside Gardens at 1208 Wood St.

His name and that of Wilkinsburg are forever linked even as the community forges ahead, remembering the dead, the wounded and the suffering.

But the town that is almost evenly divided between black and white residents draws hope by the way it has coped with a mind-numbing shooting spree, a tragedy that easily could have torn it asunder.

There are scars to be sure, but blessings as well.

The maintenance man

John O. DeWitt wasn't shot but he was wounded nonetheless.

The Hampton man's words are measured, his voice soft, when he talks about that day.

He's haunted by survivor's guilt. He knows it's wrong; his therapist tells him so. But he just can't shake the feeling that if fate hadn't intervened, if another resident hadn't taken him away from Taylor's reach, maybe others would have been spared that day.

"I got it in my mind that if he had found me first, maybe the other people would still be living. There's no way to get it out of your head," he said.

"I'm just upset. It's always there."

Clarita Moore, Arthur Moore's mother, is troubled to hear that. She feels there's a reason she locked her keys in her bedroom and had to call DeWitt down the hallway to her apartment, away from Taylor, likely away from death.

"It was not meant for him to leave this world yet. God wasn't ready for him," she said.

JOHN DeWITT He is haunted by the bloody events of last March 1, when a gunman on a rampage in Wilkinsburg killed three men and wounded two others. DeWitt was a maintenance worker at Woodside Garden Apartments, where the killing began, and had been the focus of suspect Ronald Taylor's rage. One of the dead was DeWitt's colleague, John Kroll. "I got it in my mind that if he had found me first, maybe the other people would still be living. There's no way to get it out of your head," said DeWitt. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"[DeWitt] hugged me afterwards and said, 'Clarita, you saved my life.' I said I didn't do it. The Lord did it."

DeWitt has had more than a few sleepless nights this past year. They're increasing now that the anniversary is approaching. He also avoids crowds.

At one point, shortly after the shooting, he couldn't even remember the names of his grandchildren. He marked more than celebrated his 64th birthday yesterday.

Before the shooting, he had planned to retire this month as a maintenance man for Delta Property Management. After March 1, he tried going back to work -- never at the Wilkinsburg apartment building -- but just couldn't do it. He retired in June.

The blood is what he remembers most. That, and the bullet wound in the neck of co-worker John Kroll that proved fatal.

DeWitt had endured run-ins with Taylor before. He never knew why Taylor didn't like him. But on the morning of March 1, Taylor was more vitriolic than ever in the racial taunts he lobbed at DeWitt and Kroll, 55, of Cabot, Butler County.

They were replacing the door at his apartment, No. 510, that Taylor had kicked in after forgetting his keys.

At one point, DeWitt told Taylor to shut up. Taylor responded by threatening to kill him. DeWitt, who planned to report the threat to police, picked up a hammer and made sure Taylor saw it.

A short time later, events conspired to save his life.

"I had a guardian angel that day," he allows, even as he continually questions why.

When Clarita Moore asked DeWitt to help her, Kroll finished the job on Taylor's door himself. DeWitt went to the basement to get a crowbar and started back up to the fifth floor.

About the same time, Kroll went to the rear of the first floor, where he was joined by another apartment maintenance worker, Andrew Williams, who is black.

It was shortly after 11 a.m. when Taylor set his apartment on fire and went to the basement, a .22-caliber gun in his hand. He missed bumping into DeWitt by seconds.

He found the other maintenance men in the boiler room and shot Kroll, who fell into Williams' arms. Then Taylor told Williams he was looking for DeWitt and went outside to find him.

Finished at Moore's apartment, DeWitt went downstairs and saw the horrible sight that keeps replaying in his mind: Williams carrying Kroll, a bullet wound in the neck, blood everywhere.

As Williams hurried to his car to take Kroll to Forbes Metropolian Health Center a few blocks away on Penn Avenue, he warned DeWitt to get back into the building.

DeWitt did that -- just seconds before he saw Taylor, gun in hand, walking away from the building, down Wood, into infamy.

The victims

The route Taylor took that day has been walked many times since. Investigators have trod that path. Mourners have held memorial services along that tragic trail. The curious have walked it, all the while wondering:

What was going through Taylor's mind as he walked with deliberate steps, with gun in hand?

He went outside his apartment building.

Down Wood. Past the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

A right at North Street. Past the single-family homes and apartment buildings.

A left at Pitt Street. Down the block to the Burger King at Penn Avenue.

At 11:15, police received a call about the Kroll shooting and were told the gunman was at 1208 Wood St. There police found the fifth floor apartment engulfed in flames. Arthur Moore, using a fire extinguisher, had kept it from spreading.

About 11:20 a.m., police received another call -- a gunshot victim inside the Burger King. There, Joseph Healy, 71, a longtime resident of Wilkinsburg, had been fatally wounded.

WILBERT YOUNG Wilkinsburg's mayor reminds people that three of his borough's four homicides in the past year occurred March 1 during Ronald Taylor's shooting rampage. "The community was moving forward," Young said. "This happened on one day. We picked ourselves up and continued to move on in a positive way. We didn't let this pull us back into what we came out of." (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Healy, a former priest, performed the ceremony when DeWitt and his wife, Pat, married in July 1959. DeWitt hadn't seen Healy in years.

Across Penn. A right. Beneath the East Busway. Down the block to McDonald's.

Taylor walked up to a van and shot Richard Clinger, then 56, of North Huntingdon, permanently disabling him.

Into McDonald's.

Taylor walked up to the counter and opened fire on the assistant manager, Steven Bostard, then 25, of Swissvale, who has recovered and works for McDonald's at another location.

Back outside.

He fatally shot Emil Sanielevici, 20, a University of Pittsburgh student, who was in his car in the drive-thru lane.

As Taylor fled, sirens wailed. Police sped to the various crime scenes.

It took them a few minutes to figure out that the same man was involved in all the incidents. The looming question of why would have to wait. A gunman who had already shot five people was on the loose.

The nurse and the doctor

Looking at the gun Taylor held to her head, Joyce Ambrose wondered whether the impending shot would make a closed casket necessary. As a nurse, she wondered whether Taylor had the gun high enough to sever her brain stem and kill her instantly or at an angle that would paralyze her.

She wondered what the shot would feel like, hoping it would be over quickly and wouldn't hurt.

She thought about a child who had been killed the day before in Flint, Mich., of her own daughters, and how she needed to be around for them.

She prayed: "If I have to go, Lord, I'm ready to go to be in a better place, but if you can get us out of this without anyone being hurt, please do so."

A few moments later, it was over. Taylor fled to a hallway outside Metro Family Practice in the Penn West Building, and police cornered him there.

Taylor had gotten into that building in the moments after the McDonald's shootings. In his flight from McDonald's, he went into a home on Ross, emptied the spent shells from his gun and reloaded. Back outside, walking east on West Street, he came upon several Wilkinsburg police officers and fired two rounds at them before running into the Penn West Building at the intersection with Penn Avenue.

Taylor ran in and out of offices, frightening four people in wheelchairs in an adult day-care center before running into the doctors' offices at 11:40 a.m.

There, he terrorized Ambrose, nurse Debbie Nicomede and computer programmer Patty Papenmeier, threatening to kill them with the one bullet he said he had left.

Ambrose said that when she first encountered Taylor, she thought he was a disgruntled patient. She said she knew from her 30 years as a nurse that to show fear would only make matters worse.

"I looked him dead on in the eyes to show that I cared for whatever was bugging him," she said.

JOHN FISHER Two hours of negotiation with rampage killer Ronald Taylor last March had an impact on the life of Pittsburgh police Sgt. John Fisher. His work in the Ronald Taylor case has made him an in-demand speaker across the country for agencies interested in the best way to defuse such incidents. Fisher said he thinks about the shootings and the negotiations, one of the defining cases of his career. "Something that major, how could you not think about it?" he said. "It's not something I'll ever forget." (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

After terrorizing the women and threatening to kill them, Taylor left them. Nicomede and Papenmeier ran outside while Ambrose went through the suite of offices to warn others of the danger.

Taylor encountered Dr. Dave Freeman, pointed the gun at him but didn't shoot. Taylor ran into a hallway outside the offices, where police cornered him.

Outside, Ambrose told SWAT teams where Taylor was holed up. She saw a young officer who was so nervous he was shaking. Ambrose, who had just had a gun pointed to her head, tried to calm him.

"It will be OK," she said soothingly.

"You don't understand. He just killed five people," the officer responded, mistakenly believing all the victims had died.

"That's when it hit me," Ambrose said last week. "That's not what I saw when I looked in his eyes. His rage, his anger had already been spent."

Ambrose and Freeman returned to work the next day.

Papenmeier tried several times to return to work but could not stand to be there. Nicomede never came back.

Freeman, of Aspinwall, said the encounter had caused him to "reflect on things more, to prioritize my life more."

"It makes you realize things like this can happen to you any time. Although it worked out well for us, it didn't work out well for other people that day," Freeman said.

Ambrose, of Allison Park, said she had suffered no problems because of her brush with death but regularly thinks about it.

"I think I'm emotionally OK, but now I tend to overreact to situations. Once the unexpected, the unexplained, the unthinkable happens to you, you see that in any scenario. I've become overly pessimistic."

But at the same time, she has come to appreciate the "fragility of life. The cliches about 'You only go around once' and 'Here today, gone tomorrow' become a reality. It's caused me to make better use of my time.

"The brevity of life, of relationships, of saying things you need to say to those you love most are things I appreciate now. I do believe that through all experiences, good and bad, you can grow in some way. I want to take something positive from this.

"God knows what I lived through is nothing like what the families of the victims have had to live through the past year. That's something to work through, not like what I'm going through."

Ambrose said friends and family members plead with her to get out of Wilkinsburg because of the incident. She'll have none of that. She points out to them that six weeks after the Wilkinsburg shootings, Richard Baumhammers, a white man of privilege from Mt. Lebanon, went on a two-county shooting spree that targeted minorities, killing five and paralyzing a sixth.

"It can happen anywhere. There is no protection from somebody with a gun," she said.

What was hardest for her to get through in the past year was to testify at Taylor's preliminary hearing.

"The last time I saw him face to face, I wasn't thinking he was a maniac, a sociopath. I thought he was a troubled man, not a man who in cold blood would shoot innocent people dead. It made me so mad."

The negotiator

Pittsburgh police Sgt. John Fisher didn't know what to say. He was standing next to the man who had terrorized a community, the man he had negotiated with for two hours to surrender.

Now, unarmed and handcuffed, Ronald Taylor looked at him in the hallway of the Penn West Building and asked whether Fisher was the person he had been talking to.

"You did a good job," Taylor said.

Fisher just looked at him, unable to respond.

He had talked Taylor out of killing himself or committing any more violence. His work in the Taylor case has placed him in demand as a speaker for police agencies nationwide. As part of his talk, Fisher shows a videotape of the route Taylor walked and the scenes of the shootings.

Fisher, a trained negotiator who works in the city's narcotics section, didn't know what he was getting into when he took off from East Liberty to respond to an emergency in Wilkinsburg. He heard a radio call asking for a negotiator, so he stepped forward.

Inside the Penn West Building, Fisher peeked around a corner into the hallway. Taylor was 40 feet away, pointing his gun. Fisher quickly pulled his head back.

They began talking. Taylor kept threatening to kill himself. After an hour, Fisher began to fear that Taylor wouldn't kill himself but would rush down the hallway, leaving officers with no choice but to shoot him. It's called "suicide by police."

Fisher kept talking, finally persuading Taylor to slide his gun and a knife down the hallway. The siege had ended.

Fisher said he thinks often about the incident, one of the defining cases of his career.

"Something that major, how could you not think about it?" he said. "It's not something I'll ever forget."

What he thinks about most, he said, are the victims.

The minister

Six weeks before the shootings, the Wilkinsburg Ministerial Association, a consortium of about 20 churches in the borough, got together to work out a disaster plan. The impetus was a fire that had left six families homeless.

"We believe we should be responsive to whatever the community needs. Just like you call the police and fire department, in time of emergency, the church should also be visible," said the Rev. Michael Golphin, president of the association and pastor of Deliverance Baptist Church.

The faith-based disaster-response team was one of several ways Wilkinsburg was able to react quickly and positively to the tragedy. Golphin and other ministers rushed to Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, the closest to the shooting scenes on Penn Avenue, to provide crisis counseling to McDonald's workers.

"They were very emotional. Some were distraught," Golphin said.

In the days and weeks and months afterward, the churches played a key role in helping the community heal. On the first anniversary Thursday, the association will sponsor a memorial service at 7 p.m. at Wilkinsburg Baptist Church.

"Even in tragedy, God does speak. It was an opportunity to be bonded a little closer together," Golphin said. "Any tragedy that happens in Wilkinsburg we believe we should be on the scene for spiritual guidance, for counseling, to just be a shoulder to lean on."

Golphin said there are no easy answers for those whose faith was tested by the violence.

"I would say that sin still runs rampant in this world. We're not going to get around that until Christ comes back.

"There are just some things about God that I can't explain to you."

The mayor

Even today, when Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert A. Young hears a siren, he flashes back to the terror of March 1.

He remembers exactly what he was doing when he heard of the shootings, just as every person of a certain age knows where they were when they heard President Kennedy had been shot or that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

Young was at an economic development meeting about two blocks from the crime scenes, talking with a developer about a supermarket. His secretary called to say there had been a shooting--singular.

When he got back to his office, he learned there had been shootings--plural.

Turning on the television, he struggled along with reporters trying to figure out what was occurring in his town.

And when the local coverage switched to national coverage, Young knew he had an extraordinary event on his hands.

Later that day, after Taylor had been captured, Young was eloquent in his sorrow as he spoke to reporters about his hope for the days ahead.

Today, he mourns the victims as he commends his community. Despite the shootings, he feels his town and its people have been blessed.

"Our community came through it, with that issue of race and hatred. If this community had responded in a different way, we would have had a completely different outcome and we'd be in a different place today."

For years, Wilkinsburg had made great strides in rebuilding itself after years of crime and decline. Community policing programs were instituted. Residents banded together to march against drug abuse. In-school programs warned children of the dangers of drug use and gangs. Church groups reached out to young people considered at risk.

When the shootings occurred, Wilkinsburg was a community on the way up. Would this drag it down again?

Moreover, the shootings presented the town with a highly explosive issue -- race.

Six months earlier, Young, the Wilkinsburg Ministerial Association and other community leaders had begun meeting regularly among themselves and with the community to work on issues of race.

When the shootings occurred, they already had a foundation upon which to build.

They reached across racial and economic lines. The bomb was diffused.

There was no growth of racial animus. In fact, the shootings brought the races together even more, Young said.

On a personal level, he said he and his family were troubled by the racial component of the killings. But marching with others, white and black, to memorialize the dead, to decry the violence and racism, gave them strength.

As for crime, there have been six shootings and four homicides since March 1. Five of those shootings and three of those homicides were committed on one day by one man -- Taylor.

"The community was moving forward," Young said. "This happened on one day. We picked ourselves up and continued to move on in a positive way. We didn't let this pull us back into what we came out of.

"It's blessing we got through it. I hope we never have to again."

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