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A boy pays the price: What happened to Michael Ellerbe on Dec. 24?

Sunday, January 12, 2003

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

First of two parts

The sirens got Diane Pletcher's attention.

It was about 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Pletcher was cleaning her newly purchased home on Edgemont Drive in Uniontown.

"They were going for quite a while," Pletcher, 46, said of the sirens. "You could tell they were going up and around."

Michael Ellerbe

Part Two: Slain youth's life was at a crossroads

Suddenly, the noise changed to three odd bursts. She thought her water line was breaking. Then came the sirens again.

Just down the block and across the street, the Uniontown police chief was desperately tending to a dying 12-year-old named Michael Ellerbe, who had been shot through the heart during a foot chase with two state troopers.

Chief Kyle Sneddon instantly recognized the gravity of the situation when he rolled up.

State Trooper Samuel Nassan, a rookie, was leaning over Ellerbe, trying to help. Veteran Trooper Juan Curry was nearby on the police radio.

Sneddon screamed for an ambulance. He had just grabbed a defibrillator from his car to jump-start the boy's heart when paramedics arrived. Their efforts were fruitless. Michael died that day at Uniontown Hospital.

A slip of a boy who stood 5-feet-2, Ellerbe had managed to scale a low chain-link fence before being shot. He fell in a back yard between Cleveland and Murray avenues.

An autopsy would show that the bullet struck him in the back. Within five hours, police would say Ellerbe was shot after jumping out of the wreckage of a stolen sport utility vehicle.

Pletcher looked out the window into her backyard. Below was her muddy, snow-skimmed patch of property, surrounded by a chain link fence.

To Pletcher's surprise, a sport utility vehicle had come to rest in her yard. Its rear end faced the house, having rammed into the fence, collapsing part of it. Pletcher saw only one door open -- the driver's. A state police car faced the SUV. An ambulance was there, too.

Police officers yelled at her, "Get down!" Pletcher hustled her grandchildren and daughter upstairs.

Days later, rethinking the incident that stirred a community to grief, sparked a federal civil rights inquiry and left the two troopers on desk duty while their conduct was being investigated, Pletcher was close to tears.

"Society failed him somehow, some way," Pletcher said of Michael Ellerbe. "He should not be in that grave."

Silent state police

State police repeatedly have refused to discuss even the most mundane aspects of the case, citing an ongoing investigation.

They won't say whether Ellerbe was armed. His family's attorney say he was not. They won't address whether bullets were recovered from the scene or how many shots were fired. They won't acknowledge whether it was a bullet from a trooper's gun that killed Ellerbe.

They won't disclose whether anyone else was in the sport utility vehicle. They won't even outline the route troopers took while chasing the SUV.

Based on interviews during the past two weeks, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has pieced together a partial account of what transpired, beginning with the reported theft of a 1986 Ford Bronco sometime early Dec. 24.

State police records show the SUV was taken from Wade Allen Friend Jr.'s house in the 200 block of Whyle Road in North Union, just over the city line from Uniontown. Friend declined to be interviewed for this story, only saying, "There's too much blown out of proportion."

There is speculation in some Uniontown neighborhoods that a group of teenagers took Friend's SUV. There are reports of a young man -- not Ellerbe -- joy-riding in the Bronco around Uniontown's Pershing Court housing complex.

Just after 2 p.m., a man and a woman walked into Byers Market on Connellsville Street, a main drag in Uniontown near Ellerbe's house on Coolspring Street. They had spotted Friend's Bronco outside and asked to use the store phone to call police.

At 2:07 p.m., the call went through to the Fayette County Emergency Operations Center: Stolen SUV, two black males inside. One of them could have been Michael Ellerbe, who frequented the market. None of the employees who work there had seen him that day.

State police responded. They had been looking for the vehicle since it was stolen. Troopers eventually spotted the vehicle and pursued it. Uniontown police were not called to assist, according to Chief Sneddon.

From that point until Ellerbe was shot about 15 minutes later, details are murky.

Numerous people -- Ellerbe's family, his friends, parents of his friends and other residents of Uniontown who knew him peripherally -- have heard there were as many as four young men inside the SUV. Who was behind the wheel is unknown. Some of the boys may have been part of a clique of teens Ellerbe knew and possibly idolized.

Some of them had been in trouble with the law. Two who were interviewed denied they were with Ellerbe around the time of his death. Another was sent to a juvenile detention center after Dec. 24 and could not be reached for comment. One parent rejected a request to interview her son. State police have questioned some of the boys.

Joel Sansone, a Pittsburgh attorney representing Ellerbe's family, has said that the boy was inside the stolen vehicle. But Sansone said Ellerbe was not behind the wheel. He has declined to provide details on how, where or when Ellerbe got into the SUV.

The Ellerbe family, speaking through Sansone, declined to be interviewed.

Troopers in pursuit

About 2:20 p.m., the SUV turned from Cleveland Avenue into a narrow alleyway leading to Diane Pletcher's backyard. Troopers Curry and Nassan were in pursuit.

Curry, 32, an eight-year veteran, is well known in Uniontown, where he lives. His uncle, Lawrence Curry, is the chief detective for Fayette County District Attorney Nancy Vernon. His father was a Uniontown police officer. Some members of the Ellerbe family know Curry and speak highly of him.

Others have memories of Curry that are not so pleasant. At 2:55 a.m. Aug. 17, 2000,Uniontown police arrested Curry and charged him with simple assault and harassment.

A woman named Tara Russell told police that Curry punched her in the eye, pushed her into a mirror, breaking it, and scratched her back.

Russell withdrew her complaint Sept. 25, 2000, citing in a handwritten statement: "No injury. No promise or threat. No longer living together, a physical altercation occurred that got out of hand."

Nassan, 30, is a newcomer to the state police, having graduated from the academy in January 2002. A Florida native, he served in the Marines as a military policeman from February 1993 to December 2000, attaining the rank of sergeant.

It is not known whether Nassan and Curry turned into the alley behind the SUV. But judging from damage to a house at the corner of Cleveland and the alley -- a chunk of gutter missing, scrapes and black marks along the side of the house -- the Bronco's right side rode up on a curb.

As the SUV came out of the alley, it apparently smashed into a street sign, knocking it down, and a small tree, splitting it. Something made the Bronco spin more than 90 degrees to the left as it smashed into Pletcher's fence.

Just then, Angela Lee was curling her daughter's hair in a house on Cleveland Avenue. The were at a window, where the light was better. They had a clear view down the alley.

Lee, 30, said she saw the Bronco and a police car stopped, hood-to-hood. Two troopers were already out of their car, one on each side, racing forward.

"I looked up and I saw two policemen with their guns drawn," Lee said. Suddenly, her daughter piped up: "Mommy, it's a boy."

Lee ran to her front door.

"When I looked out, they said, 'Get in your house! Get in your house!' " Lee said. "As soon as I turned to go back in the house, I heard 'pop.' And then 'pop, pop,' back to back."

Examining the body

State police refuse to say what happened to Ellerbe. Sansone, the family's lawyer, has stepped forward with his own theory. Citing sources that he will not disclose, Sansone suggested that Curry might have slipped on ice, accidentally discharging his gun. That action, he theorized, somehow led Nassan, the rookie trooper, to shoot Ellerbe.

Dr. Phillip E. Reilly, the Fayette County coroner, farmed out Ellerbe's autopsy to the Allegheny County coroner, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. He took the case as a private consultant.

Reilly, who has tentatively scheduled an inquest for Jan. 27, has said that Ellerbe was shot from behind. The bullet passed through his heart and was not recovered from the body.

Wecht said that same bullet likely scraped along Ellerbe's upper left arm.

"It's a grazing wound. We consider it associated with the bullet that exited from the body. It's not a separate shot," Wecht said.

Reilly said preliminary autopsy results did not indicate whether gunshot residue had been found on Ellerbe's hands, which would have indicated if he had fired a weapon.

Reilly said he would do his best to get to the truth, a truth that many believe is overdue in the telling.

"The family's hearing there were three or four in the car. Why is no one following up on that? Why is no one else being held accountable for that?" said Clyda Thomas of Cleveland Avenue, a few houses away from where Ellerbe was shot.

"Michael is paying the price," said Thomas, who is both Ellerbe's cousin and an acquaintance who speaks highly of Curry. "Our community wants answers."

Tomorrow: The conflicted boy.

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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