Community tries to recover a year after cookout ambush

WILKINSBURG, Pa. — The house at 1304 Franklin Ave. in Wilkinsburg is known throughout the neighborhood as Bill and Linda Knapp’s, a safe place where everyone is welcome.

Nothing can change that. Not even the horrific shooting that claimed the lives of six people in the backyard there a year ago this week.

“That’s why it hurt so bad for that incident to happen at that house,” said Carl Morris, who has lived across the street since 1998. “That house has always been a house of peace. You could always go there for anything you needed. (The Knapps) practiced true fellowship.”

The Knapps moved to Michigan in September 2015, leaving the two-story brick home to their daughter, Julie, who occasionally would provide a bedroom to a friend in need of “an in-between place.”

The evening of March 9, 2016, was unseasonably mild, and Brittany Powell, 27, who was staying with Julie, decided to host a backyard barbecue. The invitations went out to friends and family via Facebook.

Police believe two men, one of whom had a grudge against Powell’s brother, Lamont, learned of the outing and ambushed the cookout in a crossfire that involved a handgun and an automatic rifle. Cheron Shelton, 30, of Lincoln-Lemington, and Robert Thomas, 28, of Homewood, are in the Allegheny County Jail awaiting trial in the deaths of Ms. Powell; her brother, Jerry Michael Shelton, 35; her sister, Chanetta Powell, 25; and their cousins, Tina Shelton, 37, and Shada Mahone, 26. Chanetta Powell was eight months pregnant.

Three people were wounded, including the alleged target, Mr. Powell, 25. John Ellis, 47, a neighbor who had chosen to join the group, is paralyzed from the waist down.

Morris, 66, was in his living room shortly before 11 p.m. that night when he heard the gunshots — investigators later counted 48 shell casings. When he dared to go outside, he saw children crying and wounded adults screaming. Rounding the fence into the backyard, he saw bodies tangled on the porch and the dog, Libby, who had been shot in the tail, barking at police to keep them at bay.

“I never saw anything like I did that night,” said Morris, who led the dog away so police could access the scene. “The women were laying there like rag dolls, just leaning against each other, fallen over.”

Reputation for crime

Wilkinsburg, a borough of 2.3 square miles hugging Pittsburgh’s east side, has earned a reputation for crime over the past decades. The police department, with 24 full-time officers, responds to about 15,000 calls a year, an average of almost one per person. It averages 1,000 arrests and about six homicides per year.

The same number that died in one night a year ago.

Wilkinsburg police Detective Michael Adams was on patrol with the car window down only a few blocks away when he heard the gunfire. He reported to dispatch and headed for Franklin Avenue.

Still unaware of what was happening, he entered the area slowly, without his emergency lights on. As he rolled down Franklin Avenue, he saw a man getting into a car. The man’s manner was casual enough, but Detective Adams still made a note of the license plate. It would prove to be a break in the case.

Shortly after spotting the man driving away, Detective Adams heard the shrieking of a woman who had been wounded and the crackle of the police radio alerting officers to multiple 911 calls. He was the first on the scene.

“The bodies were still moving, but they were dead,” he said of those on the back porch, recalling a nightmarish image that he is able to compartmentalize as “part of the job.”

“There’s no benefit in dwelling on it,” he said. “You can’t let it affect you and what you have to do. I’d say that’s true of everyone in this department. Every officer here has seen a homicide, I’d say, within their first year on the job. We’re trained.”

Wilkinsburg police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman said she perceived that professionalism as soon as she got to the scene that night.

“As bad as that situation was, I knew — the moment I arrived — that we were in good hands,” she said. “Everyone that came — and we had six or seven, maybe nine agencies that night — and we performed as if we had worked with each other all the time. Everything was in sync, very respectful for the victims, the families and the residents. For as bad as it was, there was no chaos at all.

“But nobody prepares for this. Every officer that was there, you could see on his or her face, the meaning of what had just happened, that this was surreal.”

The department made counseling available to any officer who might have been haunted by the scene, but she couldn’t say whether any had sought it.

“It affected me,” she said. “How an innocent thing like a barbecue can end up as a massacre. But it doesn’t stop us. We can say, ‘Yes this happened,’ but we have to keep moving.

“When that happened, that horrific night, we were all devastated, simply because we had always worked as a community. We felt that we were the victims as well, because that could have happened in Squirrel Hill, that could have happened in Fox Chapel, that could have happened in Mt. Lebanon, that could have happened anywhere. No one that was involved lived in Wilkinsburg.”

The chief is proud of her community and her department. She points to the state-of-the-art tools — acquired through grants — available to every officer, and the extensive training they go through. There are outreach programs that are cultivating relations in the schools and the streets.

Wilkinsburg, she said, is strong.

“This wasn’t something for the community to come together for, because we already were coming together,” she said of the shootings’ aftermath. “And that’s why we didn’t crumble.”

“I knew how it would reflect on Wilkinsburg,” said Morris, who can recall the gangs that ravaged the borough in the 1990s. “I knew everybody would say, ‘There goes Wilkinsburg again.’ But this wasn’t Wilkinsburg. This was brought into Wilkinsburg.

“We have to show people that we are more than what that shooting was. The shooting did not bring us together. We were together before that.”