Mayor, Police: City Needs Help to End a 'Sad Year' of Violence

By Jason Togyer | Posted in: News

Saying "even one homicide is too many," McKeesport officials on Wednesday expressed frustration about the number of fatal shootings in the city so far this year.
There have been 10 murders in McKeesport in 2017, including the shootings last week of Kimberly Lesko, 55, and Melodie Robb, 52, in a home in lower 10th Ward.

Allegheny County police are investigating the Lesko and Robb killings, though they have released few details. The women, who were sisters, were buried Tuesday in Richland Cemetery in Dravosburg following a funeral Mass at St. Mary's Romanian Church in Christy Park.

The shootings have not officially been ruled homicides by the medical examiner's office. Lesko, of Versailles, was an overnight guest at Robb's home when she, Robb and a third person were shot just after 3 a.m. Sept. 1.

McKeesport police Chief Bryan Washowich told city council on Wednesday that he's reluctant to speculate in public on why homicides have increased this year. There were four homicides in McKeesport in 2016, including two from gun violence.

"We're making every effort possible to solve these murders," Washowich said. "If you ask me what the common denominator is, I have to be respectful of victims and their families, so my comments have to be limited."

But in general, the police chief said, detectives need more witnesses to come forward and the community needs to keep reaching out to youth at risk of violence.

"Anyone who thinks the chief is sleeping fine or the mayor is sleeping fine had better wake up themselves," Mayor Michael Cherepko said. "It's very disheartening and I take it personally --- probably too personally. As much as I love this city, I get discouraged at times, too."

Poverty, lack of jobs and drug addiction remain serious problems throughout the Mon Valley, Mayor Michael Cherepko said. "I'm focused on McKeesport, but these are not just McKeesport issues --- they're everywhere," he said.

Saturation patrols of neighborhoods continue, in cooperation with Allegheny County police and the district attorney's office, Washowich said. As a result, he said, "shots fired calls have declined and street crime has declined."

"Robbery and burglary are both down, firearms violations are down, criminal mischief is steadily down, harassment and assault are both down," Cherepko said. "The strategies we're using are working, statistically. But one homicide is too many."

The saturation patrols, designed to increase police visibility and reduce street crime, have been expensive, Cherepko said. McKeesport has spent more than $50,000 this year on police overtime, he said.

"The police department is going at this problem from all different angles," Washowich said, adding that the department is balancing the need for aggressive policing with "the utmost respect" for civil rights.

Police officers also are actively engaged in youth activities, coaching sports leagues and mentoring young people, he said. The community involvement is made possible, Cherepko added, because McKeesport police are still required to live within the city.

Getting witnesses to cooperate can be difficult, City Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery said.

"A lot of times, people are scared to speak up, because people who speak up have been targeted," she said.

Walker-Montgomery said she has asked FOCUS Pittsburgh, the local branch of a national non-profit that works with at-risk youth, to meet and work with McKeesport officials. FOCUS has had an office in Pittsburgh's Hill District since 2011 and also works on Pittsburgh's South Side.

FOCUS also has programs in Carnegie and Beaver Falls.

Washowich said he would welcome their assistance.

"There are a lot of things I'd like to see addressed," he said. "We're trying our hardest. Cooperation from witnesses is critical, and we do offer witnesses relocation if necessary. But our main goal has been identifying conflicts prior to violence. For instance, we monitor Facebook, and if we see conflicts developing, we try to reach out to a person through a friend or family member."

Parents and grandparents can play a role, too, by making sure that their minors are "careful with the company they keep," Washowich said.

Anyone with information about the murders of Lesko and Robb, or any other unsolved homicide, is asked to call McKeesport police at (412) 675-5015, or the Allegheny County police homicide unit at (412) 473-1300. Callers may remain anonymous.

Allegheny County police may also be reached on Facebook and Twitter.

Originally published September 07, 2017.

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