Slain young dad was 'full of life'
By MORGAN ZALOT
Philadelphia Daily News
Appeared on the cover of Philadelphia Daily News in August 2009.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, John Hightower was outgoing, fun and generous, a man with a good head on his shoulders and an even better sense of humor.
And though the 24-year-old struggled recently in his efforts to care for his ailing mother and his daughter, Hightower had big dreams, writing raps about making it out of poverty someday.
"He always said, 'I'm gonna be big and I'm gonna buy you all cribs,' " recalled his best friend, Mike Bules, 24. "He never sold drugs, never stood out here on the corner. He was so full of life."
Hightower's life came to a violent end Saturday night, when a man shot him in the face with a sawed-off shotgun during a robbery on the West Philadelphia block where Hightower grew up.
About 11 p.m., the gunman and an accomplice headed up Redfield Street toward Master, where Hightower sat with four friends and a 9-year-old boy, talking and relaxing as a block party came to an end.
The gunman came upon the group and pointed the shotgun at them, demanding that they empty their pockets, recalled Rosa Vasquez, 28, who was sitting with Hightower at the time.
But the $15 Hightower handed over, plus a pack of Newports and a cell phone from others, weren't enough. The gunman pointed the shotgun at Hightower's head and fired, killing him instantly, police said.
"The whole time, John had his hands up," Vasquez said. "And the guy pointed the gun point-blank and pulled the trigger."
Renedya Stokes, 25, who was also with Hightower at the time of the shooting, recalled hearing the accomplice yell, "He's reaching," but said that Hightower's hands were above his head and his pockets were turned inside out.
"But the [gunman] had already checked John's pockets," Stokes said.
Upon hearing the shot, Dell Smith, 30, a friend whom Hightower had visited 10 minutes before the shooting, ran to his front door, thinking kids were setting off firecrackers.
"Next thing you know, I get to the door and he's on the ground," Smith said. "I came down and stood over top of him. That was my boy, that was my man."
Hightower was never involved with drugs or fighting, friends and family said.
They described the young father as a laid-back man who just wanted to joke around, make honest money and help anyone in need.
And though friends and relatives agreed that Hightower had fallen on hard times - he was between jobs, trying to take care of his ailing mother in a nursing home and his daughter - all agreed that Hightower had never turned to the streets to make money.
"He didn't have no money," said Smith, shaking his head at reports that $85 had been stolen from his friend in the incident. "If I had a daughter, I'd be out dealing. But not him."
Steve Smith grew up with Hightower, who lived with him and his wife in Frankford near Fillmore and Tackawanna streets, and recalled rapping with him.
"He had a good sense of humor; he was an impeccable lyricist," Smith said. "We had memorable times on an everyday basis."
"Everybody [who] came across him fell in love with him," High-tower's older sister, Ebony High-tower, said through sobs. "I can't believe someone would just go and take his life like that. He was just sitting there minding his business. That's not fair. They took him away from me."
Homicide detectives said they did not have a complete description of the killers, and witnesses said they didn't know the men.
Yesterday afternoon, a memorial of candles, flowers, signs and stuffed animals were left over from a vigil for Hightower Sunday night. Neighborhood friends from nearby blocks stopped to pay their respects - one man who declined to give his name poured Patrón tequila onto the ground by the memorial.
"He was outgoing, fun and laid- back," the man said, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's crazy. Let him drink."
Staci Ross, 25, of Logan, is the mother of Hightower's year-old daughter, Tristyn, and dated him for nine months from November 2007 to late last summer.
"He loved to make people laugh. He was genuine about what he said and what he did for people," recalled Ross, who met Hightower when the couple worked at an Arby's in King of Prussia.
Ross said that Hightower had a tough time after his stepfather's death in 2007 and after losing his job at Arby's when the restaurant closed, but the experiences made him stronger.
"[It] made him more willing to do what was necessary to survive," she said, adding that the pair's shared love of music was what brought them close.
"That was his dream, to be able to become a star and make it big and be able to provide for his family," she said.
Ross said Hightower was an attentive father who did what he could to provide for her and Tristyn.
"The love was still there," she said of their relationship. "I don't wanna believe that he won't be here to share any more firsts with Tristyn."
"That's the hardest thing, that he won't be able to share those moments with us."
Overbrook mom slain, ex-lover kills self
By MORGAN ZALOT & DAFNEY TALES
Philadelphia Daily News
Appeared on the cover of Philadelphia Daily News July 28, 2009.
YESTERDAY SHOULD have been a happy day for 11-year-old Jerome DeShazor and his 7-year-old sister, Jeleah. Their mother, LeeAnn Smith, had planned to take them on a surprise vacation to Disney World.
Instead, hours before the family planned to fly out of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, Jerome woke before sunrise to find his mother barricaded in her bedroom dialing 9-1-1 as her ex boyfriend hid in the bathroom.
Police arrived moments later and while they searched the Overbrook house, a terrified Smith fled with Jerome and Jeleah in the back of her black Camry. Her gun-wielding ex slipped past police and followed on foot, firing at the car, witnesses said.
Smith made it two blocks then crashed into a house at Atwood Road and Lebanon Avenue before her pursuer shot her to death and turned the gun on himself.
"The little boy just kept asking, 'Is my mom dead?' " recalled the neighbor who took the children to the police station after the incident and declined to give her name. "I already knew [she was dead], so I told him everything was gonna be all right. He kept asking, 'If blood's coming out of your mouth, what does that mean?' "
Smith, 39, and her ex-boyfriend, Jeffery Finley, 36, were taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and pronounced dead shortly after the shooting, which began shortly before 5 a.m. yesterday, police said.
A next-door neighbor who asked not to be named said he is troubled that police failed to protect the young mother and her kids.
"How this man can shoot that woman with two officers standing there is crazy," he said. "Where were the cops?"
The murder-suicide drama marked the end of a troubled relationship, characterized by Finley stalking Smith, breaking into her house, climbing onto her porch roof to watch her sleeping through a window and calling her mother in Brooklyn to ask her to convince her daughter to take him back.
"They used to live together and she put him out last June, because they couldn't make it [as a couple] anymore," Smith's mother, Rozalyn Smith, said. "He was very obsessed with her."
About a month ago, her mother said, Smith returned home from taking her kids to school to find that Finley had broken into the house and was hiding in the basement with a gun. Her mother said that she called the cops.
Police said they had no record of that incident.
Then two weeks ago, Rozalyn Smith said, Finley called her at her Brooklyn home to ask her to convince her daughter to take him back.
LeeAnn Smith had filed a restraining order against Finley on July 15, said Homicide Lt. Philip Riehl.
In yesterday's incident, police arrived and searched Smith's large rowhouse on Atwood Road near Haddington Street shortly before 5 a.m., according to a neighbor.
It appeared, the neighbor recounted after hearing the story from Smith's son, that Finley had fled out the back door of her home after she called police.
Apparently, Finley hid somewhere behind Smith's home as officers searched inside, police said.
With the cops still inside, Smith - with her two young children in the back seat - pulled her car away from the curb in a hurry. Finley then ran from the alley behind Smith's home onto Haddington Street, around to Atwood and shot several rounds at the car, witnesses said.
Smith made it two blocks down Atwood Street before crashing into the side of a house at Lebanon Avenue, when Finley caught up with them and fired more shots.
Police, who were pursuing Finley, watched as he turned the gun onto himself and shot himself in the head, police said.
Smith was found in the driver's seat with multiple gunshot wounds to the torso. Finley lay on the sidewalk by the driver's side door, police and witnesses said.
Yesterday afternoon, the mangled car was still smashed against the building while a black and white sandal lay amid a pool of blood near the open driver's-side door.
Shannon Hatcher, who lives on the block where Smith crashed and Finley fired his second round of shots, said that after the commotion, she could hear the children running down the street screaming.
The two were unharmed and made it to a neighbor who lived two houses away from their home, barefoot and their clothes covered in blood, before another neighbor later took them to the police station.
Their biological father, Jerome DeShazor, and his wife later picked them up.
Smith's mother traveled to Philadelphia yesterday and said she planned to speak with the children's father about who will care for them.
DeShazor, of Upper Darby, declined to comment.
Smith's next-door neighbor, who declined to give his name, described Smith as "the sweetest person," and said that a few days ago she had stopped by his home to bring a loaf of homemade bread for him and his wife.
"He didn't seem to be an angry dude," the neighbor said of Smith's ex, whom he said he knew by his nickname "Fly." "He worked on a lot of people's cars around here."
"All couples argue," he said.
"But I guess they always say there's a thin line between love and hate." *
SPECIAL REPORT: A look at Temple's crime
BY: Morgan Zalot & Chris Stover | Dec. 2, 2008
Winner of a 2009 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Keystone Collegiate Press Award for Public Affairs/Enterprise reporting.
For her senior year, Olivia Diez decided to move into a house off campus near Oxford and Bouvier streets. It wasn’t as expensive as the off-campus apartments and was still close enough to walk to class.
But less than one month into the semester, the convenience of living there wasn’t worth risking her life.
On Sept. 16, a man was shot to death a few houses down from hers. On Sept. 23, shots rang again, this time directly in front of her home.
“That’s the moment I decided I was going to leave the house,” the biology major said.
Diez decided to pack up and move back to her Princeton, N.J., home. She now commutes an hour by train to get to Main Campus.
“Considering what I used to have, I really don’t mind,” she said.
Diez is just one student directly affected by crime around Main Campus. Carl Bittenbender, executive director of Campus Safety Services, said crime in the police districts encompassing Temple mirrors city trends.
“The economy is funny,” Bittenbender said. “When the economy is bad, property crime is up.”
In the 22nd, 23rd and 26th police districts, violent crimes like murder, manslaughter and rape are down, while non-violent crimes – burglary and theft, for example – are on the rise.
But outside of Bittenbender’s and CSS’s control is the perception of crime in North Philadelphia due to a number of high-profile cases.
“I need you to know that every day I get up out of bed and think of ways to make this place better and safer,” Bittenbender said. “We try pretty hard.”
PERCEPTIONS VS. FACTS
A soccer player shot at night a block off campus. A highly publicized bust of a profitable student-run marijuana operation. Gunpoint home invasions have everybody talking and Philadelphia Police detectives investigating, putting the area west of campus under constant surveillance.
With the laundry list of high-profile crimes happening this semester, it’s easy to believe crime rates have skyrocketed since last year, which was fairly quiet, save a few publicized incidents.
Despite crimes visible to the Temple community, crime rates overall in Philadelphia and the 22nd, 23rd and 26th police districts surrounding Main Campus have dropped compared to those of last year.
Bittenbender said violent crime has dropped citywide, while property crime is staying static in some areas or rising in others. Reportable campus statistics are following the same pattern, he said.
“The big difference you see nowadays is electronic devices,” Bittenbender said. “If you look at theft, most revolves around cell phones, iPods and laptops. Electronics have [often] been stolen items, but now [someone] can walk out with five laptops in a book bag and get away.”
Bittenbender added the rise in property crime could also be indicative of the less-than-favorable economic climate.
Specifically in the Philadelphia Police districts surrounding Main Campus, the statistics also reflect those of the city as a whole.
In the 23rd District, which extends north from Poplar Street to Montgomery Avenue and east from 10th Street to 33rd Street, violent crime has decreased, while property crime has remained flat during the last year.
In the 26th District, located east of campus and extending between Lehigh Avenue and Poplar Street and from 10th Street to the Delaware River, violent crime also decreased, while property crime increased.
The only district near Temple in which both property and violent crime are up is the notoriously rough 22nd District, bound by Lehigh and Montgomery avenues to the north and south and 10th, 33rd and part of 34th streets to the east and west. In this district, which encompasses most of Main Campus, violent crime has gone up slightly while property crime increased noticeably.
Though a look at reportable statistics appears to indicate a possible growth in crime on Main Campus, Bittenbender said he feels 2008 will be a good year, especially considering the increasing student population.
“If you compare the increase in the residential population and crime, our reportable crime in the [Temple Police] patrol area is down,” he said, adding he would like to see theft and burglary rates for campus decrease.
In the past few years, he said the trend has been the same as it is now. With regard to a growing student body, crime rates have not increased in terms of percentage relative to population.
He said compared to 2007 rates on campus, which were the lowest since 2001, 2008 rates appear to be remaining flat, if not decreasing.
“It’s more than just actual crime,” he said, citing a prospective student’s parent who was concerned about police killings in Philadelphia that made national headlines. “It’s high profile, noteworthy crime [getting attention]. But overall, we’re doing pretty good, especially within our reportable area.”
Bittenbender estimated that between 1998 and 2004, the number of hours per week students being watched by Campus Police was increased by more than 750,000 hours.
“If you look at that in terms of crime, it’s pretty good,” he said.
The rise in student-watch hours is reflective of Temple shifting from being a largely commuter school to a residential campus in recent years.
Multiple student residences on and around campus have opened since Bittenbender first arrived at Temple in 1996, including 1940, 1300, Kardon-Atlantic Terminal, Oxford Village, University Village and the Edge at Avenue North.
More recently, with the lack of Temple-run housing to accommodate the growing student population, students have moved to the neighborhoods surrounding Main Campus, such as Yorktown, parts of North Central and Jefferson Manor.
Bittenbender now estimates that the number of students living on campus or within walking distance has doubled since 2003. Now, approximately 12,000 students live on campus or within walking distance.
“I find out more students live close every day,” Bittenbender said, adding that in the past, he had officers go door-to-door to take an unofficial census of students living in the area.
He estimated commuter students are on campus for 30 to 32 hours per week, while full-time resident students are on campus for 168 hours per week.
By statistics alone, the increase in number of students on and near campus and hours students spend in the area makes them more likely to become victims of crime, be injured in accidents or misbehave under the watch of Campus Police, he said.
Another dramatic change is many on- and off-campus residences, including some Temple-run facilities like University Village and Oxford Village, rent to students for 12 months instead of the academic year. This means more students on campus during the summer than ever before, Bittenbender said.
“The difference is this place used to be empty in the summer,” Bittenbender said, also mentioning the higher volume of students on campus at night. “We’ve made a lot of changes in terms of how we deploy.”
“Just statistically, if you have three times as many people here, you would deduce there would be that many more crimes,” Bittenbender said.
CSS is still responding to Temple’s urban turnaround and finding ways to protect students.
“We’re learning as the place grows,” Bittenbender said.
One way is to increase staff size.
Bittenbender said he has two more people in the Philadelphia Police Academy and is expecting to hire four more to his staff of about 125. CSS is exempt from the university’s hiring freeze put in place in October.
Temple has one of the largest college campus police forces in the United States, Bittenbender said. About 15 officers are on duty during the evening hours – the busiest shift – and all are active-shooter trained by the Philadelphia Police Department.
Another change students will notice is the patrol area of Temple Police. Its current boundaries are Oxford Street to Susquehanna Avenue and Ninth to 16th streets. Soon, supplemental patrolling will extend to a one-block radius outside the current boundaries, and Temple officers will respond within a two-block radius if Philadelphia Police get a call of a crime in progress.
Bittenbender acknowledges that some students who live beyond those areas will be upset with the limited jurisdictional authority, but boundaries need to be drawn, he said.
“This was an issue we didn’t have five years ago. We’re setting defined areas where our police can and cannot go,” he said. “You’ll always make people unhappy.”
CSS has also been working with Temple Student Government to learn students’ biggest safety concerns.
Nexus Cook, the vice president for external affairs, said Temple Police often looks to TSG representatives to find out the students’ wants and needs.
“They’re really passionate about what they do,” Cook said. “They always ask me for input about what students want.”
CSS and TSG have also been working on a new service tentatively called TUr Door (pronounced “To Your Door”). Meant primarily for students living off campus, the shuttle will take students from the Owl Loop stop on 12th Street to their doors. The boundaries of the shuttle will be from Girard Avenue to Cumberland Street and Fifth to 20th streets.
“This is going to benefit a lot of students coming out of the TECH Center at 4 a.m.,” Cook said.
ALERTS & ADVISORIES
A recent test of the university’s TU-Alert system sparked both interest and confusion around campus.
The system sends a text message, phone call and e-mail to all students and employees signed up to receive them in the event of an emergency.
When a TU Advisory was sent alerting students Philadelphia Police Sgt. Patrick McDonald was shot in the line of duty just northwest of campus, but an alert was conspicuously missing after the shooting of soccer player Mackenson Altidor blocks east of campus, students started asking questions.
Junior liberal arts major Rob Talton said the TU-Alert issued following the November 2007 attack inside Anderson Hall came hours too late.
“There needs to be a quicker way to get it out there,” Talton said. “I mean, students check Facebook far more than e-mail.”
Recently, CSS took over the responsibility of issuing TU-Alerts and TU Advisories and redefined both for the university community.
A TU-Alert will be issued only in the event of an extreme emergency that requires the student body and employees to take immediate action, like avoiding a certain area on campus or staying indoors.
A TU-Alert would be issued specifically in the case of weather severe enough to force class cancellations or during an emergency such as an active shooter situation, like that of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
“[We would issue an Alert when] we expect the university to take action because something extremely severe or catastrophic is happening,” Bittenbender said. “It is not news. It is to be used in the most severe consequences.”
A TU Advisory, on the other hand, while it also may warn of nearby danger, is strictly informational. Bittenbender said it would be used in cases like that of McDonald’s shooting to alleviate students’ worries related to increased police presence or helicopters, and also to clarify rumors and misperceptions.
Bittenbender said TU-Alerts and TU Advisories, especially the TU-Alerts calling for immediate action, are not necessarily as instantaneous and accurate as people may think.
“It would be minutes” before everyone received the alert, Bittenbender said, due to the volume of information being sent out at once.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” he continued. “Incidents are fluid.”
In addition to those instantaneous communication systems, CSS is working on an emergency management Web site, which it hopes to have live by the end of this month. The site will explain the purpose of those systems and also give students basic advice on what to do in certain situations.
“But, you certainly don’t want to wait for a text message on what to do [in an emergency],” Bittenbender said. “One of the first things you do in an incident is what you know you should do and follow your human instincts.”
The negative perception of crime Bittenbender mentioned is a concern for many Temple students, and everyone has different ways to cope.
Junior law and business major Alexander Francis, a native of the West Coast, said he feels safe on campus but carries a knife in case he is confronted en route to his home at 17th and Diamond streets.
“I’m from projects, so I know how things work,” said Francis, who added that neither he nor his friends have become crime victims on or near campus. “You do live in North Philadelphia, so you should carry things [to keep yourself safe]. It may sound outlandish, but it’s what I do to feel better.”
Francis said he knows many friends who also carry weapons for protection, especially women who carry mace.
“But it’s a bigger situation than Temple can answer,” he said, reflecting on crime in the surrounding area. “I’d rather see students try to fix it instead of just talking about it. All these students walk around oblivious, but I don’t care where you’re from, you need to help the community where you live.”
But not all students are so oblivious and adverse to the dangers just off campus.
Senior sociology major Christina Garcia, a native of North Philadelphia, said she feels safe on campus but is intimately familiar with off-campus plight and crime.
“Depending on where you’re from, it’s all relative,” said Garcia, who lives 15 minutes from campus. “Crime on campus has to do with people being fairly reckless, but [crime in the neighborhoods] has to do with the economy.”
Francis also cited the economic conditions and poor schooling as reasons for crime in North Philadelphia.
“But you live in North Philadelphia, so what would you expect?” Francis asked. “[Students] don’t like wandering out of their six-block radius that makes them feel ‘safe,’ but this world is not a safe place.”
For Diez, who moved back home with her parents to avoid neighborhood crime, the decision to get away removed some stress.
“The second I left, I felt better,” she said. “I really thought for the whole week and the day after the second shooting that my chest couldn’t relax.”
Some think violent occurrences are few and far between, so while they’re conscious of their surroundings, crime isn’t a major concern.
“Temple students don’t get messed around with too much,” Talton said, despite being a victim of a knifepoint holdup Nov. 4.
After marching to City Hall following President-elect Barack Obama’s election win, he was stopped on his way back to his Dauphin Street home by “two younger kids” near Broad and Jefferson streets. But he doesn’t hold it against CSS or the surrounding communities.
“The community itself around Temple is very welcoming,” Talton said, adding there are rarely “malicious” attacks.
Senior nursing major Erica Marhevka, who once lived on campus but now commutes, said having street smarts is one of the best ways to ensure safety.
“I think if you’re from the suburbs and don’t have any city experience, I feel you have a red flag on your back,” she said. “Know your boundaries.”
“If you’re a victim of crime, it’s not your fault,” Bittenbender said. “But you should not put yourself in situations where you could be a victim of crime.”
Bittenbender has many responsibilities to ensure crime rates remain low. Temple’s police force is among the largest in the country, which presents a double-edged sword. If statistics say crime is down, why is such a police force needed?
“The world, unfortunately, is changing in terms of people’s expectations of police,” Bittenbender said.
Tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University contribute to discomfort some people have regarding safety on college campuses.
At Temple, CSS provides the services and information students can use as resources in terms of how to remain safe on campus or what to do in emergency situations, Bittenbender said. Through the CSS Web site and print brochures, information is made readily available. But it’s up to students to absorb everything.
“Be smart about it,” Bittenbender said. “You have to be.”
Morgan Zalot and Chris Stover can be reached at email@example.com.