The AK-47, invented by a poet-turned-arms-designer in Russia in 1947, is a favorite of militia and terrorist organizations. The AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle first employed by the U.S. military in the jungles of South Vietnam in 1963, is prized for both its accuracy and modularity—it can be easily customized for diverse tasks.
Both weapons were fired in the West Philly neighborhood of Wynnefield in June 2005. Three men—faces obscured by American flag bandanas on sale for the Fourth of July—burst into the dining room of a rowhome on the 5800 block of Malvern Street, spraying 29 bullets into the walls, ceiling and floor.
Seven of those bullets tore through the body 19-year-old Alonzo Robinson, known in the hood as Onion. After being rushed to the hospital by an ambulance, doctors severed his right arm, surgically completing an amputation initiated by the gunfire. Robinson was one of two targets in the house that day. His death, two days later, was mission accomplished. The second target was Elbert Tolbert (also known as L-Murder), but he escaped unscathed.
Eleven-year-old Nasir Hinton was collateral damage. Nasir was hanging out in the living room waiting on his mom to finish fixing dinner when the masked men burst through the door. Shot three times in the back, he probably never knew what was happening.
The first bullet entered the child’s lower back and ripped sharply upward through his right kidney, right adrenal gland, diaphram, right lung and lodged in his neck muscles. The second punctured his left kidney, adrenal gland, stomach and heart, then exited his breastbone. The third was recovered from his liver. Technically, he died of inhaling a rush of blood into his lungs after the force of the gunfire practically disintegrated his organs.
Nasir was one of 36 victims under 17 years old killed in Philadelphia in 2005.
One of the gunmen, Lionel Campfield, known as Man Man, is the youngest of the suspects. He was 16 years old at the time of the shoot-out. Though too young to face the death penalty, Campfield’s court docket listed the trial as a capital case until about a week before trial when the mistake was realized. He faces life in prison. Campfield pleaded not guilty at his week-long trial last month.
The story barely made headlines even though—and perhaps because—it represents a brutal kind of murder in Philadelphia, where the artillery is heavy and the players are young. In Philadelphia, guns are used in more homicides than in any other U.S. city—and semi-automatic weapons appear to be playing a larger role. Most notoriously, Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was gunned down by a Chinese-made assault rifle similar to an Ak-47 in May 2009. This past July, Officer Kevin Livewell was shot in Kensington by a masked man with an assault rifle.
These trends, coupled with the ‘no-snitch’ street policy that any Philly cop will tell you hamstrings most homicide investigations, weigh down an already overburdened justice system.
“You’re going to see the ugly side of Philadelphia,” announces Assistant District Attorney Gail Fairman to the jury in her opening argument at Lionel Campfield’s trial last month. “You’re going to hear from men who say things like the death of an 11-year-old was ‘unfortunate,’ ‘fucked up,’ in their words.”
The slow grind
It’s taken five years for the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office to piece together the puzzle of what happened the day Robinson and Hinton were killed. But bit by bit—a reckless accomplice who couldn’t keep the guns out of the hands of police; a confession; and deals that spare murderers death—the picture is almost complete.
After more than three years of investigation with little progress, the first two of three arrest warrants—for Campfield and for his friend Kareem Alverest—went out in October 2008. Alverest, also known as Reem Nice, was 24 years old at the time of the shoot-out.
Alverest was already in custody on federal gun charges at the time of his arrest. He waived his preliminary hearing and cooperated with authorities: He would testify against his two accomplices in exchange for his life.
Campfield’s arrest wasn’t dramatic. The warrant popped up in the system. Officer Brian Weaver, a beat cop, saw it and headed to Campfield’s last known address. Campfield cooperated and took the ride down to PPD headquarters.
The third alleged gunman, Rassan Johnson, has a confusing rap sheet 63 charges long, though many are dismissed or not processed. About a month after the shoot-out, cops confiscated the AK-47. According to police testimony, police got their hands on the AR-15 after a dramatic escapade this past May.
Johnson was driving through North Philly in a black Cadillac. Cops in a patrol car watched the car make an illegal turn and flashed their lights. The Cadillac sped off and a chase was on. The Caddy crashed, then Johnson jumped out and ran on foot. He tossed a dark gray bag on the street. A renegade tow-truck driver driving by saw the crash and pulled over to help. As the cop took off in pursuit of Johnson, he accidentally dropped his gun, which went skidding into the street. The tow-truck driver hopped out of his truck, ran over and picked up the cop’s gun. Next thing, Johnson jumped into the tow truck and drove away with it, with more cops in pursuit.
Eventually, the police caught up with Johnson. Inside the bag was the AR-15 rifle. A loaded .9 mm pistol with an obliterated serial number was also confiscated. The feds charged Johnson with illegal possession of firearms by a felon and the state charged him with the deaths of Hinton and Robinson and related charges. Johnson’s trial begins next month. Like Campfield, he will plead not guilty. Johnson was 26 years old at the time of the murders. He faces the death penalty.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4