A chill afternoon wind whips across the sprawling hill leading up to the cluster of brown-and-mustard two-story buildings that make up Abbottsford Homes, the public housing project nestled on the border between East Falls and Hunting Park. A short stretch of unseasonably warm mid-February weather has disappeared, but not before transforming the hill from a sheet of densely packed snow and ice to a grassy, muddy mess. Candy wrappers and empty potato chip bags swirl past—a tattered segment of yellow police tape snakes along the ground, too—heading toward a distant chain-link fence already plastered with debris. A small teddy bear lies face down in the grass, blown by the wind several feet from a makeshift memorial of stuffed animals, candles, photos and notes wrapped around a telephone pole near the base of the hill.
Four young black girls, maybe 14 or 15 years old, stroll down the hill, slowing as they pass the memorial dedicated to slain 18-year-old Roxborough High School senior Rashawn “Shawnee” Anderson.
“Ain’t no way he woulda run straight up the hill, he probably went that way,” one girl says, pointing to the curved road that leads out of the projects.
“You crazy?” answers another. “He was runnin’ up to his house.”
The wind drowns out their conversation as they continue walking, following a worn path that leads to Uncle Willie’s convenience store a couple hundred yards away on Fox Street. Like most Abbottsford kids, Anderson frequently made late-evening trips down to Uncle Willie’s to grab a soda and something to eat. But just after 11 p.m. on Feb. 7, as he was trudging back up the snow-covered hill toward the apartment he shared with his father and grandmother, police say he was ambushed by at least one person who fired nine times from a .45-caliber handgun. A star basketball player and not-too-shabby football player, Anderson was fast, but that didn’t matter. He was struck several times in the head and neck.
Neighbors who heard the shots rushed down to Anderson and carried him back up the hill. Someone ran to Anderson’s apartment and pounded on the door, yelling that he had been shot. His father, “Big Shawn” Anderson, ran out and found his son on the ground covered in blood, barely breathing. He and others lifted Anderson into a car and sped off toward Temple University Hospital; police arriving on the scene quickly transferred him to their cruiser and drove him the rest of the way.
Half an hour later, Anderson was dead.
Weeks later, as the tight Abbottsford community continues to mourn and cops hunt for a killer, questions linger. Was Anderson—a once-troubled kid who’d turned his life around and had a bright future ahead of him—simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of a random act of violence? Or was it payback: The latest, and one of the deadliest, incidents in a decades-long clash between youths from Abbottsford and Allegheny Avenue—who all go to school together at Roxborough—that some say threatens to get even worse before it gets better?
“Talk to anyone around here, everyone’ll probably have a different story,” says a bearded 36-year-old Abbottsford resident who only identifies himself as Anderson’s cousin.
Standing on the sidewalk across from Anderson’s apartment and staring out at the field where he was shot, he adds, “Nobody really knows what happened.”
Police have a theory: Anderson’s death might have been long-brewing retaliation for an October 2009 shooting at the McDonald’s at 31st and Allegheny that wounded three Allegheny teenagers. The incident allegedly stemmed from a fight between Abbottsford and Allegheny kids over a girl at Roxborough High. Three Abbottsford youths—Karell Turner, Michael Greene and William Eades—were later arrested; jury selection in their trial began on Feb. 7, the same day Anderson was shot. On Feb. 15, Eades was found guilty of aggravated assault and conspiracy; Turner and Greene were found guilty of conspiracy but not guilty of aggravated assault. All three await sentencing on April 1. Speculation is that Anderson—who, poised for success, was a living manifestation of all of Abbottsford’s hopes and aspirations for a better life—may have been intentionally targeted as revenge, to inflict maximum pain and grief on the neighborhood.
Though they say they have no suspects in Anderson’s case, the Philadelphia Police Department has made it known that they’re looking for someone from the neighborhood around 32nd and Allegheny, just beyond the bridge on Henry Avenue that crosses over the train tracks; only a quarter-mile down the road from Abbottsford, the bridge marks the traditional boundary between rival hoods.
On Feb. 17, the night after Anderson’s funeral, Town Watch Integrated Services—the city agency that tries to bring communities and police together in the name of neighborhood safety, crime response, and crime prevention—hosts a meeting in the Abbottsford Community Center for residents to air their fears about Anderson’s death and the potential for escalating violence between Abbottsford and Allegheny kids.
About 70 concerned parents and seniors show up; Big Shawn and Anderson’s mother, Tyisha Mincey, are there, too. So are Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas Wright, 39th Police District Commanding Officer Capt. Stephen Glenn, Roxborough Principal Stephen Brandt, District Attorney’s Response Team Director Theresa Marley, and several members of Men United for a Better Philadelphia—former Philly gang members now working to stop gang violence. Not in attendance: Any Abbottsford teens. Anderson’s friends and peers. The ones TWIS Executive Director Anthony Murphy hoped to reach directly with his “Stop the Violence” message.
“I don’t want the young people [at Abbottsford] to feel that they gotta go retaliate against someone else,” Murphy tells the residents. “I don’t want things to go off at Roxborough High School and it comes back here. I don’t want things happening at 32nd and Allegheny, either. I need to know what it is [that’s going on], and then we can work to fix it.”
“We can all point fingers at someone but that’s not the answer—we gotta change the heart of man,” Wright says. A man sitting in the back rolls his eyes, another lets out a frustrated sigh. “We’ve got to find a better way to deal with each other regardless of the gang you’re in or what neighborhood you’re from,” Wright continues. “This violence is ridiculous.”
“After being at Shawnee’s funeral, and you see all the young people at his funeral, you look at their faces after seeing someone’s body laying there and you’d think they’d be spooked and that would be a wake-up call,” one resident says. “That wasn’t a wake-up call. That made these young guys ready to ride.”
Glenn implores anyone in the room who might have any information about Anderson’s death to get in touch with him. He walks around handing out his business card; some residents reluctantly take it. By the end of the 80-minute meeting, pledges of moral support and promises of more dialogue and community meetings—but little else—have been offered by city and school officials, few of whom linger to talk with the residents. The police brass say they’ll stick around as long as necessary to answer questions one-on-one and address people’s concerns; within moments they’re gone. Residents walk over to Big Shawn and Mincey to pay their respects, then shuffle out into the night.
Anderson’s cousin is old enough to remember the days when Abbottsford was wracked by drugs and crime, and the cycle of violence between organized Abbottsford and Allegheny gangs was a fact of life. “If something like this would have happened then, someone else from down there woulda been laying dead on the ground, too. It would have happened that night.” But that was more than 20 years ago—Abbottsford’s since turned into a safe, peaceful place, he says.
There are big plans for the future: a group home for boys, a college scholarship at Roxborough High in Shawnee's name, a citywide mentoring program, and a basketball league. But even in its beginning stages, S4S has already shown itself to be a promising tool in bringing youth together to help stem the city’s violence—without the preachy, off-putting approach the city often employs to little effect.
Anderson—the Roxborough High School senior and budding basketball star—was gunned down near his apartment in the Abbottsford Homes projects. Police now believe that Anderson’s death is related to at least two other high-profile shootings in the area.