Three teenage students were ambushed and shot on Wednesday while leaving Brashear High School, sparking a scene of chaos and anxiety in Beechview minutes after an otherwise normal school day.
Pittsburgh police arrested former Brashear student Anjohnito “A.J.” Willet, 16, and charged him with four counts of attempted homicide and aggravated assault, and a weapons violation.
Willet was arraigned at 5 a.m. Thursday and held on $500,000 bond, according to online court records.
Lt. Kevin Kraus said Willet was the victim of a drug-related assault on Oct. 18 and “made remarks that he would take matters into his own account.”
“He intended to go to that area, specifically to target these individuals,” Kraus said.
Officials identified the victims as Dajour Jones, 15; Andrew Umphrey, 17; and Robert Eugene Minor III, 17. Umphrey and Minor, both juniors, were treated at UPMC Mercy; Jones, a freshman, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital. All are expected to recover.
“It was like pop, pop, pop, pop,” said Sydney Lieb, 17, a junior at Brashear. “Then everybody started running up (Crane Avenue).”
She said she saw a teenager bleeding from a wound to his head. He did not know he was hurt.
“He said, ‘Who got shot?’ And I said, ‘You did! You’re bleeding,’ ” Lieb said. “A teacher held him down on the ground. They were holding his head and making sure he was OK.”
The shooting occurred about 2:50 p.m. Police immediately flooded Crane Avenue and neighborhoods around the school as they searched for the shooter. With roads closed or clogged with police vehicles, many panicked parents tried but could not reach their kids.
Just after 4 p.m., Pittsburgh SWAT officers surrounded a duplex in the 1500 block of Rockland Avenue. With guns trained on the house, SWAT members called for Willet to exit the home. Police took six people and a young child from the duplex to police headquarters in the North Side for questioning, Kraus said. No one else was charged, but Kraus said the investigation continues.
Students said a normal school day quickly turned to terror when several gunshots rang out. Cody Muller, 18, a senior, said he saw a blood-soaked victim walking around.
“He looked, I don’t know, not dizzy, but kind of stumbling and confused,” Muller said. “The kids standing there got him to sit down on the pavement and asked him a bunch of questions.”
He helped a gym teacher apply pressure to the wound, he said.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why? What happened? Is this guy going to make it?’ ” Muller said. “We were all still looking around. We didn’t know if the shooter was still there.”
As a state police helicopter hovered overhead and K-9 units searched nearby woods, school officials locked down three schools, including Beechwood Elementary School.
Maureen Franciscus, 45, of Beechview waited outside in her car, unable to retrieve her fourth-grade daughter.
“To have the helicopters and all the police — I got scared because I thought, ‘Is that my daughter’s school?’ ” Franciscus said.
When she got to the school, neighbors shouted at people to run inside and lock their doors, Franciscus said.
Patty Losekamp had her daughter, a sixth-grader, and son, a junior at Brashear, home from school on Wednesday.
“My greatest fear has always been I would turn on the news one day and hear there was a shooting at my kids’ school,” Losekamp said. “I am very traumatized. I don’t know when I’ll let them go back.”
Both Brashear and adjacent South Hills Middle School will open on Thursday on modified lockdown status, said Superintendent Linda Lane. Only students, staff and visitors with a scheduled appointment will be allowed entry.
“We are taking this matter seriously and focusing on the safety of our students. Our thoughts go out to the families of the victims,” Lane said in a statement.
Shortly after the shooting, the father of victim Robert Eugene Minor III waited with family outside UPMC Mercy. He said his son was shot in the neck.
“I’m still in the dark,” said Robert Minor, 37. “I just know they were leaving the building to go to their car.”
He said his son was talking and that he is good friends with the other victims.
“He’s a good kid,” Minor said. “He’s a gentle, big guy.”
Kraus said the victims were involved in the Oct. 18 attack on Willet but did not say how.
“It is believed that the motive of the assault on Willet was robbery and it was drug related,” city police spokeswoman Diane Richard said. “Willet failed to prosecute the individuals involved. According to (school) officials, Willet has not returned to school since the assault.”
Police recovered a handgun but do not know if it was the gun used in the attack. Kraus said a juvenile accompanied Willet but is not facing charges “at this time.”
The shooting occurred off school property, while the victims walked near Crane and Lowenhill avenues.
Whether it happened on school property or not, students will be affected, said Amy Klinger, director of programs for the Educator School Safety Network and assistant professor of educational administration at Ohio’s Ashland University.
“This is not a textbook, rampage sort of high-profile shooting. It’s not a Sandy Hook or a Virginia Tech, but it still impacts a number of students,” she said. “No school is immune from this type of shooting, stabbing or violent intruder.
“In these unstructured times, you need response procedures that work before and after school that give teachers and students a way to react in any setting, in or outside the building,” she said.
The Rockland Avenue duplex, about a mile from the high school, is owned by Kathy Kruger. Her husband, Carl Samples, 57, of Mt. Lebanon, said Kruger rents out the property and that A.J. Willet lives there with his father, John Willet, 37.
“From my experience, John is a good guy, (but) my relationship with him is minimal,” Samples said.
Neighbors said they believe residents in the home deal drugs. One neighbor said she went inside the house once and smelled a strong odor of marijuana.
Julian Leiber, 19, of Beechview, a 2012 Brashear graduate, said he knows Willet as a local rap artist.
“They were pretty good,” he said. “I don’t think they’d mess anything up for themselves, not like this. … When I heard about the shooting and saw my boy A.J. in cuffs on TV, I was like, ‘For real?’ ”
Police cleared the area and reopened streets after 5 p.m.
Trib Total Media staff writers Tory N. Parrish, Adam Brandolph, Debra Erdley, Megan Harris and Michael Hasch contributed to this report. Chris Togneri, Margaret Harding and Adam Smeltz are staff writer for Trib Total Media. Togneri can be reached at 412-380-5632 or email@example.com. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or email@example.com.