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Bullying, then a drive-by shooting: Family says middle-school taunts went too far

For months, Pottstown Middle School student Jasmin Samba, 13, was relentlessly bullied, police say. Then, things escalated to gun violence.

Thirteen-year-old Jasmin Samba, left, and her mother, Marie Samba, sit in the office of their attorneys, Thomas Kenny and Eileen Burns, in Philadelphia.
Thirteen-year-old Jasmin Samba, left, and her mother, Marie Samba, sit in the office of their attorneys, Thomas Kenny and Eileen Burns, in Philadelphia.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

A threat — one of many 13-year-old Jasmin Samba had received amid persistent bullying at school — spread across the screen of her cell phone, her mother said: It warned she would be carried out in a body bag.

Twenty-five minutes later, a volley of gunshots tore through her house in a quiet Pottstown neighborhood, ripping through siding, glass, and concrete and narrowly missing nine members of the Samba family: Jasmin, her parents, her four siblings, and two relatives visiting from Philadelphia.

“Bullets just kept flying,” said Marie Samba, Jasmin’s mother, recounting the shooting at her home on a recent spring day. “It was just ricocheting off everything.”

Nine days after the late-March gunfire, two men were charged with nine counts of attempted murder in what authorities said was the violent climax of months of escalating bullying. Police say Ahnile Fountain and Makael Bevins, both 19 and of Pottstown, fired the shots that left the Samba family fearful for their safety.

Bevins is the older brother of one of the girls who bullied Jasmin at Pottstown Middle School, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest. He and Fountain are known members of BgB, a gang that extends from Pottstown to Norristown, investigators said.

The shooting shook the ordinarily tranquil neighborhood and unnerved a school community.

“There is a lot of concern right now about the gun violence that took place over the weekend which stems from an ongoing issue between a group of eighth-grade students,” Pottstown School Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez said after the incident. He said school officials were working with police and had added extra security at the school during arrival and dismissal times.

The Sambas fault the school district, saying it allowed abusive behavior to continue until it spiraled past the limits of control.

The bullying started with girls throwing food at Jasmin in the school cafeteria and mocking her clothing choices, her mother said. It progressed to physical fights, she said. Then it continued outside of school as several girls went to the family’s house and yelled taunts at Jasmin and her family and tried to provoke a fight, she said.

“I told the principal at the school, you know, ‘This is ridiculous,' " said Samba, who moved to Pottstown from the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia six months ago for her husband’s job as an electrician. “I’m hurt that you put my daughter’s life at risk. I’ve been in this school multiple times telling you: ‘Can you get these kids? Can you stop these kids?’ ”

The family’s lawyer, Thomas Kenny, said he believed the shooting was preventable. “We feel if the school had done something early on, maybe had some mediation, consultation, had professionals come in who could come in and slow this down, it never would have happened," he said.

District officials insisted they had taken steps to protect students from bullying at school.

“We take this to be a very serious incident,” Pottstown school district spokesperson John Armato said of the shooting. Citing confidentiality rules, he declined to say whether there had been any discipline in connection with the bullying that law enforcement officials say led to the incident.

But he said the abusive behavior was not one-sided. “Kids have reason to feel threatened on both sides," he said. “We have victims on both sides.”

Kenny said Jasmin once fought back when physically attacked and was given in-school suspension.

By numerous accounts, the bullying began at school and eventually spilled beyond the campus and continued past school hours in recent months.

“It’s been nothing but bullying with her daughter,” said a neighbor, Natasha Tinson, 51, who recalled seeing groups of girls repeatedly enter the Sambas’ property through their backyard and knock on the door to invite a fight with Jasmin.

In fact, Tinson said, they had been there on the day of the shooting last month.

On March 24, neighbors called Pottstown police to report a fight between three middle-school girls and five members of the Samba family, including Jasmin, in the street in front of the Sambas’ home on West Street around 7:30 p.m. As police broke up the fight around 8 p.m., one of the girls — identified only by her initials in court documents — said Marie Samba’s husband, James Burnett, had hit her. She then immediately called her mother and video-chatted with her brother, Bevins, on Instagram, investigators found.

Less than 30 minutes later, when one of the children in the Samba home flipped on the light in the family room, authorities said, nearly two dozen gunshots sprayed through the front of the house. It appeared, investigators said, that the shooter used a fully loaded .40 semiautomatic firearm in the attack.

Neighbors recalled seeing an unfamiliar white Subaru station wagon that stalled in the neighborhood before speeding off in the dark immediately after the last bullet was fired.

In the days after the shooting, Pottstown police reviewed phone records. They traced Bevins’ and Fountain’s cell phones and placed them in the area of the Samba home at the time of the shooting.

Two weeks later, echoes of the shooting remain. The Samba family’s home is still in disrepair, with unsealed bullet holes in windows, walls, and ceilings.

Bevins and Fountain are each being held on $500,000 cash bail, said Kenny, the Sambas’ lawyer, sitting in a conference room at his Center City law firm on a recent day with Jasmin and her parents.

“We feel like justice is done,” Marie Samba said. “It’s a peace of mind they’re off the streets.”