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Family believes Jamaican immigrant’s death in rural Pa. was a ‘modern-day lynching’

Family members of Peter Bernardo Spencer say the man who shot him 9 times may be claiming self-defense.

Peter Spencer was shot and killed while on a trip with a group of white men in rural Pennsylvania.
Peter Spencer was shot and killed while on a trip with a group of white men in rural Pennsylvania.Read moreProvided

A Jamaican immigrant was shot to death at a rural Pennsylvania cabin last month in an incident his family is describing as a “modern-day lynching.”

Peter Bernardo Spencer, 29, of Pittsburgh, accepted an invitation from a former coworker to hang out at a cabin in Rockland Township, Venango County, some 85 miles northeast of the city, on Dec. 11, his family said. The former coworker is white, as were two other men and a woman in the home. Spencer didn’t know the others.

“Peter was an outdoorsman from Jamaica,” said Paul Jubas, a civil rights attorney from Pittsburgh who is advising the family. “He loved being outside in nature.”

Pennsylvania State Police were called to the home on Carls Road just before 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 12 and found Spencer dead on the front lawn with multiple gunshot wounds. A suspect, 25, and three other people at the home were detained and questioned, police said in a news release, but all four were released after consultation with the Venango County District Attorney’s Office. Police said they found multiple firearms, “ballistic evidence,” and controlled substances at the home. But after six weeks, no one has been charged with a crime. Those working with Spencer’s family are asking other law enforcement agencies to get involved.

The Venango County DA’s Office did not return multiple requests for comment. Investigators are still waiting on the results of a toxicology report and, in a news release, State Police urged the public to “remain patient.”

According to William Anderson, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Black Caucus, and Spencer’s family, the former coworker admitted to being the shooter and was claiming self-defense. That man could not be reached for comment, however, and recently disabled his social media accounts. Police made no mention of anyone being treated for injuries at the time.

The Venango County coroner found that Spencer had been shot nine times. Well-known pathologist Cyril Wecht, who is advising the family, studied the autopsy and believes many of the bullets entered Spencer’s body from behind.

“My initial thought is that it’s absurd to talk about self-defense with nine gunshot wounds,” Wecht told The Inquirer.

Jubas released autopsy photos of Spencer on his social media accounts at the family’s request.

The State Police’s Heritage Affairs team, which aims to prevent and respond to hate or bias-related crimes, was notified of Spencer’s death. Cpl. Aaron Allen, of the team’s Western office, said he has been in touch with Spencer’s family and his role is to mitigate tensions within the community. Allen said Spencer’s death is currently not being investigated as a hate crime.

“How can this happen in America?” said Anderson. “Black lives are supposed to matter.”

Multiple GoFundMe accounts were set up after Spencer’s death, including one by a sibling and another by his pregnant fiancee, Carmela King.

“He was slaughtered and killed in what I consider an act of modern-day lynching,” a sibling wrote on one GoFundMe page.

Conrad Spencer, Peter’s father, referred all comments to Anderson and Jubas, but the family has spoken to Jamaican media about the case. Spencer, who was born and raised in Kingston, moved to the United States when he was 16 and then returned again in 2013, to live with family in Pennsylvania. His parents said he worked in construction and dreamed of opening a restaurant.

“My son was not perfect, but he did not like anyone around him who did not work,” Spencer’s mother told the Gleaner, one of Jamaica’s largest newspapers. “He worked hard, and he was always encouraging others, motivating them to do better.”

Anderson said he’s reached out to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the U.S. Department of Justice, urging them to look at the case. A spokesperson for Shapiro’s office said the AG would need an official request from Venango County to get involved.

“We’re trying to put faith in our law enforcement officers and that our lobbying will move mountains,” Anderson said.

He said Spencer had no ties to Venango County, aside from his love of being in the woods. Venango, with a population of 49,602, is one of Pennsylvania’s most rural counties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 1.1% of the population is Black.