As they drove back toward their childhood homes in West Philadelphia, Jarell Jackson and Shahjahan McCaskill kept talking about the beach.

Friends since preschool, the 26-year-olds had just returned from a Caribbean vacation. Hang gliding. Jet skiing. A mountain hike, delayed by Jackson’s refusal to dust up his sneakers.

The trip was a last-minute idea as the weather chilled. Jackson and McCaskill were the only ones of their friends who could make it. It became a chance for them to take a break from lives they’d built that stretched far beyond their childhood neighborhood. Lives that were now helping to lift up others as well.

After tossing his luggage inside his mother’s house, Jackson offered to give McCaskill a ride home. As he readied to pull out of a spot at 57th and Locust Streets, a Black SUV cruised past — and pulled a sudden U-turn.

Within seconds, Jackson and McCaskill’s world exploded in gunfire and glass.

Jackson’s mother raced to the car. Keep breathing, she implored. Twenty minutes later at the hospital, they were pronounced dead.

Police say Jackson — a Jefferson health technician who mentored troubled teens — and McCaskill — a cancer survivor and small-business owner — were killed by three neighborhood teens who fired two dozen shots in a botched attempt to retaliate against members of a rival group over an earlier homicide.

Instead, the teens, ages 15 to 18, happened upon Jackson and McCaskill.

“We absolutely believe they had nothing to do with that conflict,” said Chesley Lightsey, homicide chief in the District Attorney’s Office. “They were targeted because of the neighborhood they live in. As a citizen of Philadelphia, I find this completely devastating.”

» READ MORE: In 8,500 shootings since 2015, suspects have been charged in 1 out of 5 cases

Rising violence

The October double homicide came amid a historic surge in Philadelphia’s chronic gun violence — a spike that has only worsened in 2021. Moreover, it reflected an escalation of the sort of gang-motivated shootings that are now being fueled by — and increasingly chronicled on — social media, especially Instagram.

In recent weeks, several new arrests have offered a window into that type of violence.

Beginning in late February, police arrested three teens who they believe fired the bullets that killed Jackson and McCaskill. And a 15-year-old has been charged for being the getaway driver.

Several of the teens had boasted on Instagram about their affiliation with the “Northsiders” — a loosely affiliated West Philadelphia street crew from the north side of Market Street. They disrespected their rivals, the “Southsiders.” And according to court documents, one of the shooters posted a celebratory picture — like the other posts, now deleted — from the getaway car about a half hour after the killings.

Their arrests came as the District Attorney’s Office unveiled a grand jury presentment against four West Philadelphia men charged in seven shootings over two years that left nine people wounded. The crimes — including firing a wayward shot that struck an 8-year-old boy in the mouth — occurred in the same neighborhood where Jackson and McCaskill were killed.

The suspects in those cases also boasted about their crimes on Instagram, prosecutors said. And the driving force of the bloodshed had been taunts and threats on social media between loosely-affiliated crews: Northside and Southside, but also Hilltop, Fixers, and others.

The cases captured just a glimpse of the unchecked violence that holds pockets of West Philadelphia in its grip. Of the 2,200 people shot in the city west of the Schuylkill since 2015, an Inquirer analysis of police data and court records shows suspected shooters have only been charged in about 450 of those incidents.

This void of justice echoes a trend The Inquirer found citywide: Just over 20% of the city’s 8,500 shootings since 2015 have led to charges, while gun violence has been on a troubling, years-long surge.

In West Philadelphia, that escalating pace is worse than the rest of the city. While shootings in other neighborhoods were up about 70% between 2015 and 2020, the number of people shot in West Philly last year — 567 — marks a 95% increase over the number of people shot there in 2015.

Already this year nearly 100 people have been shot in West Philly, ranging in age from 13 to 58. The victims have been killed or wounded on basketball courts, at rec centers, and on city streets.

Suspected shooters have only been charged in five of those incidents, The Inquirer found.

Jackson and McCaskill’s mothers said their sons had built successful lives for themselves, and tried to help others do the same.

“He knew that just because he grew up around here, he didn’t have to make that his life — his story,” said Jackson’s mother, Monique Jackson.

McCaskill’s mother, Najila McCaskill, said: “Those boys that pulled the trigger, they would’ve taken them under their wings and guided them.”

» READ MORE: Nearly 500 people were killed and 2,200 shot in Philadelphia in 2020, but overall violent crime stayed near decades-long lows

Old feuds, new pressure

Court documents in the case provide an unsettling glimpse into the online feuds that are claiming the lives of young people in the city.

In the hours before Jackson and McCaskill were killed, the documents say, the alleged shooters — Kaseem Bullock, 17, Sleaheim Sutton, 18, and Andre Bowie, 17 — posted online about their affiliation with Northside.

Members of that group, centered on 62nd and Market Streets, have been in a violent conflict with Southside for decades, said Capt. Matthew Gillespie, commanding officer of the 18th District in West Philadelphia. Since 2015, he said, his officers have connected 10 killings, and at least a dozen more shootings, to the fighting between the groups.

“The reasons for the homicides are as immature as the ages of the kids involved,” Gillespie said. “Younger members don’t know the origins of original beefs. We talk to them and let them know there’s other options.”

Feuds and slights once reserved for the street corner are now playing out almost in real-time in self-made music videos and social media posts — creating an immediate, permanent, public challenge to act.

“You hear these types of [insults] in your respective neighborhood, but now it’s just visible to the world,” said Chance Lee, director of intelligence at the District Attorney’s Office. “It’s recognition — the more people that have seen this, the more people that have viewed that I’ve done this, it’s better for me and my group credibility in the neighborhood.”

In neighborhoods like West Philadelphia, where young people of color have long felt isolated by society — denied resources and opportunity and targeted by aggressive policing — that pressure can feel more “like pressure to survive,” advocates say.

» READ MORE: Demand accountability on gun violence where the people in power can’t ignore you | Helen Ubiñas

“You got kids forced to make decisions, and they don’t feel like they have the police to protect them, so they protect themselves,” said Joshua Glenn, co-director of Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, an organization that works with young people under 18 who are being tried as adults.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E Church, said to fully understand how these online feuds escalate to violence, you have to understand the legacy of decades of injustice.

“What we’re seeing is what despair looks like, what hopelessness looks like,” he said. “And that’s what rage is — hopelessness and despair turned outward on other people.”

Rage can quickly turn deadly in a city awash in guns.

The three alleged shooters of Jackson and McCaskill had each been arrested as minors for carrying firearms, according to police records.

Attorneys representing the teens in the murders declined to comment.

After a 2018 gun arrest, when he was 15, Bullock was placed under electronic supervision, the records show. He was placed in a program where probation officers intensely monitor young people likely to become repeat offenders.

» READ MORE: Philly’s gun violence has hit startling levels: ‘This is a real pandemic in itself’

Bullock’s father, Paul Bullock, said in a brief telephone interview that his son had been struggling with his mental health, but he did not want to comment further.

Sutton had also been under electronic supervision for a time, the records show. His supervision ended two weeks before Jackson and McCaskill were slain.

Bowie — arrested twice on firearm charges in 2020 — absconded from St. Gabriel’s Hall, a residential care home for troubled youth in Audubon, just two weeks before the killings. He turned himself in after the murders.

‘Give them little keys’

Jackson and McCaskill were like brothers, their families said. Inseparable. See one, see the other. They never judged those that chose the corner lifestyles they avoided. They just wanted a different way.

After graduating from Bloomsburg University with a psychology degree in 2017, Jackson got a job as a mental health technician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Camden. He was assigned to the adolescent psychiatric ward, counseling young people battling depression and homicidal and suicidal thoughts.

Outgoing and upbeat, he made his motto his favorite Tupac quote — the same one he had scrawled across his graduation cap: Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

“That was his thing, that no matter your background — how rough and uneven and lopsided it could be — you could still grow from it,” said Jackson’s shift partner, Justin Wilkins, 25. “His key goal was to give them little keys and coping skills and positive affirmations — to let them know the storm doesn’t last forever. He was the definition of a true genuine person.”

Jackson had requested paperwork from a tuition assistance program at the hospital so he could begin the process of starting his master’s degree and saving for a house. He didn’t want to leave his neighborhood. He felt safe. He wanted to help.

“He told me there was nowhere else he would rather live,” said his coworker Janae Felton. “He was adamant about staying there.”

» READ MORE: What do you know about the Philadelphians killed by guns in 2020? At least know their names. | Helen Ubiñas

McCaskill had studied finance at Wayne State University in Michigan for three years, when he felt a lump in his neck in 2017. Cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

After grueling treatments, he came home to West Philly to recover, and in time doctors told him his cancer had gone into remission.

He waited tables at TGIFriday’s and took night classes at Villanova. Soon, he started a commercial cleaning business, where he often hired younger people who needed a leg up.

He channeled his creativity into soulful rap songs he recorded under the name Shah Slater, and into Facebook posts on Black history and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“He was at a point in his life where he was happy and making moves and excited to see what the future held,” said his friend Hannah Bachir.

He lamented the violence tearing at his neighborhood.

“Pray for my city,” he had posted, just days before his death.

The night he and Jackson were killed, police say the teens fired round after round directly into the car — 24 shots in all.

Family members untucked Jackson’s tall frame from the driver’s seat, and loaded him into the back of a cop car that sped him to the hospital.

A neighbor drove McCaskill in the back of his truck.

When their mothers reached the emergency room, doctors told them the unimaginable: They had lost both of them.

Jackson said she wakes up every morning to the memory of her son and his best friend shot and bleeding.

McCaskill said her son and his friend still had so much they wanted to accomplish.

“I feel sometimes,” she said, “like he is going to walk in the door.”

Staff writer Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.