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Teens and guns: Yesterday's muggings, today's murders

The ability of young teens to obtain guns has handed the power to kill to those with the least maturity and training to make that decision.

Members of Heeding God's Call, which seeks to end gun violence, marching toward a rally in May 2015 at the site where James Stuhlman was slain.
Members of Heeding God's Call, which seeks to end gun violence, marching toward a rally in May 2015 at the site where James Stuhlman was slain.Read moreClem Murray / Staff Photographer

In a Philadelphia courtroom Sept. 19, Theresa Stuhlman faced down one of her husband's three killers.

"It is so very hard to believe," she said at the sentencing hearing, "that the three individuals that are responsible for Jim's death were 14 and 15 years old at the time, which is the same age as my daughter is now."

James Stuhlman, 51, a businessman, husband, and father, had been out walking his dog in Overbrook Park on the night of March 12, 2015, when the three teens accosted him, roughed him up, and took his money.

Once, this would have been a mugging, an unfortunate reality of urban living. Instead, it was a murder.

The difference was a gun — wielded by a 15-year-old who got it from a 14-year-old.

As the national gun-control debate continues apace, the reality on the streets of Philadelphia and other cities is that easy access to firearms has transformed what once was called "petty crime."

Muggings become murders, and teens too young to drive get sentences from 30 years to life; arguments among hot-headed young men end in shootings and prison instead of a fistfight and blackened eyes. Families of victims and shooters are left to resume lives forever changed.

In the last two years alone, Philadelphia Police have averaged 100 juvenile arrests for gun possession. And of 200 juveniles charged as adults, 85 percent used a gun in the crime.

Deputy District Attorney Angel L. Flores, who heads the city prosecutor's Juvenile Division, said the number of juveniles charged with using a gun in a crime has tapered off from its high in the late '90s and early 2000s. But that might be a result of a law 20 years ago that enabled prosecutors to charge as adults any juveniles accused of a serious crime, he said.

The ability of young teens to obtain guns has handed the power to kill to those with the least maturity and training to make that decision.

"I think it's a big problem," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, the statewide gun-violence prevention group based in Philadelphia. "They all know where to get guns and how to get them and the houses where guns are kept. Where the guns came from originally is hard to know."

Goodman said it's impossible to estimate how many illegal guns are floating in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania communities.

"A 14-year-old with a firearm … I'd be more afraid of that than a 30-year-old or a 35-year-old with a gun," said Flores.

"A young person in possession of a gun, they're not thinking of the consequences as somebody else might. They're much more spontaneous in their actions," he added.

Flores said neurological research shows that human brains continue growing and maturing into a person's 20s. That was the same neuroscience accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2012 decision that barred giving a juvenile a mandatory sentence of life without parole for murder as a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Caroline Keating McGlynn, chief of the Gun Violence Task Force in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said research shows that children who witness gun violence can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, making them more likely to carry and use guns.

"They're in an environment where they're quicker to pull the trigger," said McGlynn.

The murder of James Stuhlman is not an isolated case. In fact, two 16-year-olds allegedly wielded the guns in three notorious killings in recent weeks:

  1. On the evening of Oct. 24, bullets fatally struck both Caleer Miller Jr., 16, of Point Breeze,  a junior at Mastery Charter Thomas Campus, and Salvatore DiNubile, 16, of South Philadelphia, a junior at St. Joseph's Preparatory School. Brandon Olivieri, 16, of South Philadelphia, a student at SS John Neumann and Maria Goretti High School, turned himself in days after the shooting and was charged with two counts of murder. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27.

  2. On Sept. 7, Gerard Grandzol, a community activist in Spring Garden, was parking his car near his home when two young males demanded his wallet and car keys. Grandzol, 38, turned them over and asked to get his daughter, 2, out of the car. Instead, he was fatally shot in the head. Marvin Roberts, 16, the alleged shooter, and his brother Maurice Roberts, 21, who allegedly provided the gun, fled with Grandzol's wallet containing $60. The brothers are awaiting trial for murder.

Fistfights become murders

"Something that when we were younger, maybe a pushing-shoving match or maybe a fistfight, can so easily and so quickly turn into a murder," said Brian Zarallo, 45, a prosecutor for 20 years, much of it in homicide in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

It shouldn't be a surprise in a city where adults shoot each other with depressing regularity – often with illegal firearms – that children aren't immune to the lure of the gun.

Guns are also cheap. Flores said teens can buy them from people on the street for as little as $50, or trade drugs for the weapon. And if the gun is known to have been used in a murder, the buyer can usually bargain down the price even more.

"It is extremely easy to get a firearm," said Flores. "They're transferred routinely, and if someone does something pretty serious and heinous, they're smart enough to get rid of the gun and keep it in transit but move it on to somebody else."

Zarallo said the street market in illegal guns is so efficient that police and prosecutors rarely encounter a homicide after which the gun is recovered.

"If there's a gun recovered in one of every 30 homicides, that's a lot," Zarallo said. "When we recover a gun, that's a big deal."

McGlynn, of the DA's Gun Violence Task Force, said that since the task force was created in 2006 it has recovered 2,386 illegal guns, including 98 so far this year. The task force also initiated 444 investigations of illegal gun transfers in the city.

When a gun is recovered, said McGlynn, investigators look at ballistic evidence — bullets and fired bullet casings — from other crime scenes to trace the gun's travels.

The Philadelphia record, McGlynn said, is held by a gun linked in 2008 to 14 shootings over an 18-month period in South Philadelphia street-gang warfare.

"All of those incidents reflected that ongoing drama between the two groups," McGlynn said, "and that the gun was being passed around and used routinely by one group."

A culture of guns

Easy access to firearms is just one aspect of the problem of teen gun violence. In Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods, officials say, the ability to get a gun is exacerbated by what they call a "gun culture."

"There is a huge, unfortunate culture of that it's really cool to have a gun, to handle a gun, and display pictures with guns," McGlynn added.

Flores called it "a way of life for a young kid, it's kind of a badge of honor. And that's what we're always fighting against."

Even juveniles who don't actively seek a gun sometimes have guns thrust upon them.

What McGlynn calls "more seasoned perpetrators," older and with a criminal record, will ask a young teen to hold their gun because the teen likely will face less severe consequences if caught.

"There are a lot of dynamics that make juveniles particularly susceptible to gun possession," McGlynn said.

McGlynn said her office is working with Mayor Kenney's Office of Violence Prevention, created in July to coordinate about $60 million worth of anti-violence programs among city agencies.

In October, the city ended a two-month experimental program targeting at-risk youth in the 12th and 18th Police Districts in Southwest Philadelphia, neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. The program included billboards in the neighborhood featuring photos of anguished relatives of shooting victims, or a father greeting his daughter in a prison visiting room. The message: "You shoot. Now what?"

George D. Mosee, Jr., executive director of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, said the billboard campaign was supplemented by six to 10 paid teen canvassers from the neighborhoods. They agreed to talk to other teens and distribute pamphlets outlining drug and alcohol treatment, job training and education, and other social services to help interested teens and young men "get out of the game."

For teens who do shoot, or who are accomplices to a shooting, the judicial system is unforgiving.

On Sept. 19, Brandon Smith – four days shy of his 18th birthday — was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for his role in the murder of James Stuhlman.

‘A good kid from a bad neighborhood’

Smith didn't shoot Stuhlman. That was 15-year-old Tyfine "Tavon" Hamilton, who pleaded guilty last year to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 to 80 years in prison.

Smith, according to attorney Joshua Scarpello, did not plead guilty because he couldn't understand why he was charged with murder when he didn't fire a shot.

As a conspirator, Smith was equally liable for Stuhlman's slaying. He went to trial and a jury found him guilty of the more serious charge of second-degree or felony murder.

Smith, now 18, apologized to the Stuhlman family: "What happened that night is nothing that I ever meant to happen or anything that I wanted to happen. Being the person that I am, I didn't open my mouth and I feel as though that is why the way things went."

That, of course, was little comfort to Stuhlman's widow, Theresa, who told Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi, "Nothing will ever change the fact that my beloved husband of 19 years met a violent end to his life a few blocks from our home on an ordinary Thursday while performing the most mundane task of walking our family dog."

Smith's biological mother, Deborah Anne Whiteside-Smith, also apologized to Theresa Stuhlman.

A mother of seven children, Whiteside-Smith said she allowed Brandon to be raised by a friend because she was "working a lot of overtime as a certified nurse's aide and a medical assistant."

"Brandon is a good kid from a bad neighborhood," said Whiteside-Smith, who bemoaned "the older people in the neighborhood … who choose to sell weapons to children."

Judge DeFino-Nastasi was having none of it. She told Smith and his family that he got good grades in school and yet he was the one who suggested the robbery and the need to look for a "weak" victim.

"That is what you all did," the judge told Smith. "Don't pretend you didn't do what you did. You put that on a course, your behavior, for catastrophe — and catastrophe happened. Do not act surprised by that."

"Society is not to blame, you are to blame," DeFino-Nastasi added.

The case against Smith and Hamilton's 14-year-old accomplice, Alston Zou-Rutherford, who prosecutors said came up with the gun, was handled in juvenile court.

Zou-Rutherford, who called himself Smith's brother and testified at Smith's trial, was not charged with murder; he pleaded guilty to robbery and conspiracy and will remain in a juvenile facility until he is 21.

As for the gun that killed Stuhlman, Zarallo said Zou-Rutherford told investigators he got it from "some guy on the street."

The gun was never recovered.