ALTOONA, Pa. (WTAJ) — The number of homicides in Altoona this year raises some concerns for law enforcement and the community members they serve.
There have been four homicides in the city in the past nine months. That’s same number of murders over the previous four years combined, and all of them have been shootings over illegal substances.
On February 25th, 15 year old Devon Pfirsching was killed over several grams of marijuana and $100. Four teenagers are charged for his murder.
In late May, 28 year old Mikal Jackson Stevenson and 52 year old Natalie Washington were shot and killed in a home on Beale Avenue. Police arrested Isaiah Payne and Onya Lewis for their deaths and robbing the victims of drugs and money.
Just last week, on Monday, November 9th, police say 34 year old Vasilios Pentsas Jr. killed 28 year old Andrew Ozio after an argument over marijuana.
“Seven people charged with homicide in 2020 would be roughly as many people charged with murder or homicide from 2006 to 2019,” Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks said.
The victims of the fours murders in 2020 range in age, gender, and ethnicity, but their deaths have something in common.
“The common theme in the victims that we’ve seen in 2020 is that drugs are involved in each and every one of these homicides,” Weeks said.
During the pandemic, the State Attorney General’s office limited working with local police.
“Since the shutdowns imposed by the governor have been put in place, it has hampered law enforcement’s ability to aggressively investigate and arrest some of that drug trafficking,” Weeks said.
Altoona Police Sergeant Matthew Plummer said though his department is short-staffed, they made arrests quickly in all four cases.
“We do have the technology to track some of these things like social media apps and Snapchat, and we are short-handed at our department. However, we had guys working 24 hour shifts just to track down these suspects and make arrests,” he said.
Although the city is seeing an issue with heroin and methamphetamine, these homicides were over marijuana and cocaine.
Plummer said people are trying drugs at a younger age and getting their hands on guns.
“A lot of these homicides you’ve seen that it’s an argument over a couple hundred dollars worth of drugs, and then someone takes another person’s life over it,” he said.
Weeks said drug use and drug trafficking are responsible for the vast majority of crimes within Blair County, and when we recognize that and we hold drug traffickers accountable, it will make our community safer.
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