As shootings and car thefts rise at Philly gas stations, victims and grieving families file lawsuits | Media Pyro

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Just after 9:30 a.m. on March 22, Rasheen Naseeb Robinson pulled his car into a Liberty gas station in East Kensington and parked at its convenience store. As Robinson, 22, returned to his car, a gunman shot him five times, including once in the head. He died minutes later.

On August 14, 2021, around 5 p.m., Alexander Vincent Ott, 29, stopped at the Gulf station in Wynfield, a leafy neighborhood within the city’s western border. Ott wanted to gas up before completing the half-hour drive to his girlfriend’s house in the northeast section of the city, his mother said. But as Ott stood at the pump, a gunman shot him multiple times in the back, killing him instantly.

The unsolved murders of Robinson and Ott are one of nine homicides at Philadelphia gas stations in 2021 and so far this year. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, such murders rose from zero, police said.

The killings are a small fraction of the citywide homicide total — a record 562 homicides in 2021, off that pace so far in 2022. Talk about the universality of the problem: For motorists, all roads lead to gas stations.

“It’s happening in the Far Northeast, it’s happening in Roxborough, it’s happening in North Philadelphia, it’s happening in Center City,” said Inspector Charles Layton, who oversees the homicide, major crimes and special victims units. “I don’t think it’s going to change anything if you go outside the city, because they also have increased carjacking.”

While gas station owners say the rise is a manifestation of Philadelphia’s broader gun-violence problem, the trend has caused many people who have been injured or lost loved ones to file negligence lawsuits. They say gas stations should have done more to protect patrons.

“I don’t think the public is aware of it because they might think that shootings usually happen in bars or nightclubs, certainly not at gas stations,” said attorney David P. Thiruselvam said. “But it’s becoming an epidemic, and the gas station industry knows about it because it’s in the news all the time. But they don’t do anything about it. “

As the search for answers continues, bereaved people grieve. “It took my soul,” Corliss Jackson says, explaining how her son Robinson’s murder changed her life. “I am alive. I breathe, but inside I am empty.

Other violent crimes at gas stations also spiked, according to police data. Car thefts have more than quadrupled, to 30 so far this year, from seven last year. There was none between 2018 and 2020.

There were 69 armed robberies at the stations, up from 65 last year.

Non-fatal shootings at gas stations have also increased, with 17 victims so far this year and last year. From 2018 to 2020, the city averaged just one per year.

Temple University criminal justice professor Jerry Ratcliffe said the increase in gun crime in general, particularly at gas stations, is driven in part by the fact that there are more legal guns on the streets, which has increased during pandemic shutdowns. .

And, he said, there are more illegal guns because those who aren’t allowed to legally own them do so out of fear of an increase in crime. At the same time, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner doubted that arresting and prosecuting gun possession cases would lead to a reduction in violence, so they may be less afraid of arrests.

» Read more: Rising tide of stolen guns fuels Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic

Technological advances in car security systems make it harder for thieves to steal parked and unattended cars, he said. “That’s where gas stations come in,” Ratcliffe said. “The victim is there. The car is there. There’s the key.”

Police are trying to find out what is behind the conflict. What they know so far: It’s not isolated to any particular neighborhood. In the meantime, they advise motorists to use caution when driving into a station lot. People walking around the pumps should be careful.

“If you want to carjack someone, it’s a lot easier to get someone getting gas, standing outside their car with their wallet and keys in hand,” Layton said, “than it is to get someone out of their car. At a red light or stop sign.

After the gunman killed her son, Corliss Jackson said she got few answers. The homicide detectives had told her little about the investigation into his murder, and the language barrier prevented her from learning more from the owner of the station. She said she knew no reason why someone would shoot her son. Since the killer didn’t take her purse, she doesn’t believe robbery was the motive.

“It was broad daylight. He was not a street kid,” she said. A budding actor who has appeared in several locally produced dramas and web movies, Robinson made a living delivering for DoorDash and Instacart.

Ott’s mother, Stephanie Auslaty, said she, too, is in the dark. Detectives she spoke to shortly after he was killed did not return her calls, she said. “It’s like they don’t care.”

Homicide Capt. Jason Smith did not respond to several calls seeking comment.

Ott stood 6-foot-5 and worked in a produce warehouse. His mother said he had no enemies and did not know anyone in the area where he was killed. His wallet was also in his pocket when the police found him.

“Every day is tough,” Ouslaty said. “Some days I just don’t want to be here.”

And those who survived the shooting are struggling to move on. Among them is Joel Frazier, 26, a chef and single from the city’s Mayfair community.

On August 1 last year, he stopped at an express fuel station near his home to withdraw money from an ATM. A man chased him from the station and robbed him at gunpoint a block away. The man forced Frazier to walk back to the gas station and demanded more cash. Instead, Frazier says, he tried to apprehend and disarm the gunman. He was shot in the right leg with a femur injury.

“I guess it’s fight or flight. I was so nervous,” Frazier said. “I believed him the way he said he was going to kill me and the way he looked at me.” After police captured the suspect days later, Frazier identified him in a photo lineup.

Although Philadelphia has no laws regarding gas station security, other communities have recently approved ordinances in response to violence there. Stations in Oak Park, a nearby Chicago suburb bisected by the busy Eisenhower Expressway, can no longer be open 24 hours, while stations in DeKalb County, outside Atlanta, must have security cameras on at all times.

Asked if the City Council was developing any legislation to address the problem, a spokeswoman for Council President Darrell Clark said that while the City Council recently approved record spending for anti-violence initiatives, none specifically aimed at increasing gas station security.

Jeff Leonard, vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 148,000 retailers and gas stations in the United States and abroad, said most stations follow industry standards to reduce the impact of gun violence. Employees should not resist robbers’ demands for money and keep cash in drop safes in a timely manner.

Still, gas stations can only do so much in the face of a strained economy with the aftermath of the pandemic — an era in which, he said, “people have forgotten how to be human.”

“Crime is rampant in communities and gas stations are in every community,” he said. “If there’s crime in a community, that’s something you’re going to see in the stores that serve those communities.”

Frazier said he is nervous about testifying at the February trial of Rashad Hagrey, 20, who is in prison for shooting him, but he still plans to do so. He has also filed a case against the owners of the building and petrol pump where he was shot.

The suit, filed in state court this summer, alleges negligence by the defendants for not having a security guard on duty and failing to take precautions to prevent dangerous people from loitering.

“They know about the problems going on there. “People don’t really respect them,” Frazier said. “You go there and there’s a bunch of people playing music and smoking weed.”

» Read more: Wounded city: A weekend of gun violence in Philadelphia reveals brutal normalcy trauma

Lawyers for Express Fuel and the owners filed preliminary objections in court, denying all the allegations.

Robinson’s mother, Jackson, and Ott’s mother, Ouslaty, said they plan to sue the owners of the stations where their children were killed.

Liability cases against gas stations are easier to prove when defendants’ safety measures are woefully inadequate, said Michael Brevda with the Senior Justice Law Firm in Boca Raton, Fla. Under Pennsylvania law, businesses that fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent direct injury are liable for any damages caused.

Nightclubs and bars hire private security, sometimes armed off-duty police, said Brevda, who has an office in Pittsburgh, “but you don’t see that much at gas stations.”

» Read more: Intersections of injustice: There are 57 city blocks where 10 or more people have been shot dead since 2015.

Lighting at all petrol pumps needs to be upgraded to eliminate hiding places, he said. He added that stations should have visible and clear on-site cameras.

Jackson learned that another man had been killed at Liberty Station, where his son had been shot. Ouslati, who is waiting and praying for investigators to find her son’s killer, learned that another person was killed at the same Gulf Station in 2014 under the previous ownership.

“You would never think it was your child,” she said. “You’d never think it would happen at a gas station.”

Acknowledgment
The Inquirer’s journalism is supported in part by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and readers like you. News and editorial content is created independently of the Inquirer’s contributors. Gifts to support The Inquirer’s high-impact journalism can be made here inquirer.com/donate. A list of Lenfest Institute donors can be found here lenfestinstitute.org/supporters.

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