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Ohio city on the mend is shaken by church killing

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[February 05, 2010]  YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (AP) -- In a hard-luck city trying to keep people from moving out, Angeline Fimognari stayed put, often attending Mass twice daily at her beloved "St. Dom's" -- almost a mini-fortress with a 6-foot locked fence and 23 security cameras.

The last to leave services one recent Saturday morning, the 80-year-old woman was fatally shot in the head inside her car in the parking lot at St. Dominic Catholic Church, an apparent robbery victim. Too upset to return, her family held her funeral at a suburban church instead.

Her death Jan. 23 has left residents of this northeast Ohio city of about 73,000, which has shrunk by more than half in the last four decades, wondering if it will ever really turn the corner on years of decline.

Mob turf wars in the 1950s and '60s earned Youngstown the nickname of the "bomb city" for all its car-bomb murders.

Bruce Springsteen put the city on the map again in 1995 with his song about the collapse of its once-mighty steel industry. Just two years ago the city earned another unwanted distinction, this time by Forbes magazine, as one of "America's Fastest-Dying Cities."

Mayor Jay Williams has led a campaign to clear out swaths of vacant houses and buildings to open up space to make Youngstown greener, cleaner and safer, part of an effort that has been described as "shrinking toward prosperity." Homicides dropped sharply last year, to 24, giving some a new optimism.

But the gunshot killing of an elderly woman on church grounds and a surprise uptick in homicides -- five already this year -- have left many people frustrated and angry.

"The slaying of an 80-year-old churchgoing lady has shaken Youngstown to the core," The Vindicator editorialized. Having praised the city for a drop in crime, the newspaper said: "Perhaps we were premature in our applause."

The newspaper said it was troubled by comments by city officials that random crimes such as the church homicide may be impossible to stop, even if true.

An 18-year-old man with previous arrests was arraigned Monday in the death on murder and robbery charges but did not enter a plea.

Williams says he has not sensed a loss of confidence in the "shrink to grow" initiative that has resulted in the demolition of more than 1,300 structures since 2005, with 300 more to be torn down this year.

"You've got to get beyond the perception of this being an unsafe city and the only way to do that," says his community development director, William D'Avignon, "is to remove the blight, and we've been as aggressive as we possibly can in doing that."

The neighborhood around St. Dom's, an imposing block-long church decorated with the images of Dominican saints, was once populated by those working in steel mills that disappeared in the 1980s. It is now pockmarked by empty lots and abandoned single-family homes, some with the boarded-up doors kicked off. Homeowners are giving way to government-subsidized renters.

Youngstown's effort at transformation has reached the church neighborhood. Nineteen structures, mostly homes, have been targeted for demolition on its street; three have already come down.

Bob Gray, 62, who ushers at St. Dominic, where he was baptized, says he believes any plan to rejuvenate the city must begin with even tougher anti-crime efforts.

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"We have a lot of people who have no fear of God," says Gray, who volunteers with an anti-crime block watch program three blocks from the church.

Donna Gear, 45, another neighbor, says she is determined to get out.

"Me and my husband have been here 20 years, and we're moving out because of the area, the crime rate, the people. It's terrible," she said.

Her home is insured for $200,000, its replacement value, but likely wouldn't get $10,000 if sold, she said.

Parish membership has declined to 1,200 registered families, and Bishop George Murry appealed to parishioners not to abandon the church because of the killing. St. Dom's is already the most heavily fortified church in the six-county diocese, with unarmed security guards present during Masses.

The pastor, the Rev. Gregory Maturi, says parishioners have told him they are determined to keep coming.

"They are not going to let evil keep them away from church," he says.

Had his sister only been wounded, John Fimognari says he is certain she would have kept coming.

Tony Basista, 49, says that he and other community-minded neighbors have run off young people who don't live in the area and that conditions have improved.


"You used to hear gunfire all the time," he says. "That's cut down a lot."

Still, he says the church killing will encourage more people to get out.

"People move out of here every day. Everybody wants to get away," he says.

Melanie Albert, 35, watched nervously as someone's pit bull ran loose in the street a half-block from the church.

"I think a lot of people move around this area right here because they feel safe because there is a church there," she says. "But I guess not."

[Associated Press; By THOMAS J. SHEERAN]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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