Shootings at gas stations are rising across the city. As police search for answers, the families of victims are grieving — and filing lawsuits.
Just after 9:30 a.m. on March 22, Rasheen Naseeb Robinson pulled his car into the Liberty gas station in East Kensington and stopped in its convenience store. When Robinson, 22, headed back to his car, a gunman shot him five times, including once in the head. He died minutes later.
On August 14, 2021, at about 5 a.m., Alexander Vincent Ott, 29, stopped at the Gulf station in Wynnefield, a leafy neighborhood just inside the city’s western border. Ott wanted to gas up before completing the half-hour drive to his girlfriend’s home in the city’s Northeast section, his mother said. But while Ott was standing at the pump, a gunman shot him multiple times in the back, killing him instantly.
The unsolved murders of Robinson and Ott are among nine killings committed at Philadelphia gas stations in 2021 and so far this year. That’s up from zero such homicides in 2018, 2019, and 2020, police said.
The slayings are a tiny fraction of the total number of murders committed citywide – a record 562 homicides in 2021, and just off that pace so far in 2022. But new data from the Philadelphia Police Department shows that they’re part of a chilling trend and speak to the universality of the problem: for motorists, all roads lead to gas stations.
“This is 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 if you go outside of the city it’s going to change anything because they have increasing carjackings as well.”
While gas station owners say the uptick is simply a manifestation of Philadelphia’s broader gun violence problem, the trend has caused several people who’ve 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 this because they may think of shootings usually happening at bars or nightclubs, certainly not at gas stations,” said attorney David P. Thiruselvam, who has filed nine lawsuits against gas stations. “But it’s becoming an epidemic, and the gas station industry is aware of it because it’s in the news all the time. But they are not doing anything about it.”
As the search for answers continues, people who have suffered losses grieve. “It took my soul,” Corliss Jackson said in explaining how the killing of her son, Robinson, has altered her life. “I am alive. I am breathing, but internally I am empty.”
Gas and guns
Other violent crimes at gas stations have soared, according to police data. Carjackings have more than quadrupled, with 30 so far this year, up from seven last year. There were none between 2018 and 2020.
There have been 69 gunpoint robberies at stations this year, up from 65 for all of last year.
Nonfatal shootings at gas stations have spiked, as well, leaving 17 victims so far this year and last year. The city averaged only one a year from 2018 to 2020.
Temple University Criminal Justice Professor Jerry Ratcliffe said the spike in gun crime in general, and at gas stations in particular, is likely being driven in part by the fact that there are more legal guns on the streets, a number that surged during the pandemic shutdown.
In addition, he said, there are more illegal guns, as people who are not allowed to legally possess them do so anyway out of fear of rising crime. At the same time, it’s possible that they’re also less fearful of arrest because Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has expressed skepticism that arresting and prosecuting gun possession cases will lead to a reduction in violence.
Technological advances in car security systems, Ratcliffe said, makes it harder for thieves to steal parked, unattended cars. “That’s where gas stations come in,” he said. “The victim is there. The car is there. The key is present.”
The police are trying to figure out what’s behind the surge. What they know so far: It’s not isolated to any specific neighborhood. In the meantime, they’re advising motorists to be on guard when driving onto a station lot. They should be cautious of people loitering around pumps.
“If you’re looking to carjack somebody, it’s much easier to get somebody that’s getting gas, standing right outside their car with their wallet and keys in their hands,” Layton said, “than it would be to yank somebody out of their car at a red light or stop sign.”
Lives lost, lives changed
After the gunman killed her son, Corliss Jackson said she got few answers. Homicide detectives told her little about the investigation into his slaying, she said, and a language barrier prevented her from learning much from the station’s owner. She knows of no reason why anyone would have wanted to shoot her son, she said. And because the killer didn’t take his wallet, she doesn’t believe the motive was robbery.
“It was broad daylight. He wasn’t a street kid,” she said. Robinson, a budding actor who appeared in several locally produced plays and web movies, earned a living delivering for DoorDash and InstaCart.
Stephanie Oueslati, Ott’s mother, said she is also in the dark. The detectives she spoke to shortly after he was killed no longer return her calls, she said. “It’s like they don’t care.”
Homicide Captain Jason Smith did not respond to several calls seeking comment.
Ott stood 6-foot-5 and worked at a produce warehouse. He had no enemies, his mother said, and did not know anyone in the area where he was killed. His wallet, too, was still in his pocket when police found him.
“Every day is hard,” Oueslati said. “Some days, I don’t want to be here.”
And those who have survived the shootings are struggling to move on. Joel Frazier, 26, a cook and single father from the city’s Mayfair community, is among them.
Last year, on August 1, he stopped at the Express Fuel station near his home to get money from an ATM. A man followed him from the station and robbed him at gunpoint a block away. The man forced Frazier to walk back to the gas station and ordered him to withdraw more money. Instead, Frazier says, he grabbed the gunman and tried to disarm him. He was shot in the right leg, suffering a broken femur.
“I guess it was fight or flight. I was so nervous,” Frazier said. “The way he was saying he was going to kill me, and the way he looked at me, I believed him.” After police arrested a suspect days later, Frazier identified him in a photo lineup.
While Philadelphia has no laws that address gas station safety, other communities have recently approved ordinances in response to violence there. Stations can no longer stay open 24 hours in Oak Park, a close-in suburb of Chicago bisected by the busy Eisenhower Expressway, while stations in DeKalb County, outside of Atlanta, must have working security cameras at all times.
Asked whether the City Council was developing any legislation to address the problem, a spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke said that while the council has approved record spending on anti-violence initiatives recently, none is aimed specifically at bolstering gas station security.
Jeff Lenard, a vice president at the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 148,000 retailers and gas stations in the U.S. and abroad, said most stations follow industry standards by providing sufficient internal and external lighting, directing employees not to resist robbers’ demands for money, and keeping money in time-released drop safes.
Still, he said, gas stations can only do so much in the face of a sputtering economy coupled with the after-effects of the pandemic — a period in which, he said, “people forgot how to be people.”
“Crime is up in communities, and gas stations are in every community,” he said. “If crime is going on in a community, it is something that you’re going to see in stores that serve those communities.”
‘They know about the trouble’
Frazier said he is nervous about testifying at the February trial of Rashaad Haggray, 20, the man charged and jailed for shooting him, but he still plans to do so. He has also filed a lawsuit against the owners of the building and gas station where he was shot.
The suit, filed in state court this summer, accuses the defendants of negligence for failing to have a security guard on duty and failing to take precautions to prevent dangerous people from loitering.
“They know about the trouble that goes on in there. People really don’t respect them,” Frazier said. “If you go in there there’s a bunch of guys in there blasting music, smoking weed.”
Lawyers for Express Fuel and for the building owners have filed preliminary objections with the court denying all allegations.
Jackson, Robinson’s mother, and Oueslati, Ott’s mother, said they intend to sue the owners of the stations where their sons were killed.
Michael Brevda, with the Senior Justice Law Firm in Boca Raton, Florida, said liability cases against gas stations can be easy to prove when defendants’ security measures are “woefully insufficient.” Under Pennsylvania law, businesses that fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm that directly causes an injury can be liable for any damages suffered.
Nightclubs and liquor stores hire private security, sometimes armed off-duty cops, said Brevda, whose firm has an office in Pittsburgh, “But you just don’t see that at gas stations as much.”
Every gas station needs to have updated lighting to eliminate any place to hide, he said. Stations, he added, need to have on-site cameras that are visible and obvious.
After her son’s death, Jackson learned that another man had been killed at the Liberty station where her son had been gunned down.
Oueslati, who is waiting and praying for investigators to track down her son’s killer, also learned that another man was killed at the same Gulf station in 2014, under previous ownership.
“You would never think that it would be your child,” Oueslati said. “You would never think that this would happen at a gas station.”