By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
---- — Many people have referred to the gun death of L’Angelo “Lee Lee” Ford as an accident.
“I don’t believe it was an accident,” Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert G. Yeatts said Wednesday. “I believe it wasn’t intentional, but I don’t believe it was an accident.”
Ford, 17, of Ravine Place, Sharon, died Jan. 20 in a local hospital after being shot at a gathering of young people at a home on Strawbridge Avenue, Sharon.
Jontae M. Barnes, 20, of Liberty Street, Sharon, had brought a revolver to the gathering and was handling it when Ford grabbed at it and it went off.
Yeatts said Barnes brought a loaded gun to the gathering, pointed it at people there, and that he allowed Ford to come up to it.
“These weren’t accidents,” Yeatts said. “These were decisions.”
Barnes pleaded guilty June 20 to charges of involuntary manslaughter and carrying a firearm without a license.
While Yeatts followed the sentencing recommendations tendered by the defense and prosecution - 1 year less 1 day to 2 years less 1 day in jail followed by 10 years’ probation - he stressed to Barnes that he will get out of jail still a very young man. Yeatts wanted to know what Barnes intended to do with his life. At 20, Barnes is an unwed father of a boy born two days after Ford died, has never worked, and has four criminal convictions for disorderly conduct and drunken driving.
Yeatts said he was hoping to hear Barnes say that he planned to get a job, go to school, provide for his son or voice some other concrete plan. Barnes talked only in generalities, Yeatts said.
Yeatts asked Barnes why he had the gun. Barnes said he did not know, so Yeatts answered the question for him. Young people have guns to be important, get respect, be tough, Yeatts said. What they end up as are street thugs. Barnes was headed down that road, Yeatts said.
“You can go down that road and you’ll be in a cemetery someday,” Yeatts said.
Barnes apologized to Ford’s family, and called Ford “more than just a close friend.”
“It was a tragic accident,” he said. “My actions were senseless and irresponsible.”
Ford’s mother, Donna Ford, said she knew Barnes had been in “a little bit of trouble,” but never considered forbidding her son from associating with him.
“I treated you as my own child,” she said. “I get so much disappointment because I trusted you.”
The family talked about all they have missed since Ford died - Christmas dinners, his asking for money to go to the movies - and what they will miss in the future, including his high school graduation, his basketball games, and his children.
Ford’s brother, Christopher Ford, said he misses Ford very much, but credited his death as being part of God’s plan.
“I live with the decision that he was meant to leave us,” Christopher Ford said.
What they are having trouble living with is the plea agreement and recommended sentence. Donna Ford said they send the wrong message about young people and gun violence.
“The sentence we were talking about was no kind of a lesson,” she said before Yeatts made it official. “That would be just a slap on the wrist.”
Mercer County District Attorney Robert G. Kochems said the plea deal assured that Barnes would face some punishment, something he said might not have happened if Barnes had gone to trial.
Kochems said he hopes Barnes is on the road to rehabilitation.
“Harsh sentences do not cure stupid,” he said.
Kochems said it is up to the community to send a message about Ford’s death, and it could be argued the community already has forgotten whatever lessons were to be learned from the death of John Hosey about three years ago.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Kochems said. “There’s a war between the good village and the evil village and all it takes for the evil village to win is good people saying nothing.”
For years, prosecutors and police have bemoaned the dearth of cooperation in the Shenango Valley in investigating some serious crimes of violence.
Assistant Public Defender Dana Flick said Barnes is willing to make amends for his crimes, such as talking about gun violence to young people.
Yeatts memorialized that intent, ordering that Barnes talk during gun violence prevention programs as part of his 500 hours of community service.
Yeatts also ordered that Barnes sit down with Donna Ford, should she request a meeting, something she said she wants.
The sentence also included $7,877 restitution - largely for Ford’s funeral expenses - and Yeatts told Barnes that he retains control over his parole.
“You should anticipate serving the whole 2 years less 1 day,” Yeatts said.