Jeannette mom awaits justice for slain son

·4 min read

May 23—Tounja Williamson heard the gunshots.

She knew immediately something was wrong with someone she loved.

She rushed out her Jeannette door and went left toward the chaos.

"There was a girl who said, 'It's City,' " Williamson recalled.

Instantly, her world changed. City was the nickname of her son, Mariell McGowan.

"I went down, and I see him laying on the ground," she said. "I go over and I held him, and I said, 'Who did this?' "

"And he opened up his eyes and he said, 'Mom.' "

She ran to a police officer, believing her son was trying to tell her who had shot him. But it was too late.

Through time, Williamson found the strength to be able to talk about the traumatic scene on Cuyler Avenue nearly 19 months ago. Now, she wants justice for McGowan, 29. No one has been charged in his Oct. 28, 2019, death.

"I want them to be arrested, go through what any other person would go through," she said. "Whether I win or not, something was done."

She's leaned on support from her brother, Tim Williamson, and Pastor Nate Keisel of Mosaic Community Church to get her through hard times like Mother's Day and McGowan's birthday. None of it erases her grief, or frustration.

Williamson put up signs in the past few months on utility poles throughout the city with her son's picture, pleading for information. Some signs were vandalized and replaced. She met with the district attorney's office about the case, leaving unsatisfied with their answers.

Lack of evidence

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said there isn't enough evidence to prosecute anyone in McGowan's death. Witnesses are either not talking or giving investigators conflicting information, he said.

"Based on the evidence, it does not appear there's sufficient basis to go forward and charge somebody with homicide," he said.

Since 1980, 72% of potential homicide deaths in the United States got cleared, according to figures from Project: Cold Case — an initiative by Scripps Howard News Service using data from annual FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Over the past four decades, however, that left nearly 185,000 homicide and non-negligent manslaughter cases unsolved.

Pennsylvania investigators fared better over that same span, clearing about three-quarters of nearly 27,000 such cases but still leaving 7,000 cold cases. Of the 272 potential homicide cases in Westmoreland County during that period, authorities cleared 211, or 77%, the project found.

Two other men were injured by the gunfire on Cuyler Avenue in October 2019.

At the time, police said there was an argument earlier in the day involving the group. McGowan and one of the men went to the Cuyler Avenue home after threats were made to harm a man inside, Peck said. Prosecutors did not receive evidence that McGowan was armed, but Peck said others he was with were. Self-defense could be a valid claim by the person in the house, but prosecutors are keeping their options open and hoping new information will come to light.

"If different evidence was presented ... we would certainly act on that if it showed there was no self-defense," Peck said. "Our hearts go out to Ms. Williamson because of the death of her son. It's another terrible incident of violence in our community."

McGowan had a few run-ins with the police between 2011-16, according to court records. He was convicted of drug, theft and robbery charges.

'His Life Matters'

An aspiring rapper, flashy dresser and father of three, McGowan played football and basketball for the Jeannette Jayhawks and earned an athletic scholarship to Lincoln University in Eastern Pennsylvania, family members said.

His mother described him as a smart guy with a "big, bright smile." He played some of his rap music for her. While she didn't always agree with the lyrics, she was proud. Williamson has plenty of pictures of McGowan and his three boys — one of whom was born after his death — hanging in her home.

"His overall personality was joy," she said.

Tim Williamson expressed concern at the ongoing gun violence in Jeannette since his nephew's death and lack of an arrest, criticizing investigators and suggesting a racial bias.

"This is what the streets are saying — you can come to Jeannette and kill somebody and get away with it," he said.

"We can't have our kids settling disputes one-on-one in the street," Keisel agreed.

McGowan now watches over the street in front of his mother's house. Tounja Williamson put up a sign that reads "His Life Matters" with his photograph. It'll be there "until something's done," she said.

"He had a lot of life to live, and I wish, too, that the people that know what happened would come forth and say what they know," she said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@triblive.com or via Twitter .