The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A co-worker invited him to a rural cabin. He was killed hours later.

Peter Bernardo Spencer, 29, was fatally shot after being invited by a co-worker to a cabin in rural Pennsylvania. (Carmela King)
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The last time Carmela King saw her fiance, she dropped him off to hang out with a co-worker in rural Pennsylvania. Her last “Love You” text message went unanswered. A few hours later, she said, his dead body was lying across the cabin’s front lawn — his back peppered with multiple bullet wounds.

Peter Bernardo Spencer was killed Dec. 12 — more than six weeks ago. Since then, no charges have been filed in the killing of the 29-year-old father-to-be.

“He was a good man and his life mattered,” King said. “He deserved to be here to raise his child and to be the family man, the husband, and the hard-working man he desired to be.”

For 45 days, the people accused of killing Spencer have walked free — leaving his family, activists and religious groups flummoxed. The incident, they said, underscores a grim double standard in which the wheels of justice operate differently based on the victim’s skin color.

Spencer, who emigrated from Jamaica in 2013, was found dead shortly before 2:30 a.m. in Rockland, Pa. — some 85 miles north of Pittsburgh — according to a Pennsylvania State Police news release. Officers also found multiple firearms, “ballistic evidence” and drugs at the cabin. The suspect — described as a 25-year-old White man — and three other individuals, who are also White, were detained and questioned. All four were released after consultation with the Venango County District Attorney’s Office. The State Police’s Heritage Affairs team, which responds to hate- or bias-related crimes, was notified — but Spencer’s death is not being investigated as a hate crime.

“I would love to see a district attorney who finds a crime scene with a house full of Black people, a White guy in the yard with nine bullet holes, and then detains them and lets them all go,” said civil rights attorney Paul Jubas, who is advising Spencer’s family. “I would love to see what the response is to that. That district attorney would be instantly out of office the next day. White America would not stand for that.”

Lauren Smith-Fields died of an accidental overdose on a Bumble date, police say. Her family disputes that.

Venango County District Attorney Shawn White urged patience Tuesday in a statement sent to The Washington Post, saying that while he recognized the family’s desire for information, his office must conduct a thorough investigation.

But as the days have dragged on with no arrests, the family’s astonishment has turned into outrage. They are now pleading for federal agencies to get involved in the investigation; for the case to be referred to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro; and for information to be released to Cyril Wecht, a renowned pathologist hired to conduct a private autopsy.

“We’re being stonewalled,” Jubas said. “So even something as simple as sharing their autopsy photos with our medical examiner — even something as small as that — they are refusing to cooperate with.”

Spencer was a beloved “mama’s boy,” said his mother, Icilda Spencer-Hunter. He called her “madre” and was always ready to give her a big hug or shoulder rub. Together, she said, they were working to make their dream of opening a restaurant a reality — starting with a catering service offering Jamaican staples. Though Spencer recently became a vegan, Icilda said her son’s specialties included jerk chicken and “anything with curry and herbs.” His younger brother Tehilah remembered Spencer as a self-taught, multiskilled man who was always willing to help others.

He was also a soon-to-be-father — to a baby that will be born in June.

Dissatisfied with scant information from authorities about the circumstances of Spencer’s death, the family turned to Wecht, a former Allegheny County coroner and medical examiner who has consulted on high-profile cases such as the deaths of JonBenét Ramsey and Laci Peterson.

Although Wecht examined Spencer’s body, he said he was only able to analyze a few photos from the embalmer and has asked the coroner for a report, to no avail. Because the funeral home put trocars into the wounds, he said, it was difficult to conclude the bullets’ trajectory. Several appear to have entered through Spencer’s back.

“There are nine shots fired beyond 24 inches of distance, or what we call long-distance shots,” Wecht said. “It’s like looking at someone who got hunted down, which is absolutely horrifying.”

According to Spencer’s family and Tim Stevens, activist and chairman of the Pittsburgh-based Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), the co-worker admitted to being the shooter and was claiming self-defense. The man they identified — but whose name has not been revealed by police — did not respond to requests for comment.

The lack of “transparency and accountability,” Stevens said, prompted B-PEP to send a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Shapiro urging them to step in. Stevens said the local officials are monitoring the case, but Shapiro’s office would need an official request from Venango County to get involved.

Spencer was killed in one of Pennsylvania’s most rural counties — one where just 1.1 percent of the population is Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. For William Anderson, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Black Caucus, the figures call into question the county’s ability to approach the investigation without racial bias. The case, he said, brings to light a racist past that has all but simmered in the state.

“This is a township with a population of 1,400 where some people are holding onto a lifestyle thinking that Blacks and people of color are taking over their country,” Anderson said. “How can the county’s district attorney possibly be equipped to handle and prosecute this case without bias?”

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 36 active hate groups in Pennsylvania — most of them with skinhead, neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies, according to its data. A history of sundown towns — or all-White communities where minorities were barred after dark by the threat of violence — is still entrenched in the state’s most rural areas, said the Rev. Dale Snyder, a pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

How white supremacists split a quiet Rust Belt town

“The fact is, the historical context of all of this is what they would do during Jim Crow to bring Blacks out to make them their prey,” said Snyder, whose church is joining calls for transparency in Spencer’s investigation. “So we’re trying to not come to any conclusions, but it’s very hard when this happened back in December.”

The memorial service held Dec. 31 for Spencer, Icilda said, was a roller coaster of emotions. There was frustration from being “ghosted” by authorities, she said, helplessness from not having answers, comfort from the tributes about her son’s kindness and also hope that some good would emerge from the tragedy.

“He always said, ‘Something good is going to happen’ and that’s where I’m going with it,” Icilda said. “But I need people to treat my dead son as a person — not a thing or number. He was a person’s child, and they need to listen to his story.”

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