Slain Lancaster baseball star and accused killer were longtime friends

ColumnistFebruary 9, 2012 

— Sunday night, Danny Clyburn Jr. and Derrick McIlwain watched the Super Bowl together with other friends inside a tiny little house on narrow North Market Street in Lancaster - near where both grew up - friends of the men say.

It is a house used not as a home, friends and neighbors and the landlord say, but as a clubhouse. Men gather, watch sports, drink a few beers. Some of the men gathered again Monday night.

By about 2 a.m. Tuesday, Clyburn - who 15 years ago batted right after Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. on a field of immaculate green grass in front of 41,602 cheering spectators at Camden Yards - died alone in the dirt from gunshot wounds.

The dead ballplayer, Clyburn, 37, and the man charged with shooting him to death, Derrick Lamont McIlwain, 36, "were in diapers together," acquaintances of both men said Wednesday.

"We all grew up together, watched the game Sunday," said David Boyd. "It had to be too much to drink, I guess."

Another friend, Napoleon Hall, said there was no fight or argument Sunday night during the game, or the day before when the men had been together.

On Monday night they got together again - on the same street where Clyburn and McIlwain played together on as boys, where Clyburn hit a baseball so hard and threw a baseball so fast.

"Like I said, they was in diapers together," Hall said. "They went all through school together. We all did. They knew each other their whole life."

But what police say was an argument - over what is unclear - led to Clyburn's death. The Lancaster police report is brutal and stark in its directness.

The shooting was called in at 1:56 a.m. An officer found Clyburn face-up and unresponsive two minutes later, the police report shows. Neighbors told police they heard loud talking, music and a single gunshot.

A neighbor woman told police that McIlwain came to her door, was upset, and said, simply, "I shot him," according to the report.

When the woman asked who, the report shows, she said McIlwain replied, "Danny Jr."

The police report does not mention that Clyburn once was about the best ballplayer to ever come out of Lancaster, or made hundreds of thousands of dollars playing baseball professionally after getting drafted out of high school.

He is identified in the report as only an unresponsive, dead, 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound black male.

Inside the new Lancaster County Courthouse Wednesday, the place where McIlwain eventually will have to face murder and other charges, two people waiting for an unrelated hearing recalled Clyburn the player.

A man in the Registrar of Deeds office remembered him as a great player. The owner of the building where Clyburn died remembered Clyburn the player.

Cars drove by that little clubhouse on that little street to see where the shooting happened, to see this crooked narrow street where the dream started and the life ended and Clyburn's playing big-league ball was worth shouting about all those years ago.

Clyburn had a dream just like Charles Duke of Lancaster had a dream.

Duke was an astronaut who walked on the moon in 1972 - one of just 12 people ever to do that. Duke grew up on a different side of Lancaster from where Clyburn was raised, but on a similar street of cracked pavement.

Clyburn died at 37. Duke walked on the moon at 36.

It was left to family and friends and neighbors Wednesday to remember that Clyburn's success meant that for many in Lancaster, all had succeeded to some degree.

"He played baseball on TV!" said Hall, the friend. "The major leagues, man. Sure we were proud."

Clyburn's first cousin, Constance Patterson, came by to look at the balloons and flowers left by well-wishers.

"Nobody knows what happened," Patterson said of the shooting. "People are talking, speculating, but they don't know. Nobody knows but them who was in it."

McIlwain's family, who now live across town in Lancaster, declined comment Wednesday.

McIlwain made a first appearance before a magistrate late Tuesday, court officials said, but has not yet been assigned a public defender. Sixth Circuit Chief Public Defender Mike Lifsey declined to comment Wednesday.

Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield also declined comment on the pending case. Lancaster police declined comment, saying only that the investigation is continuing.

The building where Clyburn died, where he had watched the Super Bowl with McIlwain, is not rented to either of them, the landlord said.

McIlwain has a long criminal history of drug and driving under the influence and assault convictions, according to the State Law Enforcement Division. He is currently on probation for drug possession from a 2011 arrest. He had been arrested for being a felon in possession of a gun way back in 1996 - before Clyburn ever swung a bat in the major leagues.

And now he is accused of murder with a gun, killing a man friends say he knew all his life - a man the friends say McIlwain had watched the Super Bowl with.

Clyburn himself was convicted of drug possession and alcohol offenses in 2005 in Lancaster, records show. Yet, with two kids living in Lancaster, he had been living in California and had only come back to Lancaster Saturday to retrieve a car and head back, said family and friends.

"I sat with him right here on this porch Sunday, and he told me he gave his life to the Lord," said Esther Knox, a friend, as she stood on the porch of that little house used as a clubhouse for grown people to drink and watch ballgames. "He gave my grandson one of his baseball cards."

The card shows Danny Clyburn in uniform.

On a cool September night in 1997, the public address announcer at Camden Yards called out that number 69 for the Baltimore Orioles was pinch-hitting.

The words "Danny Clyburn Jr." flew into that night sky.

This kid who grew up on a narrow street in Lancaster, always the best ballplayer in a city of ballplayers, 22 then, strode toward home plate, dug in his spikes and worked the count to two balls and two strikes.

It is only imaginable for most of 300 million Americans to know how bright those Camden Yards lights were that night to a kid from North Market Street.

The pitcher for the Cleveland Indians was a wily left-hander named Paul Assenmacher. Clyburn grounded out, third to first, to end the eighth inning.

But Danny Clyburn had batted in the major leagues. He would go on to hit four major league homers after a brief big-league career of 41 games spanning three seasons. He played in the minors later, but never again in the majors.

Early Tuesday morning, the last bright lights around Danny Clyburn Jr. came from a portable tower brought to the scene by Lancaster firefighters so police could see to process the crime scene of a murder in the dirt.

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service