Trying as best he can

Jason Sauer runs programs to help ex-cons reintegrate into society. A sometimes thankless job where he says you shouldn't get attached. But he did.

By Brittany Hailer

Jason Sauer is a nationally recognized demolition derby artist. He and his wife run the Most Wanted Fine Art gallery on Penn Avenue. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!

Explore another voice in this series:

Sarah Womack: A song within a storm

Yeshua David's adaptation

Luna: Seeking compassion for those cast aside

Cedric Rudolph: One of the Mirrors

Emily and Liza Geissinger: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Jason Toombs finds his voice while writing a novel and love letters from jail

Robin Tomczak: How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

Sa’Von Martin was one of Jason Sauer’s first students. They met when Sa’Von was 12.

At the time a student of Summit Academy, a residential school for court-adjudicated youth, Sa’Von came to Jason’s Green + Screen program in Garfield to help beautify the neighborhood. He then followed Jason to Homewood, where the team mowed lawns, planted flowers and tended to community gardens.

Their relationship grew.

Even after the project was completed, Sa’Von and Jason kept in touch. Jason opened an art gallery on Penn Avenue, called Most Wanted Fine Art. It’s “a community service organization disguised as an art gallery,” as their website describes the mission.

The gallery has been a staple in Garfield’s community for 10 years, showcasing more than 400,000 works of art. Jason estimates that they represent about 150 artists a year. Jason became well known in the community, and then he started a contracting company with the goal of helping to renovate the homes in his neighborhood.

Jason’s company often hires ex-convicts with grant money initially provided by Goodwill’s Learn and Earn Program and later through a state grant provided by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.

Keishon Martin (left) and his older brother, Sa'Von (right), take a break from insulating an attic to pose with Jason Sauer. Jason started a contracting company and employs ex-convicts. He purchased this Garfield home with plans to relocate his family there. Jason paid the young men for their work. Sa'Von was shot to death one week after these photos were taken. He was 23. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

We would get young guys like day one or day two—fresh out of county or state. We'd put them to work right away. We tried not to leave them out on the streets for too long.

Sa’Von’s been by Jason’s side since the beginning.

He helped Jason rebuild and repair homes for their neighbors in Garfield up until last month when Sa’Von was shot at 12 times in Homewood on Feb 8. He was murdered a week after he posed for portraits with Jason and his brother Keishon for this PublicSource story. He was 23.

When I interviewed Jason before Sa’Von’s murder, he said:

I learned awhile ago to not be so emotionally attached to the students. I can't have my emotions hinge on their success.

But Jason wasn’t talking about Sa’Von. Sa’Von was family.

He’s been with me for 10 years.

Listen to Jason and Sa'Von's story on 90.5 WESA

Text in italics are Jason's words.

Jason, 41, describes bringing clothes and food to Sa’Von’s house for Christmas. He calls Sa’Von and his brother Keishon “nephews.”

I’m probably an uncle to them at this point. I’d like to think I was a good influence—Mom said so.

He tells me about the times he took Sa’Von on family vacation to his hometown near Stoneboro, Pa. Sa’Von would pile in the car with Jason, his wife, Nina, and their son, Rowdy. Swimming was the highlight.

We went and jumped off the high-dive. We tried to do that once a year, where I take him with me as a family and go swimming we had planned that…. We had planned more family time... He was close to me like that.

The fatal shooting of Sa'Von Martin on Feb. 8 shocked his mentor. Here, Jason Sauer is photographed in the Allegheny Cemetery because he says Sa'Von liked it there. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

From the looks of him, Jason is a punk Pittsburgher covered in tattoos. He drinks PBR and is a nationally recognized demolition derby artist and champion. He’s also an Army veteran and has a Master’s of Fine Art in printmaking. These days, Jason and his wife open their gallery doors to poets, local rap groups, college students, painters, sculptors, women in recovery, weirdos, kids and any passerby on Penn Avenue. Jason says he identifies with the outlaw, wants to create a safe space for those who are the little guy, who maybe got picked on in high school, the kids who go against the grain.

A rehabbed derby car, graffitied yellow and gray, was parked behind Jason while we talked about Sa’Von. I could hear his son running up and down the gallery stairs. When Jason talked about Sa’Von, his brother, Keishon, or their mother, he lifted his arm and pointed his thumb behind him.

I asked, “So he’s been your neighbor?”

Oh yeah. He’s lived back here … his entire life.

Jason walked over to Sa’Von’s mom’s house before my interview with him. He wanted to make sure that talking to the press was OK. He told me she wasn’t ready to talk and that dealing with the reality of why her son was murdered was something she wasn’t prepared for.

It’s an important component of the reality of what we are doing here... I thought for sure we would have a space or role for Sa’Von as we continued to grow here at Most Wanted [the gallery]. I just needed him to keep working and get more experience, so whenever I was ready for him he could jump right in. That’s kind of what I had for him, for [the] future.
My wife’s really tore up. She just can’t believe someone would be killed for an ounce of weed.

Sa'Von Martin was 12 when he met Jason Sauer. As a boy, he'd already had problems with the law. He worked with Jason on community beautification projects in Garfield and Homewood. A decade later, Jason was still looking out for Sa'Von. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Sa'Von Martin was 12 when he met Jason Sauer. As a boy, he'd already had problems with the law. He worked with Jason on community beautification projects in Garfield and Homewood. A decade later, Jason was still looking out for Sa'Von. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Jason speculates that perhaps there is something more to Sa’Von’s murder: retribution for lying, not paying a debt, beef from the past, etc. He admits that he isn’t sure. But he says:

This is the streets, and the streets will take care of itself.

Police have not shared a motive for the killing, and no arrests have been made.

Jason called Sa’Von’s brother and asked if there was anything he could do for the family. His girlfriend asked Jason to provide Keishon with more work. She said they still need money.

We’ll do what we can with what we got... That’s what we’re trying to with the program. Help create some opportunity. The reality of the program is, you don’t make the money that you make in the streets. I can’t compete against it. Nobody can.

I asked Jason what Sa’Von was like.

Sa’von? Ah! He was a joy! He was awesome; he had a really good personality. He was comfortable engaging with someone of my age and authority level—that’s where the uncle thing played in. He was always smiling and had a positive outlook. He would do a full day’s worth of work, and we could bust on each other all day long... It was like a friend helping me out. He was just a really good dude.

Sa’Von could speak his mind effectively. He attended the Community College of Allegheny County for awhile. He also had two kids.

Just the other day, I picked him up for work, him and his son. They didn’t have a car, so he needed me to drop his son off at daycare. So I had them both in the car. His son was respectful. I'd say he's like 7 or 8, My son’s 5. I dropped his son off at school, and we worked on the project here. At the end of the day, I dropped both him and his brother off and that was that. Last time I saw the little guy...
But then his mom called me.
She just described that experience as a mother of showing up to the crime scene. Everyone screaming in the streets, as the newspaper said. A lot of kids had seen it … his kids. It was a pretty traumatic experience for that area of Homewood and the children of Homewood.

Sa'Von Martin, 23, had two kids of his own. When a PublicSource reporter interviewed him a week before he was killed, he said: "My kids know that school is going to be a big part of their life. I took the short route. I don’t want that for them. With education comes opportunity." (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Jason asks me what PublicSource is going to say about Sa’Von. I ask him what has been reported on the news. Jason tells me:

They’re not saying anything. And because [it’s] Homewood, they probably won't ever even bring it up again. ... He was … trying as best he can to make sure he could create a better life for him and his young family. He was putting forth the effort and showing up to work, showing up on time and putting in a full day. And helping me to train his brother at the same time. He felt the value of the project and what I was doing. He made sure his brother understood how important doing a good job for me [was] .... He helped me keep his brother motivated.

Sa’Von’s younger brother is 20. He saw his brother go through it, so it was natural that he would join. He still has a chance, not only for himself, but for his family, and in Sa’Von’s memory.

Sa’Von himself, when interviewed in early February, said Jason could make a different future possible:

He gives people an opportunity. He gives them a chance.

Sa’Von shared hopes for his children, too.

Having kids makes you think of life differently. [I] don’t want to see my kids go through what I went through. My kids know that school is going to be a big part of their life. I took the short route. I don’t want that for them. With education comes opportunity.

Jason plans to continue being a source of education and opportunity. Even as he hits roadblocks.

We’re stalled because the grant that was written for this year had a provision where the students couldn't use tools.. I've definitely made a stink. I'm hoping that [the grant] comes back. If it doesn't come back, I’ll continue running the program on my own dime. I'm paying my students now with my own money...
But it makes me feel good as a person. Hopefully leaves a legacy for my son.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at

PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.