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Old 01-16-2005, 05:22 AM
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Default A culture of murder

A culture of murder



Fueled by drug trade, young men in some Dallas neighborhoods find it easy to pull the trigger


10:27 PM CST on Saturday, January 15, 2005

By MICHAEL GRABELL, TANYA EISERER and HOLLY YAN / The Dallas Morning News

Doris Ojeda dominated TV news last year when she was killed in a drive-by shooting as she walked near her northwest Dallas home. Jose Lopez made headlines because he was stabbed to death at his middle school.

But most of the 248 people who made Dallas one of the nation's deadliest big cities last year died in obscurity. Many were almost industrial byproducts of the city's drug trade.

In some ways that trade is a murder machine, according to police and community leaders. And in some ways, that machine is on the move.

Drugs drive the machine. Flaring tempers, bad judgment and payback grease its gears. Ordinary arguments become gunfights. Friends become enemies. Apartment complexes become killing fields.

The drug trade draws customers from every race and economic group. But overwhelmingly the city's homicide victims are young minority men. Four out of five homicide victims in 2004 were black or Latino. And about half of the victims were black and Latino males under the age of 35 – even though that group accounts for only about 22 percent of Dallas' population. The killers are often black and Latino, too.

"It's the combination of no jobs, no education and drugs that gets you violence," said Pastor Ronald Wright, who runs a Pleasant Grove ministry. He said violence saps the spirit of some neighborhoods so badly that they become easier prey for drug dealers – and he argues that residents in more affluent parts of town would never tolerate such high crime.

Police say they can solve crimes only with tips and testimony from residents, who often fear retaliation if they speak out.

So far, minority neighborhoods have had the biggest stake in the battle against death and drugs. Eight of the nine most murder-prone police beats last year lies in the southern half of the city. But deaths are not confined to "minority" neighborhoods. As police squeeze drug dealers in one area, they scuttle to another. As apartment complexes deteriorate, dealers can colonize them within days.

Last fall, elements of Dallas' murder machine made the move from Pleasant Grove, up Buckner Boulevard and into the Lake Highlands area. Six men were shot and killed. Another six were wounded.

A close look at those shootings shows how hard it can be for terrified residents to fight back – and how huge an effort the city's beleaguered Police Department must make to halt the violence once it takes hold of a neighborhood.

"The drug business is a violent business," said Judge John Creuzot, Dallas County's presiding felony criminal judge and manager of a drug court program. "Power and respect is important. But lost in all that is a complete absence of moral values that human life is important."

•

Last fall, there were three murders at the Autumn Ridge Apartments in 33 days, just a short walk away from $150,000 brick homes. The Lake Highlands complex looks like countless others on the way to the interstate, the suburbs and shopping malls. But trespassing, drug dealing, prostitution and fights have troubled residents of Autumn Ridge and other complexes for several years.

Corey Wooten, 24, known to his friends as "Kinfolk," was in an Autumn Ridge courtyard after 8 p.m. Oct. 6 when someone came up behind him and shot him several times.

He stumbled face-first into a concrete staircase leading to a second-floor apartment. A pair of headphones rested on his ears.

A neighbor heard it was over $5 or "something to do with a girl." But police say Mr. Wooten's connection to drug dealers in Pleasant Grove made him target enough for rival dealers who claim northeast Dallas as their territory.

Soon his Pleasant Grove friends put out word that they were out to get the "homeboys" who hung out on the "Sham" – a stretch of Wickersham Road that runs by Autumn Ridge.

Four days later, Corey "Hook" Clark, 16, and Howard "Pee Wee" Simon, 19, were gunned down across the parking lot from where Mr. Wooten fell. Mr. Clark died, but Mr. Simon survived.

Corey Wooten's friends appeared to have made good on their threat. Police believe the two slayings were retaliation.

"The guys from Pleasant Grove went to north Dallas. They got into it with the north Dallas boys. [The north Dallas dealers] didn't want them out there," said Shuntocqua Shine, a girlfriend of one of the suspects.

Here's how the deadly battle came to northeast Dallas:

Police pressure in Pleasant Grove and the search for new markets that pushed some dealers to seek out other complexes near Buckner Boulevard.

The first stop was a cluster of complexes on Peavy Road in Far East Dallas. There, they were frequently accused of trespassing. In July 2003, a 26-year-old man was shot dead there. Michael "Icy Mike" Griggs, Shuntocqua Shine's boyfriend and an accused Pleasant Grove dealer, witnessed the murder.

The slaying brought a crackdown. Police increased patrols and undercover work. New apartment managers evicted residents involved in crimes.

Mr. Griggs and his associates moved north again, where they clashed with other dealers, resulting in the murders of Corey Wooten and Corey Clark. A witness identified Mr. Griggs in a photographic lineup in the Clark killing, but a grand jury cleared him. He declined to be interviewed.

The Wooten and Clark slayings were No. 183 and No. 187 for 2004.

Dallas' murder statistics for 2004 are being finalized and could change as some deaths are ruled justifiable or if wounded victims die. The Dallas Police Department reported Friday that the city had 244 murders in 2004. But a Dallas Morning News analysis found 248 murders – an 11.2 percent increase over 2003.

The increase gives Dallas its highest toll since 1998 and the second-highest murder rate among the nine cities with more than a million residents.

The rate – about 20 per 100,000 residents – is less than half that of smaller cities such as Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans. But among the biggest cities, Dallas moved ahead of Chicago and closer to Philadelphia, which had about 22 murders per 100,000 residents.

As in recent years, neighborhoods south of Fair Park, north of Bachman Lake and in Old East Dallas were hit the hardest.

Whether it's dealers fighting for turf, users behind on their debt, or someone high or absorbed by the lifestyle, drugs are a huge factor.

Each year, at least 125 murders are tied to drugs or a vaguely defined category of "arguments," according to annual homicide unit reports. Dozens more have motives that remain unknown.

"If there is a single common denominator in violent crime, it's going to be the drug issue – issues of turf and drug dealers ripping each other off," said Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle, who was sworn in seven months ago.

Since then, he has moved administrative officers to the streets, focused on tracking crime trends by computer, and helped convince the City Council to hire 50 new police officers.

On Friday, he announced structural changes aimed at taking guns off the streets, closing drug houses and shutting down open-air drug markets. His goal: reducing murders in 2005 by 20 percent.

Police say targeting drug activity would reduce murders and assaults as well as robberies, car burglaries, auto thefts and prostitution.

•

The fall murder spree was unusual for an area that had drawn Texas Instruments employees and young families attracted by the Richardson school district. New developments with streets like Candlebrook Drive and Rolling Rock Lane made it feel like a suburban enclave within the city. Developers followed, building houses and thousands of apartment units.

But many years on, the aging complexes couldn't stay competitive with other parts of Dallas. High vacancy rates drove rents down. In some cases, the quality of tenants dropped, too. In some areas, crime has filled the vacuum.

Several of the murders bore witness to an odd juxtaposition. At Providence Apartment Homes, an apartment that overlooked formerly well-maintained tennis courts became a murder scene. At Bent Creek Apartments, a shooting broke out in a parking lot divided by carports and lined with sculpted shrubbery.

Drive into Bent Creek on Forest Lane near Audelia Road. Pass through the mechanical gate. Turn right and follow the patchwork wooden fence, where gaps that allowed people to cut through between complexes are repeatedly covered up with boards.

Go to the back of the complex, where police and apartment managers say a pushers' paradise thrived. The back parking lot dead-ends into woods, allowing dealers a view of who's coming and going.

"It's a perfect complex for a drug dealer to set up," said Sgt. Jeffrey Kaiser as he patrolled the complex as part of Operation Kitchen Sink.

Just minutes from Interstate 635, Bent Creek was convenient for customers not only in Dallas but also in Garland and Richardson, Sgt. Kaiser said. The dealers' clientele included customers from all walks of life.

The dealers' "good-eyes" perched in the front, watching the main gate, sometimes alerting others over walkie-talkies. "Runners" transported money and drugs through the breezeways between clients and dealers.

But these dealers were just middlemen in a larger Dallas drug trade. With stash houses in Pleasant Grove and Oak Cliff, they were just providing supply for demand.

•

The killing wasn't over after the shootings in Lake Highlands. On Oct. 12, Louis Jackson and Victor Jimison were shot dead in Pleasant Grove. Once again, protecting turf from an outsider or an argument involving drugs could have been the motive. The Jackson and Jimison killings were Dallas murders 190 and 191.

Sgt. Larry Lewis of the homicide unit said detectives have two theories about the Jackson killing, both of which could be true.

The first is that Michael James – the same man suspected in one of the fatal shootings two days earlier in northeast Dallas – along with a man named Demarcus "Hooty" Smith, 22, and others were trying to get Mr. Jackson to help them rob another drug dealer. He refused, and an argument ensued.

The second is that Mr. Jackson, 25, was simply a dealer crossing someone else's turf.

"I heard from people who are scared to come forward that they heard Hooty arguing with Louis and that Michael James pushed him out of the way and shot Louis in the head," Steven Knight, 26, said in an interview at the Dallas County jail.

Mr. Knight has been charged with capital murder in the case. He confessed to police that he was involved, though not as a shooter. But he now denies being there.

Such shootings, Mr. Knight said, are often over something minor.

"Somebody's making more money than the next person. Or somebody's got a car with nice rims. Or one guy has a few female friends, and he may be hated for that," he said.

Whatever the motive, once Mr. Jackson was dead, Victor Jimison had to go, too. Homicide detectives say his friends feared he would betray them to the police. As he attempted to run, they shot him multiple times, including once in the head. He was 18.

Still, the bloody cycle was not complete.

Within an hour, "Hooty" Smith turned on his friend, Michael James.

Mr. James told police that Mr. Smith had shot at him multiple times, striking him in the legs. A friend suggests that the shooting was revenge for the Jackson killing. Mr. Smith "was tripping and saying, 'Why did you kill my homeboy?' " – a reference to Mr. Jackson, the friend said.

"Hooty" Smith was subsequently arrested and charged with capital murder in the Jackson and Jamison shootings.

Police also arrested Michael James. He has been charged with capital murder in the Jackson and Jimison shootings as well as the Lake Highlands murder of Corey Clark and the shooting of Howard "Pee Wee" Simon.

That drug pushers can be accused of killing someone on the north side of Dallas one day and on the southern fringes the next highlights the mobility of crime.

•

The murderous violence in the Lake Highlands-area apartments continued well into November. One of the next homicide victims was Terry James Irvin, who was shot at the Providence apartments on Nov. 20. He was the city's 216th murder victim.

Police suspect Mr. Irvin – who is white and, at 44, older than the other victims – made a 2 a.m. trip to buy drugs. But as he walked a dark stairway, he apparently came upon a man robbing an apartment that overlooked tennis courts.

Police believe the robber and perhaps another man opened fire. Four people were hit, including Irvin.

"They shot him for no reason – nothing at all," said Bryan Jones, 26, a local rapper known as "Mr. Pookie," who was also shot in the robbery.

In the early darkness, as the lights of police cars flashed across the complex, Corey Whittaker stared in awe at the murder scene near his own building in the complex.

"He was like, 'Man, did you see him hanging off the steps?' " said his friend Tameka Smallwood.

Three days later, Mr. Whittaker, 24, suffered the same fate.

Police said two women knocked on the door of his apartment about 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23. Shortly thereafter, he went outside and was shot. He became murder victim No. 223.

"We suspect that probably may have been a setup to get him out of the apartment," Sgt. Lewis said. Police found evidence of drug sales in the apartment.

The motive remains unclear, as it does with many of last year's slayings.

•

For most of the residents of the three northeast Dallas apartment complexes, violence had become almost background noise to their daily lives.

"I hear sirens all the time, and when I hear them, I think, 'They must be coming here,' " Jeffery Williams, who lives at the Providence complex, said in early December. When he first moved in about 17 months ago, he said he was surprised that the area was so crime-ridden. "But I guess there's crime wherever you go these days," he said.

Help did arrive on Dec. 13, when Dallas police poured resources into the Autumn Ridge, Bent Creek and Providence apartments, posting dozens of officers around the clock in the complexes in an effort to deter drug dealing and reseed the complexes with crime watch groups. They called it Operation Kitchen Sink.

By the end of the monthlong sweep, police had netted 1,188 citations and 197 arrests, 50 for felonies. A tip from a Providence resident helped solve one of the shootings.

"The numbers look good," said Deputy Chief David Brown, who commanded the operation.

Four days after the crackdown ended, Jeffery Williams said he was pleased with the results.

"Police were out here every day, and there's not much about crime anymore," he said. "I still hear sirens all the time, but it's up and down the street, not in these apartments."

But like many residents at the complexes, he can only wonder whether the added police presence will have a lasting impact.

And for the families of those killed, the sorrow lingers.

Janice Patterson Sanchell, whose son Tyson was murdered Nov. 8 at Autumn Ridge, misses the calming voice of her son. He called her 10 minutes before he was shot.

"He was laughing when he got off the phone," she said as she watched Tyson's 6-year-old daughter. "Tyson was the only one who didn't talk back to his stepdad and get in trouble at school. He would always do what mama told him to do."

The Wooten family can't understand the killings, either.

"I don't think it gets easier," said Corteney Wooten, 23. "The devil works in mysterious ways."

•

As experts struggle to explain such senseless violence, police and community leaders are burdened with the task of turning things around.

"There's going to have to be zero tolerance for drug sales," said Thomas Petee, co-editor of the journal Homicide Studies. "You're not going to eliminate it. But you can get innovative with how you try to curtail that kind of activity."

The plan Chief Kunkle announced Friday includes more undercover surveillance and public pressure on suspected drug houses and stings targeting the illegal gun trade.

Judge Creuzot believes breaking the cycle of violence must start earlier, preferably when kids are in elementary school.

"These are often kids who are from broken homes and have a tough life and have had to make their way on the streets," he said. "They grow up in jail in the sense that they had to go see their fathers in jail."

Targeting crimes at apartment complexes, the City Council adopted an ordinance in March that required owners and managers to post after-hours emergency contacts, attend crime watch meetings and warn tenants that they can be evicted if they or their guests commit a crime.

As the manager of Providence during the recent shootings, Loretta Perdue was bewildered about how the complex grew so violent.

The management ran felony background checks on all residents and hired a "courtesy officer" to roam the property every night, she said. But she, too, said it doesn't stop felons from staying with friends and significant others.

Dr. Michael Lindsey, a Dallas psychologist who has studied the issues of race and crime, said residents of the complexes must recognize their responsibility.

"You can't blame the system. That's an individual choice," he said.

But he also said there needs to be more community outreach.

Pleasant Grove activist Hellen Johnson is doing that kind of work.

Her group, Redirections Community Coalition, last week began offering GED and vocational classes to "no- to low-income" adults on weeknights at two Pleasant Grove high schools.

"We have these grandmas who say, 'All he knows is to sling dope because that's what I had to do and that's what his mother and father had to do,' " Ms. Johnson said.

"I believe that if an individual does not have the desire to live a slum life, they can overcome. It doesn't matter about their grandfather. I believe it's something they have to be exposed to."

But Dallas has an uphill fight.

In the first two weeks of the year, there have been 11 homicides. All the victims were black or Latino.

"How do you turn it around? It's about values," said Deputy Chief Alfredo Saldaρa, who oversees the homicide, robbery and assault units. "In these cases, there's no respect for the value of life. At that moment, they don't think about any consequences and resolve their problems by taking it out on someone else. They don't realize it has a lasting impact on families."

Staff writers Matt Stiles and Jason Trahan contributed to this report.
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