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A call for action, a call for peace after 8-year-old's shooting death

ST. PETERSBURG — In years past, spasms of death and violence in this city were met with finger-pointing, name-calling — even rock throwing.

But when the Bartlett Park Crime Watch gathered Tuesday — the murder of an 8-year-old girl still fresh in their minds — residents found somebody new to blame:

Themselves.

"We sit back, close our mouths, then point fingers when something happens at the police," said Carolyn Newson. "Until that changes, we will continue to bury our young."

Newson has done just that. Her 15-year-old niece, Malayshia Gamble, was found shot dead in January on Preston Avenue S.

It's the same street where 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton died in a hail of semiautomatic gunfire early Sunday morning.

The city's chief of police looked inward, too.

"Even though I'm not the one who pulled the trigger," Chief Chuck Harmon told residents, "you always look back and ask: 'What could I have done?'"

Meanwhile his officers continued Tuesday to scour the city for three suspects in Paris' murder. And the St. Petersburg NAACP called for an April 18 peace march to galvanize the community.

Even Paris' family wanted to do their part, asking that her death not be avenged upon the families of the suspects — that the cycle of retaliation that took the life of the girl known as "Princess Paris" finally end.

"We don't want any of their families to go through what we did," LaShawn Crawford, the victim's cousin, told a gathering of TV cameras. "It stops here."

• • •

The police chief on Tuesday also shed new light on how a street grudge escalated into the military-style assault on a little girl's home.

Gregory Wright, 22, told police he got the best of 19-year-old Markeath Fielder in a fistfight six weeks ago.

Wright is with the Bethel Heights Boys. The gang is named for the former Bethel Heights Apartments, now known as the Citrus Grove Apartments on 15th Street S. Fielder is with a rival gang from the Harbordale neighborhood.

It was around 10:30 Saturday night, Wright told police, that Fielder tried to take revenge. Police say Fielder pulled up alongside Wright as he walked near the 1200 block of 18th Avenue S and fired a handgun at him.

Fielder missed. But four hours later, police say, a group from Bethel Heights armed themselves with assault rifles and drove to 771 Preston Ave. S.

That's where Fielder was staying with Shenita Joseph, the aunt of 8-year-old Paris.

At 2:20 a.m., the house was riddled by more than 50 shots from AR-15 rifles, police said. Three slugs caught Paris in the back as she ran from bed.

Fielder was arrested Monday night, charged with aggravated assault in connection with Saturday's shooting attempt and violation of probation.

Wright has not been arrested. He denied he was there when Paris was shot.

• • •

The only arrest made so far in Sunday's murder is Stephen Cortez Harper, an 18-year-old father with a long history of arrests and a "bh4-life" tattoo. He faces a charge of being a principal to first-degree murder.

Harper, being held at the Pinellas County jail without bail, told police he loaded weapons and was at the scene of the shooting, but his family said he denied pulling the trigger.

Police found a cache of weapons at his apartment complex, Citrus Grove Apartments.

Harmon said the remaining suspects also have "extensive" criminal records. But police aren't ready to go public with their identities. They're still negotiating with the suspects' families to turn their relatives in.

"I am not at liberty to give their names at this point because we have not investigated all our leads," Harmon said. "There is also a concern about retaliation for the families involved."

• • •

The St. Petersburg NAACP plans a march from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 18, walking from Bartlett Park to Campbell Park.

"No more talk," Ray Tampa, president of the NAACP, told members at Tuesday night's meeting. "We have to do something.

"The march is an action. The march is an action that will highlight our concern about the violence in this community."

But amid the calls for action there was division over what is being done to combat street violence.

Bartlett Park community leader Scott Swift challenged Harmon's recent statements that reported crime in Bartlett Park is down. That's because fewer people are reporting crime, Swift said, and some are too scared to talk to the police at all.

"I know reported crime is down, but actual crime is going up," he told the chief. "Everyone knows the 'no-snitching' rule is very powerful in our city."

The chief said crime will always be under-reported, but that his agency is trying to change that.

A week before Sunday's shooting, officers started an initiative in Bartlett Park to contact every resident and stress how they can report crime anonymously.

The chief pointed out that nobody reported the Saturday night shooting that led to Sunday's murder.

If someone had called police, if officers had made an arrest that night, would Paris' home have been attacked hours later? And what would the excuse be now for not calling police in the future?

"If someone can't get outraged enough to call us after the death of an 8-year-old girl," the chief said, "then I don't know what it will take."

Times staff writers Emily Nipps, Ron Matus, Stephanie Hayes, Cristina Silva, Donna Winchester and photographer Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

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Funeral information

The funeral for Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, left, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at New Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church, 3001 18th Ave. S. Visitation is from 4-7 p.m. Friday at Smith Funeral Home, 1534 18th Ave. S. Family will receive friends at 6 p.m.

FAST FACTS

Weapons seized

Here's what police seized when they arrested one of four suspects sought in Sunday's murder of an
8-year-old girl:

• Two AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles

• Two pistol grip 12-gauge shotguns

• One .308-caliber hunting rifle with scope

• One .22-caliber revolver

• Two loaded clips for an AK-47 assault rifle

• One clip for an AR-15

• A bulletproof vest

• Rifle ammunition

St. Petersburg police have asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for help in finding out where the weapons came from. The U.S. Attorney's Office may also get involved in the case, police said, which means anyone linked to Sunday's murder could also face federal charges and federal prison time.

A call for action, a call for peace after 8-year-old's shooting death 04/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 12:41pm]

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