Crimes with guns all too frequent

ST. PETERSBURG — Fifty bullets blasted into a house one year ago Monday. It took just one to kill an 8-year-old girl named Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. The outcry was swift and intense.

All of St. Petersburg denounced the violence. Police arrested three men. There were tears and angry speeches, drug raids and a bounty put on illegal guns. And Monday, Preston Avenue becomes Paris Avenue, in memory of the girl who was killed in her own bedroom.

St. Petersburg rises in anger when a second-grader is slain, but the truth is, the bullets are threatening other children. Adults, too.

"At least three nights a week when I'm lying in my bed, I hear gunshots," said Natasha Moses, 30, who lives in the Childs Park neighborhood with her 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

The St. Petersburg Police Department, like most police agencies, does not keep separate data on "shootings." But at the St. Petersburg Times' request, police did release data on the number of times someone was threatened, harmed or killed with a firearm in the city.

The information shines a spotlight on an issue every urban area in Florida struggles with: too many criminals carrying too many guns, creating too much danger for innocents like Paris.

The numbers are sobering. There were more than 1,100 of these gun crimes in St. Petersburg during the three-year period from 2007 through 2009.

In other words, roughly one a day.

Some of these thousand-plus cases were murders. Some were shootings in which no one got killed, and some were shootings in which no one got hit. In most of these assaults, the gun was never fired. But all these crimes were reported to the federal government as cases of someone assaulting another, trying to severely harm them.

In some St. Petersburg neighborhoods, these assaults with guns are as rare as snowflakes. There were none from 2007 to 2009 in the Tanglewood or Maximo neighborhoods, for example.

But in others, people routinely hear gunfire — so much that it can feel eerie not to hear it. In Paris' neighborhood, Bartlett Park, there were 43 gun assaults, more than one a month. The Childs Park neighborhood had three times that many, the most in the city.

The shooting of Paris, who was caught between feuding gangs, stunned St. Petersburg like few other crimes.

"I had never seen it before, but she was kind of a rallying point," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "Because I think it just outraged the sense of decency in our community. This little girl who's an innocent little girl got killed by these two groups. … Everybody was appalled by that."

But bullets are still flying in St. Petersburg.

• • •

A few months ago, a pregnant Keosha Williams, 21, brought her 1-year-old daughter to Jordan Park to visit Williams' sister and her children. They were sitting and talking, and "Next thing you know, somebody started shooting right out the window."

Williams, a medical assistant, saw the flash of the gun. "That bullet could have come in the window."

"We were running up the stairs," she said. "Safety upstairs."

For people who live on Preston Avenue, where Paris was killed, it's hard to escape the memory or the reality of gunfire.

"When you hear gunshots, you get down," said Coretta Matthews, stating a simple but unfortunate rule that people live by.

As if to illustrate why, bullet holes still are visible at 771 Preston Ave. S, where Paris lived with her aunt. A sign in Paris' honor remains at the house, but flowers and handwritten notes are gone.

Police say the 8-year-old girl was cut down in a feud between rival neighborhood gangs. One group sprayed the girl's house with semiautomatic rifle fire about 2:20 a.m., aiming at someone in the other group. Paris was the only one hit.

Jacquelyn Fleming, 53, had her daughter and four grandchildren in her Preston Avenue house on the night of the shooting. She remembers her daughter, Matthews, 31, yelling for everyone to hit the ground.

"Those aren't firecrackers!" Matthews yelled out.

Fleming said she has definitely noticed a difference in law enforcement since Paris was killed. "I see the police out here all the time," she said. "I think they are doing a better job."

But in many ways, old complaints remain. Residents in some neighborhoods say they want more police and claim police don't always come when called. Police say residents seem more inclined to help them since Paris' death, but they also say the "no snitching" rule of the streets is still in place.

Neighbors talk about Paris all the time. But hers was not the only murder on their street. Just weeks before Paris, 15-year-old Malayshia Gamble was found shot dead in a vacant lot. The year before, a 33-year-old woman was stabbed to death. Before that, a 27-year-old mother of two was gunned down in a home invasion.

Four murders, 18 months, one city block. And yet, "I used to call this neighborhood the old folks neighborhood because it's so quiet," said Fleming.

• • •

Gun crimes happen even in the well-to-do neighborhoods — like the woman shot by her ex-husband in May in her Snell Isle home.

More happen in lower-income neighborhoods. And even though that may not be a surprise, some of the numbers are nonetheless startling. In Childs Park, it's not uncommon to have four gun crimes a month — nearly one a week. The neighborhood had 129, more than 10 percent of the city's gun-related assaults from 2007-09.

A portion of central St. Petersburg suffers more than its fair share. The second-highest neighborhood for assaults with guns is Central Oak Park, and Melrose Mercy/Pine Acres is third. Both neighborhoods had more than 60 gun assaults in three years.

Although shootings and other gun crimes happen with terrifying regularity, there are lulls and bursts — like the nine assaults that occurred in a single day on May 26, 2008.

The brightest spot about these numbers is that they're going down. There were 413 gun assaults in 2007, 386 in 2008 and 341 last year — an overall drop of 17.4 percent.

Harmon said police are using several strategies to fight these crimes. After Paris' shooting, the city began a gun bounty program, paying for tips about illegal guns. More than 100 have been recovered. Hundreds more have been recovered by federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives working with St. Petersburg. And these days, Harmon said, the city puts more focus on looking for people with illegal weapons, rather than just looking for illegal drugs.

Still, the chief said it's not possible to wipe out these crimes altogether. "Unless everybody throws their guns in the ocean, and we all do it together at one time, I don't know how you stop it."

• • •

In a front yard on 40th Street S filled with shade trees and tropical plants, Brenda Nelson talks to passing youths she knows from substitute teaching, and to neighbors she has known for years. She loves the sense of community in Childs Park, where she is neighborhood association president.

Her children were able to go to nearby Gibbs High School, and her grandkids can walk to the Childs Park Recreation Center.

But ask how often she hears shooting here, and she pauses. About every third night, she said.

"The only time I get frightened is the Fourth of July and on New Year's Eve, because you know they're going to set off the guns," she said. Like New Year's morning three years ago, when she returned home and found broken glass on her bedroom floor. Then she found a bullet hole on an inside wall.

A year ago, a car chase ended around the corner from her house at the Rock of Jesus Church, and police found a Lexus there with two dozen bullet holes. Another time, she said, someone was shot and killed at a house behind hers.

"It's very, very sad, because they don't respect life," she said.

Police say Childs Park may have more gun assaults than any other neighborhood because it has so many young people, so many houses and a low average income, adding up to a lot of unsupervised youths.

Which doesn't mean there's nothing to do. At the recreation center, kids come for after-school care, sports, or technology programs. Childs Park also is home to a new YMCA and athletic fields.

Karen McCalla, 48, a massage therapist, can often be found inside the rec center's boisterous gym, cheering on her daughter's basketball team.

But you won't find her 11-year-old daughter walking back home after a practice by herself. "It's too crazy. I don't feel safe," letting her go by herself. "If she's walking, I'm walking with her."

Childs Park seemed peaceful when she bought her house in 1980, but over time the drugs and the gunfire got worse. "A lot of times you can hear shooting, but you don't know where it's coming from," she said. On the other hand, "sometimes it sounds pretty close."

Because of that, everyone knows what to do. Her 11-year-old daughter will call out: "Okay everybody, keep your head down."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com. Jamal Thalji can be reached at (727) 893-8472 or thalji@sptimes.com.

Crimes with guns all too frequent 04/03/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 4, 2010 12:12am]

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