ST. PETERSBURG — For decades young men from Bethel Heights have warred with their rivals from Harbordale. No one even remembers how the feud started. But the city is once again mourning in its aftermath. An 8-year-old girl is dead, gunned down when her home was raked by semiautomatic rifles early Sunday morning. Paris Whitehead-Hamilton wasn't the target. But she was the only one hurt, police say, when a heavily armed Bethel Heights crew looking for a Harbordale member opened fire on 771 Preston Ave. S.
Stephen Cortez Harper, 18, was arrested hours later by St. Petersburg police on a charge of being a principal to first degree murder. Three other suspects were the subject of a citywide manhunt on Monday.
Harper's first arrest was at age 9. He now has an extensive criminal record — and a "bh4-life" tattoo. His sister blamed the shooting on those two street gangs.
"They fight just because they're from two different hoods," said Lecia Simmons, 24. "This has been going on since I was 13."
The child's murder in Bartlett Park touched a raw nerve in St. Petersburg, a city that has long seen more than its share of senseless violence. Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, said he's hearing calls for a march to confront this "stupidity."
That outrage has also revitalized an old debate: Is the city safe just because statistics say it is?
Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett likened St. Petersburg to a war zone.
"There is a definite crime problem in St. Pete, and it needs to be dealt with," he said. "Don't tell me we don't have a problem if we've got this going on."
Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he's outraged, too. But once again he answered that outrage with numbers: "Crime in Bartlett Park is down" he said.
And, the chief said, four "thugs" shouldn't be allowed to speak for an entire city.
"I don't think anyone should use this to say St. Pete is a war zone or is out of control," Harmon said. "That's totally wrong. You can't define a community by the acts of four individuals."
• • •
Paris was shot in the back by three stray bullets, police said, around 2:20 a.m. Sunday. She died within the hour at Bayfront Medical Center.
As the sun rose, police quickly identified a suspect: Harper. Detectives called his family and asked them to bring Harper in for questioning.
Harper has a 5-month-old son, Stephen Cortez Harper III. The father was supposed to be at Gibbs High School on Monday, his family said, to finish his degree.
Instead, he's now being held without bail in the county jail.
Harper hasn't yet been identified as one of the shooters. But according to his arrest report, he told police he loaded a clip with new ammo, loaded several weapons into a car and was at the scene of the shooting.
Detectives also seized three assault rifles, two shotguns and one bulletproof vest from an apartment at the Citrus Grove Apartments at 803 15th St. S.
Harper lives in an apartment there, too. But he told his family he wasn't one of the shooters.
"He said he didn't pull the trigger," said his stepfather, Theodore Cummins. "He said he didn't kill anybody."
Police haven't said what motivated the suspects to shoot up an entire house.
A similar feud led to the shooting death of an innocent bystander — 15-year-old Deandre Brown — in 2007.
This time, it was a second-grader caught in the middle of the violence.
"Just know they killed the wrong person," said Paris' babysitter, Syria Israel, 17. "They were trying to get at someone in the house."
• • •
Police have not identified the three other suspects. But academic and civic leaders suspect something else played a role in the child's death: street culture.
Yale sociology professor Elijah Anderson said in many poor, black communities across the country, young men rely on the "code of the streets" for justice — not the cops or the courts.
"Street credibility is always on the line," Anderson said in a phone interview. "If somebody messes with you, insults you, disrespects you, they're fooling with something very dear to you, your street credibility.
"Without that, you're dead, you're naked."
Frank Peterman Jr., former legislator and secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said it's a problem fueled by a feeling that some neighborhoods, and some young men, have neither hope nor power in their lives
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D.-St. Petersburg, said it's also time for the community to confront the "no snitching" movement and start cooperating with police.
"Everybody in St. Petersburg who knows of a teenager who has a gun who shouldn't have it, ought to tell somebody right now," he said. "Right now.
"To hell with this code of silence."
• • •
Once again a violent crime has captured the city's imagination. And once again the city's chief of police tried to counter that image with statistical fact: In 2008 crime was, in fact, down 30 percent in Bartlett Park compared to the year before.
But that doesn't mean Harmon isn't angry.
"My personal opinion is that assault rifles are good for one thing: to kill other human beings," he said. "I don't think they have a place in our society.
"I will do everything I can to take them off the street."
Bartlett, the chief assistant prosecutor, agreed more needs to be done.
"I think you've got to have a stepped up level of law enforcement with regard to that," he said. "Where the hell are they getting these guns for God's sake? That's a start."
Times staff writers Curtis Krueger, Stephanie Hayes, Emily Nipps and Demorris A. Lee and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.