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New year brings new violence to Tampa neighborhoods

Danielle Williams of Tampa grieves over the body of her son, Richard Newton, 14, at Ray Williams Funeral Home in Tampa. Newton was killed while visiting friends during a birthday party in Sulpher Springs. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Danielle Williams of Tampa grieves over the body of her son, Richard Newton, 14, at Ray Williams Funeral Home in Tampa. Newton was killed while visiting friends during a birthday party in Sulpher Springs. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Apr. 4, 2015

TAMPA

One minute, Devita Hutchins was congratulating herself on how smoothly her 14-year-old daughter's birthday party had gone. The next, she was running from gunfire.

Now, in an empty lot next to her house in Sulphur Springs, a ring of devotional candles has sprung up around teddy bears and crosses, a memorial to one of the latest victims in a recent surge of gun violence that has shaken even Tampa's deadliest neighborhoods.

The victim of the March 21 party, a 14-year-old boy named Richard Newton, is one of at least 15 people killed in the city since the beginning of 2015.

"The violence here has always been terrible," said Hutchins, 37, who grew up in Central Park Village, a housing project that has since been torn down but had a reputation for drugs and gang activity. "But now that it's hit home, it feels way worse. We fear for our lives"

Her new nightly routine includes barricading herself inside her house by pushing her sofa in front of the door. All night, she paces and checks on two of her three children. Since the shootings, her 14-year-old daughter has refused to return home. The girl's birthday party, which ended in children shrieking, cake flying in the air and bullets whizzing past, was supposed to double as a tribute to one of her best friends, a 16-year-old boy killed in a shooting the week before.

"She is traumatized," Hutchins said.

After years of enjoying a steadily falling crime rate, Tampa is now enduring a spike in murders and shootings concentrated in the city's low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. In the first three months of this year, the number of homicides has more than doubled compared to the same period in 2014. There have been 48 shootings, classified as "aggravated batteries with a gun," a significant increase from 22 last year.

More startling than the statistics is the youthfulness of the victims and some of the suspects.

The youngest among those killed, Newton, was a middle school student who worked hard at maintaining his rapper alter ego "Durty Redd," but left a lasting impression of goofiness. At his viewing Friday, his mother invited the Tampa Bay Times to photograph her son in his casket in hopes it would send a sobering message to law enforcement and those stoking the violence.

"I don't want anyone else to feel the pain I am feeling right now," she said.

In March alone, two 16-year-old boys were killed in separate incidents, one of them when a friend was showing off a gun and accidentally shot him in the neck. About two weeks later, a 16-year-old boy and a 19-year-old boy were shot while walking down a street in the College Hill neighborhood. Both survived the attack, which police have blamed on another teenager.

Why the new year has brought a spate of new violence to Tampa is a topic of debate among city officials and crime-weary residents. Many point to the usual sources: few job opportunities for teenagers and young men, little parental guidance or oversight, and a culture that has normalized drug dealing and turf battles with rivals.

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At a news conference last month, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said some of the shootings were the result of "territorial disputes," but stopped short of attributing them to gangs. She pleaded with witnesses to cooperate with police investigations and end the "no snitching" culture that many believe is fueling the shootings. In some recent cases, such as a drive-by shooting last month that left three teenagers wounded on a basketball court, victims have refused to talk to investigators.

Earl Silas, a Tampa Police Department community liaison who spends most of his time in Sulphur Springs, said the community's aversion to talking to law enforcement officers runs so deep that children he meets often define snitching as having any type of conversation with a police officer.

"People are afraid to death to come forward because they're afraid they're going to be retaliated against," said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, whose district encompasses many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods. "Young folks want to take matters into their own hands instead of dealing with law enforcement."

According to Reddick, much of the increase in gun violence stems from long-standing rivalries that are suddenly flaring between groups in West Tampa and East Tampa. Some of this may be the unintentional result of redevelopment, he said.

As the city embarks on its plan to demolish North Boulevard Homes — a World War II-era public housing project in West Tampa — and relocate some 1,700 people, residents are leaving and scattering throughout the city. Many are settling in neighborhoods like Sulphur Springs, where housing is cheap, but neighbors may hold decade-old grudges.

"That is the friction that's been building up," he said.

Further fueling the violence, recent numbers suggest that the city has suffered a major setback in its effort to keep illegal firearms off the streets.

In the first three months of this year, 122 guns were reported stolen in Tampa, more than twice the number from the same time a year ago. Some of those guns are finding their way into the hands of teenagers.

"There's so much access to guns," said Clarence Jones (who goes by the name Ali Muhammad), chairman of Tampa's New Black Panther Party. Jones has been trying to popularize the hashtag #StopTheViolenceTampaBay on social media to raise awareness, as well as raising money to pay for the funerals of some of the victims.

Although he participated in the police chief's news conference, Jones said the city's response to the violence lacks a sense of urgency. Most teenagers are still in school right now, he said, but if there are not summer jobs waiting for them in a few months, shootings will only increase.

More police work is needed as well, he said, adding that when the police don't make arrests following homicides and shootings, residents' trust in law enforcement falters.

"If they want Tampa to be the next first-class city, they've got to bring attention to this," Jones said. "They just put $9 million into the Riverwalk. And the inner city is in chaos."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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